5 steps to ‘desk-induced pain’ freedom – Improving joint function with a sedentary day job
[9 min read]
From cubicle to corner suite, the corporate office environment affects the physiology of the intern and executive alike.
It’s been said that sitting is the new smoking:
“… Sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV and is more treacherous than parachuting…we are sitting ourselves to death …”
Dr. James Levine, director of the Mayo Clinic ASU Obesity Solutions Initiative
Strong assertion – I believe the essence remains true.
In fact, it’s old news…
We have known that sitting for the majority of our waking hours is detrimental to our posture, ability to move properly, and longevity since the 1950’s.
Let’s face the near-term reality of the situation…
The cubicly-organized office will remain a corporate mainstay. Desk-based work will not soon disappear. Departure from cubicle-confinement may not be realistic for many (at least in the near term).
So, let’s create the best biological scenario within current customs and constraints…
With targeted techniques, integrated into a normal workday, we can mitigate the negative health effects of deskbound inactivity, eliminate nagging body pain, and unshackle ourselves from accumulated movement restrictions.
With these simple steps…
- Morning movement
- Standing workstation
- Mid-day mobility breaks
- Extended afternoon walks
- Mobilization before bed
More details on these steps are provided below, but first, a light touch on terminology, the science of WHY these steps are so important, and my short story of discovery, development, and testing these techniques.
* spoiler – they were effective…highly effective
What is mobility?
Joint mobility is the degree to which an articulation (where two bones meet) can move before it is restricted by surrounding tissues – the range of uninhibited movement around a joint. While flexibility often describes the ability to deform a tissue without injury (think hamstrings stretching like a rubber band during a toe touch), mobility usually refers to range of joint movement through multiple degrees of freedom (think shoulder rotation during a swim stroke or ball throw).
Mobility has evolved to take on a global meaning, connoting overall biomechanical health:
“… [Mobility] encompasses movement, suppleness, flexibility, and progress …”
Dr. Kelly Starrett, Author of Deskbound
Why should I care about mobility?
Humans are in a perpetual state of mental and physical adaptation. Our tissues constantly remodel, loosen, and tighten to create the most mechanically stable structure based on the movements we engage in. This adaptability is incredible – it enables a power lifter’s bone structure to support tons of compressive force, a gymnast’s joints to yield under explosive torsion, and an office worker to attain a tight lower back, hunched shoulders, and a chair-formed spine.
“… Your body adapts to what you do most often…So if you sit in a chair all day, you’ll essentially become better adapted to sitting in a chair …”
Bill Hartman, P.T., C.S.C.S., a Men’s Health advisor and physical therapist
The good news
We can employ adaptability to our benefit. By incorporating a few very simple movements into the day, we can combat office-induced deficiencies, regain range of motion, increase flexibility, and rebuild functional, painless joints and tissues.
Matt… that sounds impossible! How can we improve biomechanical health while sitting at a desk all day?
By integrating a few simple steps toward improvement into a consistent routine, I went from a broken human, to building proper posture and gymnast levels of mobility. I did this while spending 60+ hours a week in the office.
The short story:
My sit-and-reach flexibility ranked bottom 5% in the nation… Remember middle school gym class test? While sitting on the floor and reaching for my feet, my fingers were 4 inches away from my toes, at full extension. That score equated to 95% of my age group demonstrating superior flexibility. Flexibility didn’t improve with age… (probably should have seen that coming)
In April 2016 I tore my left shoulder labrum playing rugby – an injury caused by tight chest muscles and shoulder restrictions from hunching over tables and desks (and potentially over-indexing on the Bench Press). I was a health-focused, physically active 24-year-old. I played recreational sports, went to the gym 4-5 days/week, and ate a balanced diet. I thought I was doing all the right things, yet, certain factors in my active lifestyle led to physical imbalances and deficiencies.
I had to make the decision to relearn, rehab, and rebuild, or remain ruptured and restricted… My impending career would not provide the movement required for rehab – so I developed a ‘rehab & rebuild routine’ that I could conduct on a daily basis regardless of office environment limitations.
Through research, trial, and error, the 5-step routine in this post was developed.
And it worked – incredibly…
I can nearly nail a split, I can (finally) touch my toes on the sit-and-reach, hold a handstand on my labrum-deprived shoulder, and move in ways that I would have believed were personally impossible 1-year prior:
You get the idea…mobility improved…significantly…
From the corporate athlete optimizing performance to office worker hunting for relief from everyday back pain, knee issues, headaches, and fatigue, these techniques just might help. When applied correctly, they also have the potential to boost energy levels, speed sports recovery, and improve sleep quality.
Apply these techniques in the format that best suits you, in a sustainable manner that enables habit formation, and let me know how you fare!
5 steps to pain-freedom:
1) Morning movement
- Morning workout (~2x per 5-day week)
Includes either high intensity interval training (Google HIIT workout) or strength training. If morning exercise is new, start with do-able exercise you enjoy to establish the habit
- 5-min shower stretch (~3x per 5-day week)
Morning movement provides two key biomechanical benefits:
- Ensures athletic joint use in addition to everyday movement and loading (e.g., carrying a briefcase or bag, reaching for a cereal bowl, walking upstairs)
- A greater personal awareness of physical activity (or lack thereof) throughout the day, can lead to increased movement and better posture later in the day – physiological effects are analogous to the desire to eat healthy after exercise to prevent ‘ruining’ the workout
2) Standing workstation
Standing instead of sitting has had the single most positive impact on my posture, mobility, and work satisfaction out of any in-office movement modifications to date.
The workstation set-ups:
This is a company provided sit-to-stand electric desk. Check with your HR department to see if something like this is an option, it often is upon request. If a cordial request is denied, if desired, one can escalate with a doctor’s note prescribing a standing workstation as a medical necessity to support health and wellbeing (afterall, that’s the truth). That oddly shaped blue pad under my desk is an anti-fatigue mat, which enables a longer and more comfortable standing experience. The elevations in the mat promote micro movements and fidgeting (this is a good thing).
If you want to try a standing desk before hassling HR, you can purchase a $25 desk converter or stack up some books, boxes, and containers. A jury-rigged workstation can do the trick – I wrote this post at this “desk”:
Quick tips for using a standing workstation
- Learn how to stand properly first (this is critical!). Here is an example how-to video with additional tips
- Get an anti-fatigue mat
- Use zero-drop, flat, heel-less shoes, or no shoes (I keep a pair of flat drivers at my desk)
- Start slow – break standing into short ~20 minute increments
Adapting to the desk
It takes time to adapt to long periods of standing. If you do choose to adopt a habitual standing routine (you probably should), start slowly… I did not…
Here was my experience:
- Week 1 – standing 50-60% of the day: Ergonomic excitement eclipsed feelings of foot numbness as I powered through the week, taking full advantage of newfound degrees of freedom. Standing was tiring but I had to make maximal use of my new fancy anti-fatigue mat! My mental focus was reduced since I wasn’t used to working vertically. My legs ached at the end of the week. An unexpected but logical finding, I was significantly hungrier at the end of a day after standing (from increased metabolism).
- Week 2 – standing 30-40% of the day: I toned down the effort. Standing was still tiring, I was still hungrier (but ate more to make the extra calories burnt), but I started to work more effectively. My feet were slightly sore, but no longer numb. Overall, initial physical and mental adaptations were evident.
- Weeks 2-4 – standing 50% of the day: Standing-related soreness dissipated. I began to prefer working upright to sitting. When I sat, I was more perceptive of muscles turning off and tightening up.
- Week 5-present – standing 60-75% per day: One month marked the personal adaptation period when standing work felt as natural as sitting. I had more energy and greater productivity. I added micro movements throughout the day, including neck rotations, arm circles, standing stomach vacuums (skip to 3:34), glute squeezes (yup), and calf raises. These movements (well most of them…) are imperceptible to the outside observer. Even if they aren’t as inconspicuous as I imagine… I’m not fazed because it’s all in the name of health, a career, sanity, and a six-pack…
3) Mid-day mobility breaks
Independent of your workstation, mobility breaks are crucial for staving off stiffness.
Dr. Kelly Starrett provides a useful guideline – for every 30 minutes you are deskbound, move for 2 minutes.
This can be as easy as a walk to the water cooler or standing up and moving the arms and legs. The rule flexible. You can sit for a full hour, but then owe yourself a 4-minute walk.
Setting movement alarms can ensure consistency, however, I prefer to use this as a flexible framework for thinking about inactivity vs. activity throughout the day i.e., accumulation of inactivity requires an accumulation activity to maintain supple tissues and seamless joint function. Over the course of an 8-18 hour workday, 5 days/week, ~50 weeks/year, many small movements will add up and soon enough, your hip flexors will thank you…
4) Extended afternoon walk
Personally, this includes a ~15-minute walk to the Boston harbor. On the walk, I include deep breathing, arm rotations, and ‘shaking out’ the legs.
Aside from biomechanical benefits of added movement, a break outside or walk around can help reduce stress, improve mindset, and regain focus. I try to hold to a walk, regardless of workload. The more work I have to complete, the more important it is for me to spend a few minutes moving, clearing the mind, and reprioritizing afternoon actions for efficient and effective completion of end-of-day goals.
5) Mobilization before bed – foam roll and stretch
Aside from moving more and moving better, as discussed in the steps above, nightly mobilization has specifically helped me increase ranges of motion and reducing compressive pain by cleaning up stubborn tissue adhesions.
“… mobilization is a tool to globally address movement and performance problems …”
Dr. Kelly Starrett, Author of Deskbound
My routine includes tissue smashing (foam rolling or manual massage) and stretching for 10-60 minutes, depending on the total time available. This routine is highly effective for clearing the kinks of the day. My favorite part is the ‘system shutdown’ effect that accompanies mobilization – a downregulation of the nervous system, ‘post-massage’ euphoria, falling asleep quicker, and higher quality sleep. The therapeutic benefits are so tactile that some might call mobilization a healthily addictive habit…
My go-to 10-minute mobility routine includes:
Foam roll for 5 minutes
Stretch for 5 minutes
- Jefferson curl 3 reps, ~20 sec per rep – (I do these from the floor, holding the bottom of a 35lb kettlebell)
- Yoga flow 1x
- Static ‘gym class stretches’ for need areas, a few examples include:
Use it or lose it
Follow these 5-steps and you too will be on track to perfect posture, gymnast mobility, and pain-free movement.
Keep in mind – when it comes to joint and tissue health, if we don’t use it, we physically lose it…
Stay tuned for the next post dedicated to mobilization and the details of my extended full-body mobilization routine.
Written by Matt Hersh
Corporate consultant, fitness coach, amateur chef, blogger
For more frequent content – follow on Instagram @The.Fit.Consultant
Shoutout to Dr. Kelly Starrett –
A significant portion of my daily movement strategy and techniques were inspired by the book – Deskbound by Kelly Starrett – a highly recommended read for anyone (especially the office employee) who wants to move and feel like a human can and naturally should