How to exercise at the office

Paula Pienaar explains the benefits of exercise for diabetic patients, and shares five easy workouts to do at the office.

An abundance of research has shown that a regular dose of physical activity reaps significant benefits to individuals with high blood glucose levels1. In pre-diabetics, moderate intensity activity has shown to delay the onset of diabetes and may even restore higher blood sugar levels back to the healthy range.

In diabetic patients, regular physical activity has shown to improve blood sugar control, reduce the number of cardiovascular risk factors (high blood pressure, high cholesterol, excess body fat) and use of chronic medication2,3.  Evidently, being a physically active diabetic patient may lower your risk of heart disease by 29% and risk of mortality by 40% compared to those who are inactive4. However, for all these benefits to be effective, exercise must be undertaken regularly.

Benefits of regular physical activity in diabetic patients:

  • Improved blood sugar control.
  • Increased fitness.
  • Improved blood pressure.
  • Improved lipid profile (cholesterol and triglyceride levels).
  • Reduced abdominal and body fat levels.
  • Maintenance of weight loss.
  • Improved mobility in overweight and obese diabetic patients.
  • Decreased stress and anxiety, and an improvement in overall well-being.

Physical activity recommendations for diabetic patients:

Type of activity How long and how often? How hard? Examples Tips

[rhythmic, repetitive and continuous movement of the same large muscle groups for at least 10 minutes at a time]

Accumulated 150 minutes per week or 30 minutes on most days of the week. Moderate intensity: this means working up a light sweat but still being able to maintain a conversation. If you are a ‘numbers person’, aim for 50% – 70% of your maximum heart rate (MHR).
  • Brisk walking
  • Dancing
  • Cycling
  • Swimming
  • Gardening and housework that raises your heart rate.
MHR = 220 – (your age)

Example: The MHR of a 40-year-old is 180 beats per minute (220 minus 40 years) and 50% to 70% MHR = 90 to 126 beats per minute.

Strength/resistance training

[activities of brief duration involving the use of weights, weight machines or resistance bands to increase muscle strength and endurance]

Two to three times a week consisting of 2 to 3 sets of 10 – 15 repetitions (reps)
  • Start with one set using a weight which you can perform 15-20 reps while maintaining proper form.
  • Progress to two sets and decrease the number of reps to 10-15 while increasing the weight slightly.
  • Use of free weights (dumbbells).
  • Use of your own body weight (no equipment).
  • Use of a resistance band.
See the office-based exercises for some inspiration.

IMPORTANT: first get clearance from your medical doctor before starting with an exercise plan. A biokineticist is ideal to design a personalized exercise programme to suit your needs, personal goals and lifestyle.

Exercise at the workplace

Meeting the guidelines may seem like a challenge, but you can incorporate simple, yet effective exercises throughout the day – all you need is your own body weight.

For cardiovascular exercise, you could set aside three sessions of 10 minutes, or two of 15 minutes to go out for a brisk walk or light jog – grab a colleague if you must, the more the merrier! In addition to the physical benefits you gain, studies have shown that active breaks from the office may also help improve mental performance and work productivity. Meeting the strength training guideline can be accomplished by incorporating the exercises below.

5 easy exercises you can do in your office

Perform 2 to 3 sets of 10 to 15 repetitions

Exercise Instructions Adjusting intensity

You can lower the amount of repetitions or sets. But can also try the following:

Chair squats

  • Using a steady chair, start from a seated position and extend or cross your arms in front of you.
  • Exhale as you lift yourself slowly, hovering for 2-3 seconds, then stand all the way up.
  • Sit back down slowly and repeat.
  • Too easy? Bring your arms to your chest, or hold books or a file to add resistance to the move.
  • Too hard? Increase the height of your sitting surface.
Calf raises

An easy exercise for when you’re waiting for the printer, the kettle or the microwave!

  • Stand up straight, feet shoulder width apart.
  • Keeping your knees straight, rise onto your toes, hold for 2 seconds and lower your heels to the ground and repeat.
  • Too easy? Try the exercise on one leg, or using the stairs, stand with your heels off the step to do the calf raises.
Desk push-ups 
  • Take a large step away from your desk, feet and hands shoulder width apart.
  • Bend your elbows as you move your chest toward the desk.
  • Hold for 2 seconds and return to starting position.
  • Keep your back straight and abdominals drawn in throughout the movement.
  • Adjust your arm width to make it easier or more difficult.
  • Too hard? Start by using the wall instead of the desk.
Chair dips


  • Bring your hands to the front edge of a steady chair with the hands shoulder-width apart and finger tips extended over the edge of the seat.
  • Relax your shoulders and neck, and bend your knees to a 90 degree angle.
  • While inhaling, bend your elbows bringing your buttocks towards the floor.
  • Your back should stay straight and feet hip-width apart, in line with your hips.
  • Exhale slowly as you straighten your arms to return to starting position.
  • Too easy? Move your feet further away from you.
  • The spacing between your feet and your buttocks can help you adjust the amount of weight you are putting on your arms.
Chair abs: knee pull-ups

  • Place your hands at your side, on the edge of a steady chair and keep your elbows straight
  • Grip the chair holding firmly
  • While gripping, inhale, and slowly exhale as you bring your knees up toward your chest
  • Hold for 5 seconds
  • Inhale again, and exhale as you lower back to starting position with a slow and controlled motion (± 10 seconds)
  • To make it a bit harder, perform the movement at a slower pace, making sure you maintain the breathing rate and keeping your abdominals tight.

Take note: Individuals who wish to begin resistance exercises should receive initial instruction and periodic supervision by a qualified exercise specialist like a biokineticist where possible, to maximise benefits while minimising risk of injury. Do not hold your breath during exercises – follow the guidelines in the description.


  1. Colberg, Sheri R., et al. “Physical activity/exercise and diabetes: a position statement of the American Diabetes Association.” Diabetes Care 39.11 (2016): 2065-2079.Hu G, Jousilahti P, Barengo NC, et al. Physical activity, cardiovascular risk factors, and mortality among Finnish adults with diabetes. Diabetes Care. 2005; 28:799-805.
  2. Gill, Jason MR, and Dalia Malkova. “Physical activity, fitness and cardiovascular disease risk in adults: interactions with insulin resistance and obesity.” Clinical science 110.4 (2006): 409-425.
  3. Way, Kimberley L., et al. “The effect of regular exercise on insulin sensitivity in type 2 diabetes mellitus: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” Diabetes & metabolism journal 40.4 (2016): 253-271.
  4. Kodama, Satoru, et al. “Association between physical activity and risk of all-cause mortality and cardiovascular disease in patients with diabetes.” Diabetes care 36.2 (2013): 471-479.


MEET OUR EXPERT - Paula R. Pienaar

Paula R. Pienaar
Paula R. Pienaar (BSc (Med)(Hons) Exercise Science (Biokinetics)), MSc (Med) Exercise Science) is the scientific advisor to EOH Workplace Health and Wellness, and a PhD candidate at the University of Cape Town. Her scientific research relates to sleep health and managing daytime fatigue to improve workplace productivity and lower the risk of chronic disease. Her thesis will identify the link between sleep and cardiometabolic diseases (Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease) in South African employees. She aims to design a tailored sleep and fatigue management workplace health intervention to improve employee health risk profiles and enhance work productivity. Contact her at [email protected]