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Is There Actually a Good Way to Exercise at Your Desk?

Let’s put it this way: It’s probably best to save your money on that desk bike and spend it on a good pairing of walking shoes instead

Open-layout offices have always sounded great in theory — collaboration! Innovation! Energy! — but in execution, that hasn’t always been the case. Instead, they’ve been proven, over and over again, to be real shitty for employees forced to listen to each other’s bad music, answer their coworkers’ incessant queries and generally become distracted with all manner of auditory and visual stimuli that old-fashioned cubicles managed to protect against. 

Still, the open office hasn’t been all bad. Yes, there’s a lot going on — I mean, Christ, it’s like a high-school lunchroom sometimes, almost oppressively loud, especially around coffee o’clock — but without the open office and it’s freewheelin’ atmosphere, we’d probably never have standing desks, balance boards, or shit, bike desks.

Which is to say, we can probably thank the open office with the idea that you can get exercise at your desk. It’s a concept that appeals to me, a guy who’d much rather get paid to exercise (while working a job) than do it of his own volition. You’re saying I can sit here writing these stupid words AND get fit? Consider me interested. 

Even better, there are a number of workouts specially formulated to get the blood flowing while you work, all without the need to leave your desk — or even your chair. Things like seated leg raises, using improvised weights (like water bottles or staplers) for arm raises, body-weight Herman Miller Aeron chair dips, or in one of the funniest examples I could find, doing sets of toe taps to “run” in place while still in your chair:

“Sit in your desk chair with your feet flat on the ground. Rapidly tap your feet in place, just like you would do if you were running in place. Do this for 30 seconds. Pause. Then do it for another 30 seconds. Work this in every half hour or so to bring up your heart rate without breaking a sweat that will embarrass you at your afternoon meeting.”

And that’s just the stuff you can do on your own. But as I said earlier, there are actual devices that you can buy to get your “workout” in, too — things like the aforementioned bike desk, or a desk treadmill, or even a sitting treadmill:

Holy shit.

Of course, none of this crap — or even the body-weight exercises — really work. When I put it to Damien, a personal trainer in L.A., he just laughs. “No way any of that does anything,” he says. “Forget the fact that, for you to get anything out of a workout, you need to be paying attention to what you’re doing and exerting some modicum of effort and intensity. Forgetting all that,” Damien repeats, now getting angry, “people ignore the fact that while they’re buying this stuff and doing these so-called exercises, they could actually be getting a better workout than anything they’re getting at their desk by just walking around.” 

He would appear to be right. An article on the Harvard University website found that, compared to a standing desk, walking around burned almost double the amount of calories. And let’s not forget about the time we asked a personal trainer about working out on bikes you sit on (like a desk bike). He called them “a ‘mindless’ exercise that allows the body to be lazier than other forms of cardio.”

We can’t ignore the other elephant in the room, either: You look like a total tool when you “exercise” at your desk. And looking like a tool is a recipe for office-wide embarrassment and shame, meaning that you’re probably better off skipping leg day during your 10 o’clock meeting and just tacking on an extra 10 minutes on the treadmill after work.

Then again, if it gets people to stop swinging by your open-office desk to ask you about your weekend, maybe there’s more reasons to practice your calf raises while you work than being able to pretend that you’re getting the requisite amount of exercise.