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Neck, shoulders, arms and legs: Our top tips for stretching while sitting

Sitting for any length of time during the day can be considered a risk factor for the development or aggravation of a musculoskeletal disorder (MSD). Workers should be able to follow best practice advice by introducing lots of movement into their routine on a regular basis and avoiding prolonged sitting. However even while seated, there are still numerous ways to stretch and exercise.

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Long periods spent seated can be harmful to worker’s health and sedentary work has been linked not only to MSDs ranging from lower back ache and pain through to neck and shoulder complaints, but also to the development of other health issues including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer and even premature death.

With the rise of computer-based work, the number of workers who predominantly sit while working is increasing. 28% of workers report sitting at work almost all the time and 60% of workplaces report sitting as a risk factor for their staff. However, it is not just computer-based office workers who are at risk; supermarket cashiers, factory workers in assembly lines, drivers, people who work in call centres, those who already have a chronic MSD and people who generally lack control over the way that they work are also susceptible to suffering health issues as a result of their sitting. In terms of demographics, it has also been found that female workers are more likely to sit at work and are therefore more at risk.

Get stretching!

Whatever the job role or the type of worker, it’s always possible to integrate movement into a sedentary working routine. The general rule is to take a micro-break (2-3 minutes) from sitting every 20-30 minutes. Our bodies are designed for movement, so it’s important to keep in mind that the next posture is the best posture. Don’t sit rigidly in one position, but use a selection of different dynamic postures on rotation in order to ensure variation in poses and reduce the stress on the musculoskeletal system.

It’s also possible to perform small stretching exercises while seated so that even if the worker’s job involves long periods of driving or sitting, they can still keep moving. Most office workers can perform these stretches at their desk, however if the worker is responsible for driving or operating machinery or assembly lines, then they should wait for a safe opportunity (for example by pulling over to the side of the road) before conducting each stretch. These exercises include the following:

  • Get the blood pumping in your arms! Lift them above your head and move your hands around in small circles – first in a clockwise direction, then anti-clockwise.
  • Grab a full water bottle or a heavy stapler and steadily raise and lower it to keep your biceps limber.
  • Next, concentrate on the muscles in your shoulders. Lift your shoulders up (or “shrug” them) and gently roll them backwards and forwards a few times.
  • Clasp your hands behind your chair and stretch the shoulders backward.
  • It’s also important to ensure that you stretch your neck. Place your chin on your chest and gently roll your head to the left and to the right.
  • Lean back in the chair and push your upper arms back onto the chair to stretch the chest and shoulders.
  • Stretch your hip flexors by pointing one knee at the floor and pushing the hips forward.
  • Rock your pelvis back and forth and shift your weight – sometimes to the left, sometimes to the right!
  • Make sure you stretch the muscles in your legs too. Every 20-30 minutes, slightly raise your thighs and put them back down again.
  • Don’t forget to concentrate on your feet. Roll your ankles, and point and flex your feet.
  • Finally, utilise the muscles around your lungs by breathing in and out deeply on a regular basis.

Despite what we were all taught at school, sitting still is not good! Be sure to keep moving in a variety of postures to prevent MSDs and keep other health issues at bay. It’s also a good idea to combine this with breaks, within which you can stand up, move, and walk around.

How employers can encourage workers to move when sitting

Employers have the responsibility of creating an environment in which workers are not put at risk while doing their job, and have the freedom to change postures while working. Employers should cultivate a culture of healthy ergonomics in which workers are able to prioritise their musculoskeletal health. This can be achieved by providing comfortable, ergonomic furniture, which facilitates and encourages dynamic seated positions, as well as ensuring that employees have both the time and space to take regular stretching or moving intervals in order to break up long periods of sitting. Strategically positioning common items such as printers, water coolers or coffee machines can easily encourage workers to stop sitting and stretch their legs.

Employers can also improve results and support staff by implementing a participatory approach, in which workers are invited to discuss challenges or obstacles and contribute solutions. By taking a participatory approach, workers – who are often the most familiar with the risks involved with the job – can consult on how to introduce more movement into the working day.


Whatever the job role, there’s always an opportunity to introduce more movement into the daily routine and therefore lower the risk of MSDs or other health issues. Workers should aim to take microbreaks every 20-30 minutes and avoid sitting for more than 2 hours at a time. But even when sitting is absolutely necessary, it’s still possible to exercise and stretch. For more tips on moving while seated, read ‘Up and Down – Up and Down by EU-OSHA’s German focal point. You can also visit the priority area dedicated to sedentary work, and follow the campaign on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.