Getting in a solid workout during the day can not only reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer, it can also help you perform at your best. Exercise, especially aerobic exercise, stimulates the release of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is a protein that preserves brain cells and helps them grow new connections. This process is commonly known as neurogenesis.
There are several reasons to keep an arsenal of desk exercises at your disposal:
Many people assume that if they exercise in the morning or after work, they can sit for the rest of the day, but the metabolic damage that occurs from 8 hours of sedentary behavior can’t be undone with an hour of even the most vigorous exercise. Therefore, it’s important to incorporate movement throughout the day if you want to optimize health and longevity.
Multiple clinical studies suggest that the human attention span is at its peak in the first 25 minutes of a novel activity. After 25 minutes, focus drops dramatically. When you consider this alongside the primacy and recency effects (more on that in another post), it makes sense to take short breaks roughly every half hour. And what better way to spend your break than to practice some brain boosting movement.
The biomechanics of sitting at a desk are quite disturbing, which is why many people call sitting “the new smoking”. For example, craning your neck forward for long periods of time puts pressure on the spinal cord and thus disrupts the brain’s communication with the rest of the body. This can manifest itself as digestive, respiratory and cardiovascular ailments. Inactivation of the posterior (back) chain causes those muscles to weaken and joints to stiffen.
Next time you have a moment to yourself at your desk, try these simple exercises. Each one takes 5 minutes or less, and can have dramatic effects if repeated over time.
1. Push ups
There’s something about push ups that makes me feel like a million bucks. Maybe it’s the whole-body engagement and core strengthening, or the feeling of mastery over my own bodyweight, or the immediate chest pump afterwards. Either way, I always feel more confident after performing a set.
If room permits, get down on the ground and perform a set of super slow push-ups. The idea is to place your focus less on reps and more on time under load (TUL). Take a minimum of 10 seconds to lower down and 10 seconds to push yourself back up (you might only be able to perform one or two!). This style of training minimizes the chances of injury, and has been proven to increase strength more than performing faster reps. Be sure to engage the muscles of the back body, including the glutes and shoulders. Tuck the chin slightly to keep the neck long.
Squats are great for not only strengthening the muscles that get neglected during sitting, they also improve flexibility of the hips and ankles, which is essential for proper alignment.
Perform a set of 10-20 slow squats, with the feet slightly wider than the hips and feet turned out slightly. At the lowest point, hold for 3 seconds. On the way up, maintain a straight spine and long neck.
3. Side Stretches
Sitting at a desk for long periods of time compromises posture, which means compromised breathing. Stand up and reach the arms up overhead and grab the left wrist with the right hand. Pull the left wrist over to the right. This stretch reduces stiffness of the shoulder joint and opens up the intercostal muscles, which are located between each of the ribs. Opening up these muscles allows the lungs to become more expansive with every breath. More expansive lungs means more oxygen, which means more focus and less stress.
Balancing postures increase the communication between the left and right hemispheres of the brain in a process known as cross-patterning. Among other things, cross patterning increases emotional regulation and focus.
Stand on your right leg and place your left hand on your right shoulder, then lower your arm and leg back down. Repeat this movement on the other side, and continue to alternate. For an added challenge, synchronize the movement with your breath. Inhale to raise your arm and leg, exhale to lower.
These are just a few of the many exercises you can perform at your desk to improve metabolism, cognition and alignment, and undo some of the nasty effects of sitting for extended periods of time.