A Guide to Desk Stretches From a Pilates Instructor

Surprise: the pilates instructor is my mom!

07.20.16

Sitting is one of my life’s greatest pleasures. I love it so much. I especially love it after standing for literally any amount of time. When people started calling it “the new smoking” I cried and sought comfort from a chair. Science ruins everything good. Like sugar.

But standing is hard! I say this on the heels of a disc flare-up (caused by improperly lifting a Shih Tzu out of a bathtub four years ago) that prohibited me from sitting for a week. Every time I’m forced to stand for hours I’m reminded of the weak slug that is my core.

I have my mother to thank for this internal dialogue. She’s a pilates instructor, works in a chiropractic office and owns a massage therapy business which is a roundabout way of saying she’s a loving and walking reminder that I’m terrible at using my body. If I had a Shih Tzu for every time she brought up “Text Neck” during family car rides, I’d be the happiest lady on earth (and also wouldn’t get out much).

But I should probably start listening to her. So I asked her how us desk-dwellers might stretch and strengthen the muscles that tighten up throughout the day when we marathon-sit. She kindly gave me her definitive guide to stretching in the office and then I gave it a whirl as evidenced below. A poor whirl, but a whirl.

Allow me to give the floor to someone who knows what she’s talking about: Kathy Nahman. Her words below.

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My overall philosophy is that we all need to strive to find fluid and easy movement in our bodies. Poor posture takes a toll in many ways. When we sit slumped, our bodies get stressed and build connective tissue to try to save us from ourselves and this only serves to cement us in this poor position! It’s much easier (and less painful!) for our spines to stay stacked and yet technology constantly encourages otherwise. Healthy movement comes with awareness and building the strength to hold our bodies stable. Try focusing on engaging core muscles and moving with intention. Work smarter, not harder!

If you work at a desk, try to take a few stretch breaks throughout the day. Here are seven exercises you can do that cover your neck, shoulders, hips, back and overall body. The goal is to go through all the natural movements of your joints and muscles every day. Believe me, the younger you start correcting poor posture, the better off you will be when you’re older.

1. Deep breath x 5

We often take our breath for granted. We don’t use our diaphragm muscle efficiently and take shallow breaths in our upper chest. But it’s a muscle, so work it! Touching base with your breath is a great stress reliever and it’s good for your internal organs.

Desk-Stretching-Deep-Breathing-Man-Repeller

a. Take a deep inhale through your nose, imagining that you are pulling air into your belly before you feel your chest move.
b. Release any tension in your neck and shoulders.
c.  Exhale slowly through your mouth.
d. Repeat five times.

(Note from Haley: my chest is moving too much, I know. Sorry Mom!)

2. Neck glide x 15

Constantly looking down at out phones and computer screens causes us to pull our head forward and strains our neck muscles. We are essentially asking them to hold a 10-12 pound weight all day! Staying like this for long periods of time sends our body signals to form connective tissue to support the strain of the head. Neck glides reverse that and instead strengthen the muscles.

a. While sitting or standing, imagine you chin is on a table. Don’t tip your head up or down.
b. Slowly slide your head straight back (if you feel your ears are already positioned above your shoulders, imagine you take it back a bit more).
c. Slowly return your head back into its starting place (but do not jut your chin forward).
d. You should feel the muscles in the back of your neck (and your upper back) working.
e. Repeat 15 times.

(Note from Haley: It looks like I’m jutting my head forward but really it’s going back. I just have text neck!!!!)

3. Shoulder squeeze x 10

Since so many of life’s activities have us reaching and leaning forward (typing, texting, reading) we tend to let the muscles in our back (lower shoulders blades) get weak because they are always stretched long and forward. This also causes our chest muscles to shorten and tighten over time. Shoulder squeezes mindfully reverse this and give those muscles a wake up call.

desk-stretching-shoulders-man-repeller

a. Sit or stand tall.
b. Imagine the front of your ribs are gently knitted together.
c. Let your collarbone lengthen and gently squeeze your shoulder blades together without popping your ribs out.
d. Try to let the bottom of your shoulder blades guide this movement — gripping at the top of the shoulders or neck is never helpful! If you catch yourself tensing up there, try to relax. You may find you have to rediscover those lower scapular (shoulder blade) muscles because you’ve been letting the upper ones do all the work (which is why your neck and shoulders are tight and painful).
e. Repeat 10 times.

4. Hips stretch x 10 breaths

The other thing that happens when we sit a lot is our hip flexor muscles shorten and tighten while all those low back muscles spend hours stretched out long, making them weak. Hip stretches give those unused muscles a wake-up call and also strengthen the back of the leg and butt. Activating the glut and hamstrings enhances the stretch.

a. While standing up, step one foot back on to your toe, enough to open up the front of the hip.
b. Turn on both inner thighs to stabilize (this is good for balance work too!).

c.To stretch this muscle you are going to activate the opposing muscles on the back of your leg. Put your finger tips where your hamstring meets your glut and fire the muscle on.
d. Gently press the heel down.
e. Move your hand to the front of the hip and press into it. The more you can fire up the muscle in the back the more you can release the front of the hip.
f. Hold for five breaths on each side.

5. Lateral bends x 1o

Our body is designed to move in several directions but our lives tend to be very forward and backward, which makes our side muscles weak and overlooked. These muscles are really important for our spine stability — lateral bending helps stretch and strengthen them.

Desk-Stretching-Bend-Man-Repeller

a. Stand tall with your feet hip distance apart (about five inches).
b. Imagine a sheet of glass is in front of you and behind you and you don’t want to touch either.
c. Flex your body to the side and feel a nice stretch through the rib cage (keep your shoulders down your back). Let your head follow the flex of your spine.
d. Focus on the stretched side muscles and use those as you exhale and pull back to center.
e. Repeat five times on each side.

(Note from Haley: clown look not required but encouraged.)

6. Spinal rotations x 10

Similar to the lateral bend, spinal rotations help us practice a range of motion we often don’t use when we sit all day.

desk-stretching-twist-man-repeller

a. Stand tall with your feet hip distance apart.
b. Rest your hands gently on each shoulder.
c. Keep your hips pointed forward and rotate your upper body to the right as you exhale.
d. Make the twist happen at your belly button level. Imagine your rib cage is rotating around your spine. Visualize the shoulder blade starts the motion rather than your arm, moving to the middle of your back.
e. Return to center and exhale to the other side.
f. Repeat five times on each side.

(Note from Haley: I should probably appear to be breathing. Sorry again, Mom.)

7. Roll down x 2

Sitting for so long puts a lot of pressure on our joints and muscles, particularly our spine. Rolling down is an inversion move that uses gravity to reverse that pressure. It’s a necessary release and will help your muscles relax.

desk-stretching-spine-bend-man-repeller

a. Stand tall with your feet hip distance apart and your arms long by your side.
b. Drop your chin to your chest and pour the top of your head toward the floor, unstacking one vertebrae at a time.
c. Take a deep breath at the bottom and pull your belly away from your thighs (toward your spine).
d. Re-stack your vertebrae up one after the other and leave your head for last.
e. Repeat twice.

(Note from Haley: Yes, I am very inflexible. Thanks for noticing.)

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Thanks, Mom! Feeling like a million Shih Tzus!

desk-stretching-relaxed-man-repeller

Photographs and Gifs by Krista Anna Lewis; Haley wearing Rachel Comey top, suspender pants and shoes.

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