5 simple stretches for anyone who sits at a desk all day

Though the majority of our work lives look different during COVID-19, one thing has remained constant: the back and neck pain we get from sitting all day. Aches and pains are common, especially in home “offices” with less-than-ideal setups. Though it may feel easy to dismiss them as no big deal when you’re tired from a long work day, sedentary desk work can often lead to muscular imbalances that have the potential to turn into injuries in the future.  

The good news is that you can take care of these pains by incorporating some simple stretches and movement into your daily routine. University Health Network physiotherapists recommend stretching for five minutes every hour that you’re doing seated work. If that’s not possible, getting up and moving around for a couple of minutes every hour can help. Remember, some stretching is better than none at all. Stretching won’t only help wake you up, but it can improve muscle and joint flexibility, circulation, contribute to stress relief, pain reduction and injury prevention! Try out these simple stretches today. 

Aim to hold each stretch for roughly 15 to 30 seconds. It’s natural to feel mild tension when you stretch but you should stop if it’s at all painful.  

Chest/back stretch  

Sit up straight at the front of your chair with your feet flat on the floor. Try and clasp your hands behind your back or behind the back of your chair. Slowly straighten your elbows, roll your shoulders back and squeeze your shoulder blades together, as you stretch your chest forward.  To deepen the stretch, start to gently lift your clasped hands.   

illustration of a person standing with their hands clasped behind their back and stretching their chest

Side neck stretch


illustration of a person doing a neck stretch

Again,  sit with good posture in your chair, hold onto the side of your chair with your right hand, and reach your left hand to cup the top of your head as in the picture. Gently pull your left ear closer towards your left shoulder to feel a stretch along the right side of your neck. Repeat on the opposite side.  To stretch a different part of your neck, you can also try turning your gaze toward your bent elbow.  

Back stretch  

For a deep back stretch, move your legs apart and reach toward the floor, Try to relax your back and head, and fold as deep as is comfortable for a nice passive stretch. To get back up, you can walk your hands back up along your legs for support.

illustration of a person sitting on a chair and bending forward between their knees to feel a back stretch.

 Hip stretch

illustration of a person sitting in a chair and stretching their hip by having one foot crossed over the opposite knee

Sit in your chair with both feet planted on the ground, and bring one ankle to rest onto your opposite knee. Gently push your bent knee toward the floor for a stretch along your gluteal muscle. For a deeper stretch, prop the foot that is currently on the floor on a low surface in front of you, keep your knee straight and reach your hands towards your foot. Repeat the stretch on the opposite side.  

Calf stretch  

Standing up, place your hands on a desk or wall. Step one foot back, keeping a bend in your front knee. Keep both toes pointed forward and try pressing your back heel towards the floor to feel a stretch along the back of your calf. Keep your back straight and avoid rounding forward through your shoulders. You may also feel a stretch along the front of your hip as well. Repeat on the other side.

illustration of a person standing behind a chair, holding onto the back of the chair, stepping one foot back and pressing the back heel down to feel a stretch along the calf.

Bonus tip: Remember to stay hydrated and take care of your eyes! Drink lots of water and look away from your screen occasionally and focus on an object far away. 

Looking for more stretches? UHN’s LEAP program’s YouTube channel has some great stretches, yoga classes and meditations for free.  

Thanks to Living Well at UHN and Dr. Rebecca Lingerfelt.  

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