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Workouts fordesk jockeys

How can you stay in shape when you sit at a desk all day? Smart Fitness answers reader queries.
Desk jockey
Kim Carney / MSNBC
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How can you stay in shape when you sit at a desk all day? What's the effect of exercise on mood? Smart Fitness answers your queries. Have an exercise question? To send an e-mail, click here. We’ll post select answers in future columns.

Q: I have been gaining weight since I started a desk job straight out of college. I've heard that if I suck in my tummy and squeeze in my butt when I am sitting at my computer, it will work out my abs and my behind. Does this exercise actually work?

Q: I work in an office where I am seated most of the day, and as a result my behind is getting a wide, flat look. Are there any exercises I can do that will take away my pancake behind and give me a nice tight peach? 

A: We weren't designed to sit at a desk for eight-plus hours a day, but that's how many of us now spend our time. And it can take a toll on our bodies, particularly when we sit fixed before the monitor for hours on end -- a practice some have dubbed "binge computing" -- and skip regular workouts outside the job.

One of the risks of such a sedentary lifestyle, especially if it includes pastry from the cafeteria, is weight gain. As suggested by Reader No. 1, cutting back on physical activity -- from a lifestyle that requires hiking all over campus to one that necessitates little more than short strolls to the copy machine or coffee maker -- can pack on the pounds.

Another risk from sitting all day and not getting much activity after hours either is deterioration of muscles, such as the gluteus maximus muscles that define our backsides. Reader No. 2 complains of a "flat look," one that would indicate muscle atrophy.

But just because you spend a good deal of your time at a desk doesn't mean you're destined to become fat and flabby, experts say. It does, however, mean that you're going to have to make an effort to get in shape during your free time to help counteract the effects of those sedentary days.

That means burning calories through walking, jogging, biking, aerobics or other physical activity to help maintain weight and keep yourself in good cardiovascular health. And you'll need to strength train to keep muscles in shape. "It's use it or lose it," says Michael Bracko, an exercise and occupational physiologist at the Occupational Performance Institute in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and a spokesperson for the American College of Sports Medicine.

So for Reader No. 2, the issue isn't so much your sitting as your lack of physical conditioning. "Sitting down will not specifically cause your butt to be flat," Bracko says. The prescription: work out the glutes with exercises like the elliptical trainer and the leg press machine.

As for Reader No. 1, Bracko says contracting the stomach muscles and glutes (three sets of 10 repetitions each) can help firm those areas, but these exercises will not help you lose fat in those regions. For that, you'll need to burn calories.

It all adds up
Keep in mind that all exercise adds up. Health and fitness experts now say that people can get their government-recommended half hour of physical activity a day in short spurts. So if you have an extra 10 to 20 minutes at lunch, consider taking a brisk walk outside. Even brief bouts of activity, such as opting for the stairs instead of the elevator or walking a memo to a colleague down the hall instead of e-mailing it, help.

Little exercise breaks during the day are also important in preventing common work-related pains, such as back aches, Bracko emphasizes.

"Prolonged sitting is a risk factor for herniated disks," he says. Taking short exercise and stretch breaks alleviates pressure on the disks and nourishes them, in addition to getting muscles throughout the body moving, he notes.

Aim to sit no longer than 50 minutes at a time, Bracko recommends. Then take a few minutes to get up and get your body moving through a short walk or activities like side bends and arm or ankle circles. Stretching is a good idea because muscles get short and tight (particularly those of the neck, wrist, back, hip, shoulders, chest and the hamstrings) when we sit hunched over at our desks for long periods. Consider doing some of these exercises before work too, as a warm-up.

Weary typists can also do various stretches of the neck, fingers and arms while at their desks (see graphic).

"We want to avoid people engaging in binge computing," says Benjamin Amick, an associate professor of behavioral sciences and epidemiology at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston.

Of course, good work-station ergonomics also are important, says Amick, whose research has shown that correct ergonomics, including a properly adjusted chair, can help workers stay healthy and productive. If you have an ergonomics specialist on site, it's a good idea to set up a consultation to ensure you're not at high risk for repetitive stress injuries.

One note of caution for people who have aches and pains at work: your strength-training regimen may be worsening the problem, notes Bracko. For instance, if the muscles of your chest and front of your shoulders are tight from being hunched over at work, strengthening them too much without stretching them and also strengthening the back can spell more trouble. Aim for a well-rounded workout that takes into account any symptoms you're having on the job. A good personal trainer or physical therapist can offer guidance.

Q:  I frequently experience mood swings when I’m exercising regularly. I’ll feel mildly euphoric immediately after exercise, but unusually anxious or even depressed the next day. Are such mood swings a recognized side effect of regular exercise? Is there something I can do to prevent them?

A: No, mood swings are not considered a normal response to exercise, says Jennifer Davis, a health psychology counselor at the Duke University Health and Fitness Center in Durham, N.C.

Actually, research shows that regular physical activity, three to five times per week, can help people feel better all around -- both physically and emotionally.

"Exercise can be a great stress-releaser when done in healthy amounts," Davis says. "We know that exercise can improve mood and can lift symptoms of depression and anxiety." Some researchers believe, for instance, that physical activity may prompt the brain to release mood-enhancing chemicals known as endorphins.

The cause of your symptoms is not clear from the information you provided. Some people have underlying depressive or anxiety disorders that temporarily improve after exercise. Others have exercise addiction -- a compulsive desire to exercise, even multiple times a day -- and may feel depressed or anxious when they aren't exercising.

A mental health professional can determine the reason for your symptoms, and get you the appropriate help.