As coronavirus has caused people to stay home, one result is that many of us are sitting a lot more than usual. Given everything that’s going on in the world, it may seem like a small concern. But in the long term, sitting is also hazardous to your health!
One of the greatest achievements that humans made early on was getting up onto two feet. The musculoskeletal system had to adapt significantly to enable this transition, including changes to the spine, toes, leg bones, pelvis, and surrounding muscles, ligaments, and tendons. And anyone who’s watched a baby learning to walk can see that maintaining balance on two feet doesn’t come easily! But in our current modern, high-tech era this incredible achievement – the ability to move efficiently and comfortably over long distances on two feet- has been slowly undermined by the relentless trend of sitting. People sit more now than they ever did – an average of 12+ hours a day. And despite amazing advances in shoe and insole support technology, people are experiencing as many if not more injuries and discomfort when standing, walking and running than ever before. This is not a coincidence.
Consider the typical desk job. When sitting at a desk, the core muscles, quads, and glutes are not engaged and begin to lose their strength and firing power. In addition to the loss of strength is a loss of flexibility, particularly in the hip flexors which play a significant role in running and walking. Hip flexors get short and tight when sitting, which can lead to injury when running. People hunch forward toward their computer screen, with serious consequences for shoulders and neck. And, sitting with crossed legs can increase the risk of a lower extremity blood clot.
Sitting while driving has additional disadvantages. People tend to slump at the wheel, putting intense pressure on the lower back. They may sit asymmetrically due to using the right foot for braking/accelerating while the left foot is idle and usually resting out of alignment with the knee. And driving in traffic or dealing with difficult road conditions can create mental stress too.
In addition to muscular and skeletal issues, the cardiovascular system suffers as well, with reduced circulation and weakening of the heart muscle. And, for most people, a sedentary lifestyle results in unwanted weight gain, as the metabolism slows down from lack of stimulation. Even working out an hour every day can’t offset the cumulative effects of sitting for 10-12 hours day after day, year after year. And ironically, many people’s ability to exercise is undermined by their increased rate of injury due to the strength and flexibility losses from sitting – a kind of catch-22.
So what can you do to make sitting less terrible?
A standing desk is a good start, and some workplaces have begun to offer them as an option. If you don’t have a standing desk, or if you’re working from home, get up at least once an hour or so and walk around. Pay attention to your posture. Stand tall with your shoulders relaxed and open. Take deep gentle breaths as you’re walking. Focus on keeping every part of your kinetic chain in alignment, from your hips to your knees, to your ankles and feet – all should be pointing forward.
Even when you’re sitting, you can work on your posture. Sit tall, again consciously keeping the shoulders relaxed and open with your core muscles engaged. You can also work on your foot strength and flexibility. Try writing the letters of the alphabet with your feet, circling your ankle muscles, or flexing your toes up towards your knees and holding that stretch for 10 to 15 seconds.
When driving, check in on your posture every half hour or so. Make sure that you’re sitting with your shoulders aligned evenly, not slouching to the left or to the right. Try to make sure that your knees and toes are pointed forward instead of out to the side. And your left foot, that’s not involved in the driving, can do the same strengthening and stretching exercises described above. Sit tall, and breathe deep – you may find it even helps reduce the stress of driving.
Sitting sucks. So come on people – Rise Up!
Author: Susan Mix