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Grab a tennis a ball: These 5 desk exercises can help relieve neck and back pain

Chained to your desk? These simple movements will relieve the tension that builds up when we sit for prolonged periods.
by Brianna Steinhilber /
Image: Office Worker
If you’re someone who spends a large chunk of your day sitting, pain or discomfort in areas like your neck, lower back and hips likely sounds familiar.Felipe Hellmeister / Getty Images
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When Charlee Atkins, CSCS, a personal trainer and founder of Le Sweat, brought a new stretch-focused program to Soul Cycle headquarters, she was surprised that it wasn’t her fellow instructors who filled the room for a much-needed stretch session — it was the corporate staff who had been logging their hours in the office hunched over a computer.

“Initially the class was for my peers, my fellow cycling instructors. I brought the class to the headquarters of my company and quickly realized how the class was huge benefit for my fellow ‘desk warrior’ colleagues,” says Atkins, who defines desk warriors as workers who sit for over eight hours a day with very little movement. “What I noticed was all of the ‘corporate athletes’, the ones who are sitting at their desk all day, are getting tight spots that are causing injuries.”

This realization encouraged her to develop Le Stretch, a program that utilizes lacrosse balls to open up the body and loosen up all the tight spots — the neck, the back, the lower hips, the shoulders — that develop from sitting all day long.

What happens in our bodies when we sit at a desk all day

“The body becomes injured when we overuse it, specifically joints, or constantly move our bodies without proper alignment. This is true in sports, and very true in a sitting environment,” says Atkins. “The bottom line is, our species was created to move. We are hunter and gatherers. We had to be agile, we had to move quickly, carry heavy loads from one destination to the other, and the only tools we had were our bodies. We’ve now morphed into staying sedentary for over 8 hours a day, hunched over a computer. Some of the only movement most of us get is standing up and sitting down, walking to and from our cars.”

The bottom line is, our species was created to move. We are hunter and gatherers. We’ve now morphed into staying sedentary for over 8 hours a day, hunched over a computer.

If you’re someone who spends a large chunk of your day sitting, pain or discomfort in areas like your neck, lower back and hips likely sounds familiar. But aside from simply causing discomfort, it can hinder our ability to carry out normal day-to-day movements, and in some cases contribute to more serious injuries.

  • Neck: “Our heads are always slightly tilted down (taking the neck portion of the spine out of 'neutral’). We are mostly looking straight ahead at our computers, so the second you have to quickly look one way or other when you cross the street can tweak your neck,” says Atkins.
  • Shoulders: “The back of our neck is lengthened from looking down at a computer, our shoulders creep up to compensate for our arms always being in front of us (typing). At this point everything is moving up, so the weight hunches us forward, creating a bigger thoracic curve,” says Atkins. “Elevated and protracted shoulders don’t leave a whole lot of room to raise your arms overhead like if you needed to put something heavy up on the top shelf (or take it down).”
  • Core: “Our cores can’t engage when we are seated because our hips are completely flexed. Which means the muscles in our lower backs are in the lengthened state most of the day with no core control to balance it,” says Atkins. “We lose our core strength from sitting all day, which means when we’re walking our center (the core) is very weak when its job is to connect our upper bodies with our lower bodies, but also to transfer force from the upper body to the lower body. Because the core is weak, our center of gravity is off, and with the force from our head weighing down our spine, we run the huge risk of slipping a disk.”
  • Hips: The hips don't externally or internally rotate because we’re seated all day, so the moment you have to squat down to pick up your kid, there is no mobility to get you down low enough to the ground, therefore we use our back to lift heavy objects off the floor and … bam, a back injury,” says Atkins.
  • Quads: “When we are sitting our quads, the biggest muscle group, aren’t used most of the day. The quads' job is to bend and extend the knee, so the second we get up and try to walk down a set of steps, our quads can’t do their job, which leads to knee injury and issues. And because all of this unbalanced, unsupported weight trickles down the knees and ankles, we lose mobility in our lower limbs, [resulting in] ankle and knee injuries galore.”

“Phew, doesn’t that make you want to stand up and stretch and move?” Atkins asks.

Set a reminder

As frightening as it may be to see the potential side effects of our sedentary lifestyle laid out before our eyes, unfortunately for most of us, we can’t drastically change our day-to-day routine. But what you can do is begin to incorporate stretch breaks throughout the day to reduce the risks posed by being chained to your desk.

“It’s as little as grabbing a tennis ball and keeping it in your desk, or spending ten minutes at the end of the night to get a few little stretches in,” says Atkins. “You know how people talk about writing [a reminder] to drink more water? One of my favorite tips to remind myself to stretch more is to write myself a note on a Post-it note to say ‘it’s time to stretch!’ and put it somewhere you will see it. Every time you look at it you can remind yourself to sit taller or take a quick five minutes to do a stretch, or pull your ball out of your desk and do a quick stretch session.”

5 moves that will relieve tension from sitting all day

“If I leave you with one thing: go into your garage, find a tennis ball, put it in your purse or bag, bring it to work tomorrow and give yourself a little massage midday.”

Why use a ball? “Using the ball relives tension in the muscle immediately. It’s a quick way to feel less tense and less stressed,” says Atkins. “For the best results start with the ball and the move on to traditional stretches. Time wise, spend two minutes on a body part with the ball (aka rolling out the hamstrings) and then stand up and stretch the hamstrings for 30-90 seconds.”

Working from the bottom up, here is a quick five-minute routine that will target each one of your pain points to relieve tension and reduce risk of injury.

Warm up

“The muscles are ‘cold’ when we are sitting all day. Standing up is something we don’t do enough of in general when we are sitting at desks, so I personally like to start my quick stretch sessions with movement. You can sit at your desk and roll your muscles out all day, however for best results you should roll out and then stretch and move the body so that it doesn’t snap right back to it’s shortened state.”

To warm up, stand next to your desk and use it (or a chair) for stability. Stand on the right leg and pull the left knee up as high as it will go (hip flexion). Flex the right toe up towards the right knee. Standing up tall, looking forward, take five deep breaths in this position. Activate the left leg, glute and quad while you continue to pull your knee upwards. Repeat on the left side.

Hamstrings

Stick the ball underneath your right thigh, getting into the hamstrings, and flex your right foot upwards (keeping your heel pointing towards the ground). Rock the right leg from side to side. Repeat on the left side. You can place the ball higher or lower under the leg, based on where your tight spots are.

“Hamstrings are a tight spot for a lot of people. If you’re a runner or if you walk up and down steps a lot … if you have tight hamstrings, this is a great hamstring release,” says Atkins.

Lower back

Put the ball right in the middle of your lower back, being careful to stay off the spine, focusing on the two muscles that run along either side of the spine. Wedge the ball between the back of your seat and your back. Press back into the ball and massage yourself into the ball loosening up the muscles all along the side of the spine.

“This is a great exercise to do on an airplane. If you’re taking a long-haul flight and sitting there all day and get those middle, lower back pains, this is something you can do,” says Atkins. “You can move the ball anywhere along the middle, lower region of the spine, staying off of the bone.”

Neck/shoulder region

While sitting in your desk chair, place the ball right on the upper back, again to the side of the spine, and massage side to side. “It’s that spot where people always say they need a massage,” says Atkins. “If you want to get even more bang for your buck, abandon the chair and stand next to a wall.”

Place the ball in the tight spot between your right shoulder blade and your spine. Lean against the wall, wedging your body against the ball and walk your feet out away from the wall a few feet so that your body is at an angle. Keep your head neutral. Place your right hand by your right thigh, then raise it up above your head and back down. Repeat on the left side. “While in this positon, run through your morning routine with your arm: brush your teeth, drive your car, write … moving through some of those movements will help open up the back spot,” says Atkins.

Hips

Standing with your back to a wall, place the ball on the back right side of your body, directly in back of your hip bone. Lean against the wall, and turn your right leg out on a diagonal, pushing your hips back into the ball. Keep your torso straight, and lean it down in one fluid movement towards your right toe and then back up to standing. You can also twist your hips from left to right, massaging side to side to release the hips.

Neck stretches

When you don’t have a ball with you, you can perform simple neck stretches right at your desk throughout the day. Place your hands out to your sides (over top the arm rests if your chair has them). Take two to three deep breaths, sitting up tall. Take your right ear to your right shoulder and reach your left hand out a bit further. Place your right hand on top of your head for a deeper stretch. Hold for five deep breaths, continuing to reach the left hand out further. Repeat on the left side.

Then, interlace your fingertips behind your head, elbows out to the side. Bring the head straight down, pulling your chin towards your collarbone. Give your head a gentle push, seeing if you can lift the elbows up higher. Hold for two breaths. Press your head back into your hands so you’re looking towards the ceiling. Pull your elbows towards the back of the room. Hold for two breaths. Come back to center.

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