Desk jockeys should train like athletes to avoid pain and perform better

As a writer, I am the ultimate desk jockey, spending hours at my desk at a time. So, when working, I take a break at least once an hour to climb the steps to the second floor in my house.  That kind of movement usually helps clear my mind and gets the work flowing better. But more important, those trips up and down, four times or more, loosen my tense muscles and get my blood flowing.

That’s important because, for many folks, sitting at a desk all day at work is literally a pain in the neck — or back. And recently researcher Julie Côté, a kinesiology professor at McGill University in Canada, has found that if you are chained to a desk during the week, your productivity is impacted by the health of your body. When your body hurts, your work suffers.

“Even though office workers may not naturally see it that way, their body is basically their work instrument, just as it is for an athlete,” says Côté. “It can get injured in similar ways and for similar reasons: overuse of certain muscles.”

Côté says her research shows that you can have less pain in your neck, back and shoulders if you engage in more movement during the workday.  And, she adds, a treadmill desk is a great tool for incorporating pain-reducing motion and better posture into your routine.

“These workstations may be good for getting people moving and losing weight,” says Côté, “but no one (until now) has looked into how this kind of posture affects the muscles in the neck, shoulders and lower back.”

Côté’s study shows that when you work at a treadmill desk, the movements of your neck and shoulder muscles protect you against the type of discomfort that strikes when you sit motionless for too long. If you stay too still in one position for a prolonged period of time, she warns, your blood flow slows. That stagnation adds to your risk for chronic back, shoulder and neck pain.

You may not be ready to switch to a new-fangled treadmill desk but there are plenty of other things you can do, in addition to climbing stairs as I do, to avoid these desk-related injuries. I once worked with someone who would just stand up and do stretches in her cubicle every hour or so. She would also hold onto the back of her chair and do knee bends. Those kinds of movements can get the blood flowing throughout your entire body.

But if you need to focus specifically on your neck and upper back because you hunch over a keyboard all day, Dr. Mark Wiley has a great video that provides easy-to-follow instructions for stretches for shoulders, upper back and neck. Another one he recommends is an exercise that’s great for relieving pain from ‘forward head position.’ If you use a smart phone, tablet, laptop or even desktop you’re prone to this kind of pain and injury — and these exercises can help.

I’d recommend trying them with a little meditation to clear your mind and strengthen your productivity as well as those muscles prone to chronic pain. If anyone peaks into your office and raises an eyebrow, just let them know you’re an elite (desk) athlete and tell them what Côté says…

“Whether you’re a computer worker or a middle-distance runner, injuries happen when you tense a particular muscle or group of muscles for too long,” she says. “The blood can’t flow into the region as it should and regenerate the muscles. Bodies are made to move.”

So get moving.

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Carl Lowe

By Carl Lowe

has written about health, fitness and nutrition for a wide range of publications including Prevention Magazine, Self Magazine and Time-Life Books. The author of more than a dozen books, he has been gluten-free since 2007.