By now, you've probably heard that "sitting is the new smoking." Indeed, according to the Mayo Clinic, research has shown that sitting for long periods of time is linked with health concerns ranging from high blood pressure and obesity to a higher risk of death from heart disease and cancer.
Unfortunately, roughly 80 percent of jobs are now considered sedentary, and many involve sitting most of the day, per a May 2011 report in the journal PLoS One, which reviewed workplace trends over five decades.
The good news? The Mayo Clinic reports that about an hour of moderately intense physical activity per day can help counteract the effects of too much sitting. And it seems that not all sitting is equal: A study of 3,500 black individuals, published June 2019 in the online version of the Journal of the American Heart Association, found that those who plopped themselves in front of the TV for lengthy periods of time were significantly more likely to die of of heart disease than those who sat all day at work.
The takeaway: You may not be able to break up with your desk chair, but you can choose exercise over TV time outside of working hours — and your health will likely be better for it.
Whether you have 15 minutes or a full hour to spare, try incorporating the following moves into your exercise routine. If you're a beginner (or just strapped for time), start by setting a timer for 15 minutes and try to get through as many exercises as you can (10 to 15 reps each) with as little rest as possible in between. As you advance, challenge yourself by adding more time to the clock, more moves to your routine and reducing your rest time.
1. Half-Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch
Before you jump into bigger movements, you'll want to prepare your body with a few mobility and stretching drills. This first stretch is designed to target the front of the hip, which is shortened when sitting.
How to Do It: Start with one knee on the ground and the foot of the other leg flat on the ground so that both knees are at 90 degrees. Place both hands on your hips and engage your abs as you squeeze the glute of the knee-down leg. Push the hip forward a couple of inches while you keep the low back from arching. Return to the start and repeat for eight to 10 repetitions per side. On the last repetition, hold the end position for a 20-second stretch.
2. Back-to-Wall Overhead Press
This stretch helps get the spine in proper alignment, which is often compromised after sitting for long periods.
How to Do It: Start standing with your feet about six inches from a wall (you can also do this exercise seated on a weight bench). Grab some lighter weights (this isn't a strength-building exercise). Lean back so your low back, upper back and head are in contact with the wall or the bench. Engage your abs to flatten your back to the wall. With your palms turned toward your face, keep your elbows in line with your shoulders as you reach your hands overhead. Only go as high as you can without letting your lower back come off the wall. You may notice that you can start to go higher as the repetitions add up. Repeat for eight to 10 repetitions and hold the last one overhead for 20 seconds while you take deep breaths.
The goal of this and the two following core exercises is to achieve a proper posture and hold it against an outside force (gravity in this case). The exercises are presented in a progressive format, with the plank being the easiest of the three.
How to Do It: Your body should be in a straight line from the ears through the shoulders and down to the hips, knees and ankles. Concentrate on keeping your lower back from arching and your hips from sagging as gravity tries to pull them toward the ground. Work to keep the upper back from rounding, as this is a sign you're using primarily your rectus abdominus muscle instead of your deeper core muscles. Start this from the push-up position and work your way down to the forearms (or stay on your hands, if that's more comfortable for your shoulders and arms). Hold this position for 20 to 30 seconds.
Kicking your ab work up a notch, the birddog challenges you to keep your hips from rotating or sagging while moving both an arm and leg — two out of four pivot points!
How to Do It: From all fours, reach one hand out overhead with the thumb toward the ceiling while simultaneously lifting the opposite leg. Replace the hand and foot and repeat on the opposite sides. Continue alternating sides, visualizing not spilling an imaginary cup of hot coffee on your back, and reach out as far as you can (not just up toward the ceiling). Go for 10 to 12 reps per side.
5. T Push-Ups
How to Do It: From the push-up plank position, spread the feet so they are about six inches wider than hip distance apart. Do a standard push-up, and then, without letting the hips sag, rotate to one side and raise your top hand off the floor and up to the ceiling. Rotate back, replace the hand on the floor, do another push-up and then repeat on the other side. Continue alternating sides for six to 10 repetitions per side.
6. Glute Bridge
For the lower-body exercises, your goal is to achieve as much hip extension as possible. Hip extension is the opposite of what happens when you are sitting (hip flexion), and the glute bridge is the perfect way to start counteracting that. Keep your hips neutral (engage your core), and work the muscles of the hips and legs.
How to Do It: Lying on your back with your knees bent to about 45 degrees, engage your core so that you are posteriorly tilting your hips. You should feel that the lower back is flat on the floor. Keeping your feet hip-width apart, drive through your heels as you contract your glutes and push your hips off the ground. You should be in a straight line from the shoulders through the hips to the knees — all while keeping your low back from arching. Lower your hips with control and repeat for eight to 10 reps.
The squat is similar to the glute bridge in muscle recruitment, but now you're on your feet.
How to Do It: Start standing with your feet hip width apart. Keeping your core engaged, push your hips back and down as if you were going to sit in your chair. Think about driving your weight into your heels as you return to a standing position. Focus on squeezing the glutes at the top before descending back into the next rep. Throughout the entire movement, keep the knees from caving in or diving forward excessively, and keep your back flat — no arching or rounding. Go for 10 to 12 reps.
8. Single-Leg Squat
This version of the squat is more challenging because you now have to control the hips from tipping or rotating. The focus and mechanics of the single-leg squat are the same as the squat, but now you must focus on keeping the hips level and square.
How to Do It: Lift one foot off the ground and balance on the other leg. As you descend into the squat, imagine that you have headlights on your hips. Keep the beams pointing straight forward throughout the entire exercise. Use extra focus to keep the knee from rotating inward. Try six to 10 reps per side.
9. Hands-Elevated Push-Up
The following upper-body exercises are all variations of one classic move: the push-up. At the most basic level, the push-up is a dynamic plank. For that reason, you must perform these exercises with the same considerations as the plank, focusing on keeping the body in a straight line from the ears to the ankles.
To change the challenge of the push-up, you can manipulate your angle to the floor, your speed and how many points are in contact with the floor. When the hands are elevated, there is a decreased pull from gravity, and that reduces the intensity of the move slightly.
How to Do It: Starting with your hands on a chair, desk or other elevated surface and your feet on the floor, keep your core engaged and pull yourself into the push-up by bringing your shoulder blades together on the way down. Without letting your hips sink, push yourself back up to the beginning position. Go for eight to 10 reps.
10. Spiderman Push-Up
This single-leg push-up variation now challenges you to keep your hips from sinking as well as rotating, placing an increased demand on your core, especially your obliques.
How to Do It: Perform the standard push-up, but this time raise one foot a few inches off the ground and bend your knee to bring it up toward your rib cage. Don't let the lower back arch or the hips sink or rotate as you perform the push-up. Bring your foot back to the start as you push back up to the top. Alternate sides on each rep and go for eight to 12 reps per leg.
11. Push-Up With a Pause
Once you've gotten used to performing a standard push-up with hands on the floor, you can take it up a notch by adding a quick pause.
How to Do It: Perform a standard push-up. At the bottom of the push-up, hold your chest a couple of inches above the floor (the bottom position) for two to four seconds before returning to the top position. Try six to 10 reps.
12. Mountain Climbers
When you are trying to get your heart rate up, explosive movements are a good option. When muscles are working quickly, there is a higher demand for blood flow and oxygen, which requires an increase in cardiovascular response. The following exercises will further challenge your cardiovascular system.
How to Do It: From the standard push-up position, keep the core engaged as you bring one knee toward your chest. Bring the knee in so that it is directly under your hip. Going too high will likely cause rounding of the low back. Quickly replace the foot to the ground as you simultaneously bring the other knee under your hips. Repeat side to side as quickly as possible without letting your hips sink or swivel. Try 20 to 30 reps per side.
13. In-Place Jumps
Kick your cardio burn up a notch with this higher-intensity move.
How to Do It: In a standing position, keep your core engaged as you sit your hips down and back. Make sure to keep your back from rounding and your knees from caving in as you explosively jump straight up. Focus on pushing the hips back and keeping the knees out as you land as softly as possible. Launch immediately into the next jump and repeat. Go for 10 to 15 reps.
14. Lateral Bounds
A further challenge to stability and coordination, the lateral bounds (often referred to as the speed skater) is an explosive side-to-side exercise.
How to Do It: Start standing on one leg. Sink the hips back and keep the knee out as you bound sideways, landing lightly on the opposite leg. Absorb yourself into your landing before immediately bounding back to the beginning leg and repeating. Try going as quickly as possible, keeping the knees from collapsing in and focusing on sinking back into your hips. Try 10 to 20 reps per side.
- Mayo Clinic: "What Are the Risks of Sitting Too Much?"
- PLoS One: "Trends over 5 Decades in U.S. Occupation-Related Physical Activity and Their Associations with Obesity"
- Journal of the American Heart Association: "Types of Sedentary Behavior and Risk of Cardiovascular Events and Mortality in Blacks: The Jackson Heart Study"