We Spend Half Our Lives Sitting. These Simple Exercises Will Get You Up—And Help Combat Neck and Back Pain

We Spend Half Our Lives Sitting. These Simple Exercises Will Get You Up—And Help Combat Neck and Back Pain

If your work day is one long stretch of sitting at a desk, staring off into a computer screen, followed by one long stretch of sitting on the Metro, staring down at your phone, chances are you’re setting yourself up for future neck or back pain (if you’re not already there). And since we’ve been tapping on keyboards and phones long enough for it to be studied, the experts have some dismal—if unsurprising—news: a recent study published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Sciences showed that prolonged use of smartphones (four or more hours per day) could negatively affect both posture and breathing, leading to hunched and rounded shoulders and respiratory dysfunction in the long run.

But take a deep breath and know there’s hope. Another study in Preventing Chronic Disease showed that in employees with sedentary jobs, those using sit-stand devices who stood for 66 minutes a day could reverse pain to their necks and backs, which suggests that these orthopedic conditions can be helped. 

This same study also reported that—bottom line—we spend half our lives sitting, so regardless of whether you have a sit-stand device, chances are you spend a decent chunk of time doing something where standing is impractical, such as driving or taking in plays. We consulted Washington Sport&Health personal trainer Matt Fenner for some simple tips and exercises for combatting the effects of all this sitting.

Matt Fenner wants to help your sitting situation. All photos courtesy of Fenner.

Let’s start with the easiest (non-exercise) stuff. Here are Fenner’s tips to fix your desk situation:

  • Put the top of your monitor at eye level. Use a laptop? Put it on a stack of books and use an old-school mouse. 
  • Place the monitor an arm’s length away from your body, or about 20 inches.
  • Try to keep your shoulders in a relaxed position. Your shoulders should be pushed back and not rolled forward.

Next, change how you look at your phone:

  • It’ll probably feel (and look) weird, but bring your phone to eye level when using it.
  • Try to use only one hand to text, since locking both hands into text-mode severely puts your shoulders into a rounded position, says Fenner.
  • Try not to work too much from your cell phone. Try. Use a desk (or get your office to buy one) that allows you to incorporate at least an hour of standing into your day. 

Floor Exercises: Face Down, Thumbs Up

Here, things get slightly more complicated, in that you need a rolled-up hand towel and, if you prefer, a mat. Place your body in a prone position with your head elevated by the towel, which is placed underneath your forehead. Relax your head and neck. Try not to shrug your shoulders as you make these movements. Repeat the sequence 10 times.

Position #1

Extend your arms horizontally away from your body, pointing your thumbs to the sky.  

Position #2

Move your arms into a Y position, keeping thumbs raised.

Position #3

Pull your arms parallel to one another and raise your thumbs off the floor.   

Resistance Band Exercises

The most complex of all of Fenner’s tips, these exercises involve the super-portable and cheap resistance band. These three exercises target the shoulders and upper back to help counter the effects of being hunched over all day.

For all three, this is your starting position: Secure a resistance band, chest-level, around something sturdy, grab both handles, and extend your arms, making sure the resistance bands are taut. Your feet should be shoulder-width apart, knees soft.

Rear Delt Cable Fly

From starting position, palms facing each other, pull your arms away from your body and pull your shoulder blades together. Repeat 10 times.

Resistance Band High Pull

From starting position, pull the resistance band back, palms facing towards the floor, until your elbows bend at a 90-degree angle. Then pull the handles back towards your temples while contracting your shoulder blades together. Repeat 10 times.


Holding the handles, make sure the band is taut and palms face inward. Make a 90-degree angle and drive your elbows backward. At the same time, pull your shoulder blades together. Repeat 10 times.

Kim Olsen

Kim Olsen ([email protected]) is a freelance writer in Alexandria.