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Get fit at your desk

How to make it work for you...

Get fit at your desk
Danielle de Wolfe
25 September 2011

It’s where you sit for eight hours every day, says ShortList’s Simeon de la Torre, so make it work harder for you with just a few simple adjustments.

Time was when men left the family home at 6am, entered into some back-breaking physical labour for 12 hours and then returned home to wash, eat and sleep.

For most of us, those days have departed, and while we’d be fools to mourn a future dominated by an onset of miners’ lung, we have lost one important element that our put-upon forebears ‘enjoyed’ — an active working life. So if, like us, you spend most of your day sat on the same seat, at the same desk, looking at the same computer, and you have a paunch to prove it, we’ve put together some tips to keep the daily sit-down slimline.

Sneaky sets

No one’s expecting you to start curling dumbbells during your daily duties, but if you can snatch a couple of minutes to do one exercise while you’re at your desk, this is the one to do. Dean Schaffer, founder of The Fitness Club London, gives us the lowdown. “Sit on a chair, slightly lower than normal, feet hip-width apart,” he says. “Without using your hands, stand up straight and then slowly bend your knees, taking you back to the starting point. Do three sets of 10 repetitions, making sure you give yourself a 60sec break between sets.” It’s a controlled stand-up sit-down movement, but it gets ever-more punishing as you increase the sets. “Your heart rate will rise, it’ll engage those big quad muscles, and you’ll begin burning fat cells,” says Schaffer. “There’s no need to use weights — you probably weigh 80kg or so yourself, so put it to good use.”

Cut the coffee

For us to suggest that you forgo your first daily cup of Joe would be cruelty in extremis, but you may want to consider ditching the subsequent half dozen. Why? “It’s basically one of the worst things for your body,” says nutritional consultant Dr Camilla Ellis. “It’s an artificial stimulant that causes you to repeatedly crash, it overworks the kidneys and dehydrates the body.

I’d recommend green tea instead.” Reassuringly, green tea also contains (small amounts of) caffeine, and is an appetite suppressant. Dr Ellis continues: “It’s a natural antioxidant, and is a thermogenic product, which means that it increases your metabolism by around four per cent, and helps break down your fat cells thanks to the polyphenols it contains.”

Attack the snacks

It’s been well documented that pre-packaged lunches are often calorifically ruinous, so we won’t even go there, but have you considered your daily snack intake? “You’ve got to be asking yourself if you really need a snack,” challenges Nicola Addison, resident fitness and nutrition expert at Urban Retreat. “You’ve been sat down all day, so why are your meals not enough for you? Are you leaving it too long between meals? There should ideally be four hours between breakfast and lunch, and six between lunch and dinner, and if you’re getting enough protein, especially, you should be able to last out.” Good advice this may be, but realistic? Probably not, so we pressed Addison for a morsel of something — anything — we could nibble on. “Nuts will help keep you fuller for longer. But I’m talking, like, literally 10 nuts, not a handful.”

Work your core

Yes, it’s suspicious that there was no talk of the body’s ‘core’ until a few years ago, but it is true that if you work the key muscles of your torso, you’ll improve your posture and pull in any abdominal ‘slackness’. Some personal trainers suggest perching on a balance ball all day, but they have no notion of the real world of suits and office banter, which would mean you’d never hear the end of it. Helena Greenwood, a member of the British Osteopathic Association (BOA), suggests sitting on a ‘wobble cushion’ (£19.50;, which is a more discrete inflatable that you place on your regular seat. “It stimulates your core muscles, helps you balance and means you are doing something worthwhile — even while stationary,” she explains.

Dress down

It may sound incredible, but you will increase your physical activity by eight per cent and burn 25 more calories on casual-clothing workdays than on days when you schlep in in your regular suit. The stats are according to a respected American Council On Exercise study from 2007, in which the authors also extrapolated that “wearing casual clothing every day for 50 weeks of work would translate into burning an additional 125 calories per week, or 6,250 calories per year — the equivalent of almost 2lb.” It is thought that the increased activity is down to wearing comfortable shoes.

Move it

Your physical appearance is largely dictated by whether you sit or stand at work, and, even back in 1940, a study of London bus employees showed that the active ticket takers were far less susceptible to heart attacks than the sedentary drivers.

Have a good, hard look at the ground you cover on a day-to-day basis and you’ll probably find you need to up your movement. If you drive, park your car further away, get out and go for a walk at lunch, climb the stairs instead of using the lift, or even use the loo upstairs rather than the one down the corridor, whatever you do, do something — even if it just means getting out of your chair from time to time. Research shows that if you’re inactive for over four hours, the enzyme that controls metabolism effectively shuts down. In 2007, Dr Genevieve Healy and a team from the University Of Queensland, Australia analysed 4,757 workers and found that “for the number of breaks in sedentary time, the most significant differences were observed for waist circumference. The top 25 per cent of people who took the most breaks had, on average, a 4.1cm smaller waist circumference than those in the lowest 25 per cent.”

Or, in layman’s terms: making a resolution to stand up for phone calls, say, could help you lop some 2in off your gut. And that sounds far more palatable than “literally 10 nuts”.