Live Dangerously: Sit

Sitting is risky business. It’s no newsflash that sedentary behavior is unhealthy, but as a posture, sitting is detrimental in ways many people don’t consider. We think of sitting as a relaxing pose and it certainly doesn’t require much energy expenditure. But prolonged sitting is not natural for human beings whose evolutionary claim to fame is the upright position and flowing symphony of movement known as walking. Only in recent times are people more likely to sit for long periods while working, traveling and playing. This aberrant behavior is fatiguing and stressful.  The neck, shoulders, and back are the prime victims.

Imagine wrapping your fist in an ace bandage then leaving it that way for eight hours. When your hand was freed, it would struggle to open like a claw from the “Living Dead”. This is the equivalent to what our bodies experience from prolonged sitting. Muscles, mostly in the front of the body, shorten from being held in a cramped position.   The opposing muscles on the back of the body are overstretched and have difficulty contracting. Together they create a muscle imbalance that increases the chance of injury.   Over extended periods of time, permanent postural deformity is possible.

Much of our time sitting is staring at a screen, with shoulders rounded and head forward.   With good alignment, the ear is centered over the shoulder in profile. Every inch forward from this position adds ten extra pounds the neck muscles must balance. As we slump, the chest muscles shorten, internal organs are compressed, and the upper back muscles elongate. When the brain signals the upper back muscle to work, they fail to contract like a stretched-out rubber band. The smaller less capable muscles of the shoulder and neck take on more than their fair load. And so the scenario for shoulder and neck problems is set.   Notice how often you are wearing your shoulders like earrings. This may indicate under active upper back muscles and over active neck and shoulder muscles.

Sitting is also brutal to the back. The back muscles are stretched, which weakens them. The front hip muscles are tight, which pulls the pelvis out of alignment. The butt muscles are compressed and flattened, which makes them develop amnesia. Yes, the muscles of the butt actually forget how to work. Dr. Stuart McGill first used this rather humorous phrase “gluteal amnesia” when referring to patients with low back pain.   If your buttock is not working, you may have trouble climbing stairs, standing up and sitting down from a chair, or maintaining good vertical posture. The gluteal muscles of the butt play a major role in holding the trunk of the body upright. This is why Homo Sapiens have more prominently developed buttocks then other primates.

Sitting isn’t just disastrous for the derriere, but also dreadful for the discs. A study from the University of Ulm showed that there is more intervertebral disc pressure when sitting than standing or lying. Slouching further increases the squeeze on the front of the discs and bulge out the back, like pinching a jelly donut. The bulge can easily press against nearby nerves sending radiating pain down a leg or out an arm.

The obvious solution to all this sitting is to get off your butt. If your job requires that you sit, you must look for opportunities to insert more upright activity into your day. Here are some helpful hints:

At work:

  • Get up and walk around every hour. Set your watch as a reminder.
  • Change positions frequently. Watch out for sitting habits such as crossing your legs or sitting with a foot tucked under your bottom. These positions are only for short periods of time.
  • Lean back. Scottish researchers found that an incline of 135 degrees was the most biomechanically favorable position for the spine.   Take your Laz-Y-Boy recliner to work!
  • Drink plenty of water (then you have to get up more frequently.)
  • Sit on a stability ball for short periods of time as a way to “mix-it-up”. Avoid overdoing it. Slumping on the ball is worse than slumping in a chair. The ball exaggerates the curvature of the spine as you fatigue.
  • Stand whenever possible, like when talking on the phone.
  • Perform mini stretches throughout the day.
  • Wear a pedometer and see if you can increase the amount of steps you take daily. Walking 10,000 steps a day is a popular recommendation for weight loss.

Watching TV:

  • Get up every commercial and walk around (don’t walk to the kitchen for another snack).
  • Best of all, exercise while watching TV. Get a stationary piece of equipment like a treadmill or elliptical. Get up and do squats, lunges or push-ups.
  • Perform stretches. This is especially good at the end of the day, when energy is low.

While working out:

  • Choose cardiovascular activities that are upright. Limit biking or spin classes as these are done in a seated position.
  • When weight training, include standing exercises. Usually these exercises are done with free weights or cable machines. Minimize seated weight exercises.
  • Perform exercises standing on one leg, such as a side leg lift. Not only are these good for balance, but they are a good way to activate the butt muscles.
  • Put a girdle on every morning to protect your back. A girdle of muscles that is, to brace and protect your back. I give all my clients who are at risk for back injuries, a morning core routine, called the “Essential Eight”. It’s a series of eight exercises that take less than 10 minutes to perform, yet do wonders for preventing back pain and enhancing pain free movement.

Paula Skinner is an award winning Personal Trainer and Group Fitness Instructor with over 30 years experience.

Paula Skinner, CPT