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How to Turn Your Office Chair Into an Opportunity for Exercise

4 Tips From RecWell’s Fitness Director to Stay Active This Winter

By Karen Shih ’09

man lunges in office

Without leaving your workspace, you can still squat, lunge and even do mini push-ups, said Tami Lee, assistant director for fitness for University Recreation and Wellness. She offers four tips to add cardio and strength training throughout the day.

Illustration by iStock

Diamondback terrapins bury themselves in the mud to survive the winter, but Terps on campus shouldn’t go into hibernation.

Take a cue from Clinical Professor Zeinab Karake, who doesn’t let snow or wind stop her from getting in 10,000 steps a day. She laces up her sneakers to walk within the climate-controlled confines of Van Munching Hall.

“I’m kind of addicted to it,” said Karake. She began taking laps around the third- and fourth-floor hallways two years ago when she was appointed associate dean for culture and community at the Robert H. Smith School of Business. Now, she’s brought down her cholesterol by more than 20 points, improved her mental health and connected her with colleagues across the 238,000-square-foot building.

Whether you’re battling the effects of an hourlong commute like Karake or feeling trapped in a McKeldin study carrel, you can build in exercise in creative ways, said Tami Lee, assistant director for fitness for University Recreation and Wellness.

“We box ourselves in, because people think you need a big chunk of time to work out. But we can be really successful with 10-minute spurts,” said Lee, who oversees weight rooms, fitness centers, personal training and group fitness across campus.

Try a cross-campus trek on unusually warm winter days, or turn your workspace into an ad hoc gym. She recommends 150 minutes of aerobic activity per week (making sure to get your heart rate elevated), as well as strength training twice weekly.

Karake agrees. “As they say, the 1,000-mile journey begins with the first step. Starting is the difficult part, but once you do, it’s part of your life.”

Lee offers four tips to add a little cardio and strength training throughout your day.

1) Don’t pick the closest parking option. Students trekking from their spots by the Xfinity Center to North Campus are already onto this one—but staffers and faculty who feel tethered to a desk or a lab can take heed. Lee gave up her campus parking pass, and now parks three-quarters of a mile away from her office, which builds 20 minutes of walking into her day. “More than physically, mentally is where I get that benefit—it sets my day and makes me feel good,” she said.

2) Choose the stairs. “I’m always surprised by how many people come to the gym and use the elevator!” Lee said with a laugh. She recommends making the climb any time it’s possible, whether you’re visiting the copy machine or grabbing a snack from the vending machine. It all adds up, without taking much time out of your day.

3) Get up every hour. “Prolonged sitting is where we find our problems,” said Lee. Like Karake, take a walk around the building, go chat with a coworker, or grab water on a different floor. While standing desks aren’t for everyone, if you have the option or ability to get one, consider using it—along with a supportive floor mat—for brief periods throughout the day. “I try to stand during Zoom meetings and while responding to emails,” Lee said. “Your muscles have to work to keep you up, and you get all these benefits from just standing for short bursts.”

4) Use your chair and desk for strength training. Lee recommends focusing on five primary movements: pushing, pulling, squatting, lunging and twisting. “It sounds like a lot, but if you think of daily activities, such as picking up my child to put him in a car seat, I’m doing all those movements in five seconds,” she said. Without leaving your workspace, you can do all of the following in just a few minutes (and if your coworkers give you weird looks, just send them this list):

  • Squat 10 times—or simply stand up and sit down in your chair 10 times, if you can’t do a full squat. This still activates your glutes and various muscles in your legs.
  • Lunge 10 times per leg—or simply stand on one leg and try to balance for 10 seconds, to engage your lower body and core, and work your way up to 30 seconds. 
  • Stand and twist your upper body 10 times in each direction—or stay seated while you twist, if that’s more doable in your space.
  • Do 10 mini push-ups by bracing your hands against the edge of your desk and bringing your body to about a 45-degree angle, engaging your chest, arms and core.
  • Bring in a resistance band, and hook it around a doorknob or the leg of your desk and pull back 10 times with each arm.

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