I can still picture my coworker lying on his back during a meeting in the office with his feet propped on a chair because there was pain radiating down his back. People would walk by the office and give a strange look as one of us assured them that everything was fine and there was nothing to see here. Attracting the same kind of notice while decked out in spandex for a robust desk yoga routine would probably not send the “hard at work” message we generally prefer to project in the workplace.
Unless you are my good friend, “Spandy”, who proudly earned her nickname biking across town to get to and from the office for years, we probably want to increase health with a more inconspicuous stretching routine. My ideal would be one I could do in a meeting full of people with nobody the wiser. Pulling ideas others have shared and adding some of my own, here are suggestions for the discreet way to sneak in stretches for our seated bodies.
The first four are based on stretches suggested by Dr. Chelsea Axe in 20 Exercises to Do at Your Desk — Get Fit at Work?! The next four are based on Annakeara Stinson’s 5 Sitting Stretches For Lower Back Pain That You Can Do On The Down-Low At Your Desk. The last are two more tried and true stretches I added to give us 10 stretches we can use to loosen our muscles without anyone knowing how healthy, limber, and pain-free we are.
1. Neck stretch – side head tilt
From an upright seated posture, tilt your head to the right so that your ear moves down towards your right shoulder, hold for 5-10 seconds then resume the upright head position. Then tilt your head to the left so that your ear moves toward your shoulder on the other side, hold 5-10 seconds, and raise. Repeat entire pattern 3-5 times. Is someone in the room with you? Your expression should communicate, “That was a profound look/noise/statement you just made. Allow me to tilt my head while I ponder and gather my thoughts.” Nobody will be the wiser.
2. Neck Stretch – head turns
Turn your head to look over your right shoulder until you feel a gentle stretch. Hold 5-10 seconds, then return to facing forward. Then turn your head to look over your left shoulder until you feel a gentle stretch, hold 5-10 seconds, and turn back forward. Repeat pattern 3-5 times. Are you in a meeting? Person to my right, your comment is intriguing, and I will give you my full focus and attention without turning my body. I will now check and see if those on my left realize how insightful you are before returning my full attention to you. My how focused and attentive we are at meetings.
3. Shoulder release – shrugs
Sitting in an upright posture, shrug your shoulders toward your ears, holding for 3-5 seconds before releasing. Repeat 3-5 times, unless you are expected to know the answer or have to respond to a coworker’s question with more than a shoulder shrug.
4. Chest stretch – behind the back hand clasp
Depending on your chair, you may be able to reach behind the back of the chair, or scoot forward in the chair so your hands can touch behind your back. Bring your hands together behind your back, allowing your shoulders to move back and giving you a gentle stretch across your chest. Depending on your flexibility, you may deepen the stretch by moving your hands downwards or straightening your arms.
5. Core stretch – side twist
From an upright seated posture with your feet flat in front of you, engage your core so that your belly button draws toward your spine. Gently twist your upper body to your right, take a deep breath and hold. You can deepen the stretch when you exhale and can use the arm rest or back of chair to assist in the stretch. Slowly return to forward facing and repeat on the left side. The side twist gives you the perfect opportunity to engage with people who are seated behind you in a meeting.
6. Hamstring stretch – leg extension
Move forward in your chair enough that you are able to straighten one leg without losing your balance or falling out of your chair. This stretch is far less effective and more noticeable if you land on the floor with a thud and a groan. You can hold on to the edge of your desk, chair, or arm rests to stabilize yourself.
From an upright posture with both feet flat on the floor in front of you, extend one leg forward, straighten the leg and flex the foot until you feel a gentle stretch in your hamstring. You can deepen the stretch by flexing the foot more, or leaning forward into the stretch. Hold for a few seconds and repeat with the other leg.
7. Hip flexor stretch – figure four
Depending on your chair, you may again need to move forward to allow space for the figure four stretch. From a sitting position with both feet flat on the ground in front of you, bring your right ankle to rest on your left thigh, near the knee. This may be enough to feel a stretch in your hip flexor or you can deepen the stretch by applying gentle downward pressure on the right knee or thigh, or leaning forward into the stretch. Return the right foot to the floor and repeat with the other leg.
8. Back stretch – spinal roll
Beginning with an upright posture and both feet flat on the floor in front of you, start by tilting the head downward and then continuing to roll down vertebrae by vertebrae. You can roll part or all of the way forward, and then roll gently back up to your starting position. Dropping something on the ground and then rolling down to pick it up is a great way to keep this stretch from drawing attention.
9. Neck stretch – head nods
Tilt your head down until your chin is close to or touching your chest and you feel a gentle stretch. Hold for about 5 seconds and return your head to an upright position. Then tilt your head slowly back until you feel and gentle stretch and are looking toward the ceiling, hold about 5 seconds and return to a neutral head position. No worries if you are in the middle of a conversation. Just think, “I am agreeing with you. I am just doing so very slowly.”
10. Wrist stretch – flex, extend, and rotation
After long periods typing or writing, it is helpful to ensure movement and blood flow through the wrists. My massage therapist recommended gently flexing both wrists, extending both wrists, and then gently rotating first in one direction and then the other. This can be done periodically throughout the day. This can be done under the desk as needed to avoid awkwardly waving at your coworkers.
Bonus move – corpse pose
This position involves lying on your back with your arms by your sides and your legs straight out. It is best done on top of a conference table to signal to the group that the meeting has exceeded its valuable time period. It is also very effective for gaining encouragement to change jobs. Perhaps this last one is best saved for post-office exercise routines.
Please check with your physician before beginning any stretch or exercise routine.