The machine I’m sitting on as I type this saved my life, at least 20 times. I don’t care if that comes off as overly dramatic, because seven years ago, when I found myself feeling sleep-deprived to the point of depression and despair (as my new life as a stay-at-home-mom of a newborn and a two-year-old hit me like a ton of bricks), I certainly felt desperate. The exercise endorphins that I’d depended on (for years) to maintain my sanity were suddenly out of reach most days. Not being able to pop out for a quick jog around the park (because of the New Orleans heat and my single-seat jogging stroller) left me jonesing for even a little a hit of runner’s high.
My saving grace was a kick-ass recumbent stationary bike that would turn out to be worth its weight in gold — especially when I figured out a way, not just to sweat and let off steam, but to type on my laptop at the same time. And that was just the beginning of my quest to find ways to work in my workouts while working. Here’s a list of my top seven tactics for keeping fit at a desk job or in your home office.
— Kara Nelson
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1. Recumbent Productivity
After much research — including reading way too many online reviews, and going to a local fitness equipment store to test out how the different seats felt on my back — I decided on a Diamondback Fitness recumbent bike. (Highly recommend!) It was love at first beep. But my fab hack is that I rigged up a makeshift desk that allows me to type comfortably on my laptop while I ride. When I first had the idea, I looked online to see what kind of desks were out there that might work. I discovered first of all, that I’m not the first person to do this, but second, that I didn’t see a fold-down desk that was slim enough to fit the bill (my bike, my body, my space). So I looked around the house and found a fold-down ironing board that was still in the box. Eureka! I thought: if I can hang it just low enough to set my laptop on it like a desk, but also high enough so that my knees don’t hit it as I pedal — it will be magical. And oh my word, people, it really is! I’m doing it right this very minute: pedaling and writing and sweating. When I first started my bike-working, I went a little overboard. I rode it for three hours one day! But then, after the euphoria subsided, I was ravenous from the stupid-long workout and proceeded to eat everything in the entire house. After that small backfire, I got more moderate and scaled back to about an hour a day.
Of course, if you work in a real office (with co-workers and elevators and that kind of thing), this kind of setup probably won’t fly. But I have seen a pedals-only version that you could do more discreetly under your desk.
2. Stand in the Place Where You Work
Sitting is the new smoking. Jobs that entail a ton of desk-bound work can, over time, be catastrophically hazardous to your health, according to the Mayo Clinic. And even if you run or go the gym every day, you’ll likely still spend hours on your ass. So if your office has the option of one of those standing desks or convertible desks that seem to be popping up more and more, I say, go for it! Or if you work from home, standing at a bar-height kitchen counter might work, when you feel the need to stretch or shake things up. If you’re feeling really ambitious, spring for an anti-fatigue wobble board, or maybe even take it one step further? Last summer I worked on a project in an office in Uptown New Orleans where a lot of the older homes and buildings often have multiple fire places with mantles. I found a mantle that was exactly wide enough to hold my laptop and just the right height for me to hop on my little stair stepper so that I could casually climb as I typed. Yes, my co-workers made fun of me at first. But after a few weeks, on more than one occasion, I’d return to the office after lunch to find someone else trying it out. Maybe you’re not willing to be THAT person in your office just yet, but you could be the one to suggest that an upcoming meeting be a walking meeting. (As long as it’s only two or three of you, you can usually make it work.) Hey, if was good enough for Steve Jobs … At the very least, you can consider instituting a personal policy that whenever possible you will make phone calls at work walking calls. Staying in motion might even make you sound — and feel! —more energized.
And a side note: For the people who work on those treadmill desks, I just don’t understand you. I can’t read or type while I’m on a treadmill, and I’ve seen too many people trip up and fall hard on treadmills at the gym. Not for me!
3. Sit With Your Instability
I know that sitting on one of those big exercise balls instead of a regular office chair is nothing new — it’s a no-sweat way to strengthen your core muscles because they have to work constantly to stabilize your body —but are you doing it? Have you tried it? Even if you only use it for part of your work day, it could make a difference for your waistline. (I find that it strengthens my abs in a way that also helps reduce strain on my lower back.) If you prefer something more discreet, you might like my latest inflatable purchase. It’s called a wobble cushion. Also known as a balance disk, it has some of the same ab-work benefits as the ball, but takes up less space. Bonus with both of these alternative ‘seating’ options: they can do so much more! The ball is great for crunches, bridges, planks and hamstring curls, and the wobble cushion can be used for lunges, squats and push-ups.
4. Bag of Tricks
If you’re a fitness buff and travel for work, you might already have a little fit kit like this going, a stash of lightweight tools to get a quick workout in your hotel room or airbnb. You can also keep a few key pieces in a desk drawer at the office: a jumprope, resistance bands and two paper plates. Yep, you read that right. In a carpeted space, using paper plates as gliders under your feet can amp up your plank game like crazy. Try slider plank jacks or mountain climbers. (On hardwood floors, just wear a thick pair of socks instead of using paper plates to get the sliding action with the same exercises.) My absolute favorite is a move that targets the lower abs like nobody's business: THE BODY SAW. Here’s how you do it. 1. Start in a forearm plank with your toes on paper plates or gliders. 2. Keep your back in a straight line, tighten your core and push your body back (using your forearms) so that your feet slide 4 - 6 inches backwards without dropping the plank. 3. Use your forearms to drag/side yourself forward to the starting position. 4. Repeat 12 times and thank me later.
5. Cue the Tech
At this point, you might be thinking: That all sounds peachy, but I know my jumprope will never see the florescent light of my work day. This is where a little wearable tech comes in. An Apple watch or a fitness tracker like a Fitbit will automatically remind you to move throughout the day when it senses you’ve been sedentary for too long. But even setting a simple recurring reminder or alarm on your smart phone [DROP AND GIVE ME 20!] can do the trick. Or as Atomic Habits author James Clear advises, use an existing part of your routine as a cue to the new behavior or habit you want to adopt. If you want to add some leg exercises while you’re at the office, loop a resistance band though the handle your favorite coffee mug each time after you wash it. When that 10 a.m. caffeine craving hits, having to remove the band from your mug will cue you to do a few sets of inner or other thigh exercises. And then the coffee becomes the reward!
6. Weight 30 Seconds
A long, boring conference call is even more frustrating when you can’t press the mute button without anyone noticing. In other words, you can’t type to get other stuff done because the clacking of your keyboard would give you away. This is the perfect opportunity to do some silent but serious arm exercises. With a set of 2 lb hand weights , you can do all kinds of toning up — triceps, biceps, deltoids — with nary a sound.
If you could have just one other weight in your office, it should be a kettlebell , bar none. You might be surprised at what a full-body, calorie-burning workout you can get just from swinging one of those things around for even 30 seconds to a minute at a time. And if you get a cute one, it can double as a doorstop.
7. Get A Grip on Stress
Did you know that strong hand muscles (or grip strength) is an indicator of longevity? Bet on yourself by getting your grip a strong as possible with a hand-held spring-loaded trainer . Pumping one for just 20 seconds can feel quite stress-relieving, too. So maybe get one for your car as well, to help cut rush hour traffic tension.