Counteract The Effects of Sitting
We have forever been evolving as an active species designed for dynamic movement. As technology expands, more and more of our daily activities are being replaced by the click of a button or even automated. The problem lies in the fact that these tasks were the very exercise that kept humans mobile, flexible, strong, healthy, happy, and generally in shape since the dawn of time. Never in history has there been a more stagnant time for human beings. Here, in an age where you can do everything from food shopping to catching up with an old friend from high school without so much as standing up from your chair… We have to ask ourselves: “What are we doing to our bodies?”
The patterns of tension created by sitting all day can have crippling repercussions down the line. You should be aware of the effects that sitting has on your body and take the proper precautionary steps to prevent injuries, improve range of motion, reduce pain, and overall maintain a comfortable quality of life. Let’s go over what’s going on while we sit and some of the most frequent trouble spots I see with my patients. We will start from the bottom and work our way up, like the tension does.
Legs and Hips:
Pressure on the underside of the thighs from a seat combined with the lack of movement can result in insufficient blood flow to the legs causing swelling, blood pooling, and numbness in the feet and legs. The reduced blood supply to the muscles also accelerates fatigue. The seated position shortens and tightens Hamstrings, Quadriceps, Tensor Fascia Lata (TFL), Glutes and Psoas. These muscles are huge role-players in our pelvic tilt and can make or break our low back. In an effort to ultimately face the world head on, we unconsciously translate these imbalances from our hips, up our spines, and into our necks.
The low back suffers from limited mobility, localized tension, and steady compression on vertebral discs contributing to premature disk degeneration. Reduction in body movement makes muscles stiff and more likely to pull, cramp, or strain when stretched abruptly (i.e. bending over quickly to pick up even the smallest of items). Sitting weakens our Erectors, Intertransversarii, and other muscles that support our spine.
We lose a lot of rotation in our movements by stabilizing our sacrum to the chair and we compensate for it in the Thoracic spine. It is the side to side twisting and reaching forward actions, required from sitting at a desk, that creates a lot of the tension that I see at the lower insertion of the Trapezius and the Latissimus Dorsi, wreaking havoc on our mid backs.
To accommodate the requirements of working directly in front of us, our shoulders rotate up and cause a slouch and shortening/tightening of the Pecs, Serratus Anterior, and Teres. The shoulder girdle has numerous nerve and blood supply routes which, under these conditions, are prone to impingements causing numbness, tingling, wrist pain, elbow pain, or poor circulation to the hands and fingers.
Neck and Head:
As we rigidly stabilize our heads to stare at the computer screen, we tend to extend our chins out shortening the muscles in the back of our neck, such as the Occipitals (the tiny stableizing muscles of the skull), Scalenes, and Levator Scapulae, and tightening the Sternocleidomastoid at the same time. Excessive tension in the muscles of our neck and head can result in tension headaches and/or TMJ
The good news is that there are several, simple practices you can adopt to counteract these effects.
- Doing a light work out first thing in the morning for your upper back will be like a cup of coffee for your Rhomboids and the surrounding area. Even only a couple minutes without weights will get the blood flowing and remind your muscles that they have a job to do before you head off to sit at the computer.
- While sitting at your desk think circles: neck circles, arm circles, wrist circles, ankle circles, and small circles with your spine-starting at the base and working all the way up to your head trying to segregating each vertebrae. These exercises will help maintain the range of motion you have, and help prevent further stiffening. It’s always a good idea to get up from the desk and walk around every hour or so. Getting in a good stretch would be ideal.
- Some of my patients keep different types of chairs in their office. Kneeling chairs, yoga ball chairs, and regular office chairs. Changing positions every now and then will break those old habits of tension.
- Yoga has so many great benefits. Whether you do it at home, with a group , or take private classes, yoga will open you up and bring your mind back into your body. A greater sense of self-awareness is our greatest defense against injuries. A class during your lunch break would be a great way to balance the work day.
- I am a huge proponent of stretching regularly. It is the easiest preventative measure we can take to protect ourselves from so much discomfort. Just 5-10 minutes morning, noon, and night will make you feel lighter, more limber and aid in a speedy recovery if you do pull something.
- Massage is extremely effective for all of the ailments listed above. Opening range of motion, lengthening and relaxing muscles, eliminating trigger points, increasing circulation, relieving tension headaches, and a greater sense of well being, massage may be the answer to this “evolutionary dilemma”.