Sitting has always been part of the human experience but never to the extent it is now. The allure of technology has swept us off our feet and into a semi-permanent right angle or sitting position, usually staring into a blinking, or is it winking, monitor. We’ve been enamored for so long it seems most of us have little choice but to spend an inordinate amount of our lives in this position. I estimate people who work on their feet or live an active lifestyle, are in this position 60% of their 24 hour day. Whereas, most of us spend over 90% shaped this way. We are in this position when we eat, when we eliminate what we eat, when we sleep (fetal position), when we drive, when we work, when we worship (usually), when we meditate, when we learn in class (usually), when we read, when we write, when we watch TV, when we play or socialize on the computer, when we drink a hot beverage at coffee shop or when we go to a movie. Sitting’s effect on our social interaction and on our physical functionality is both, often overlooked and undeniable.
Sitting is so integral in our lives that we have customs, social and behavioral cues, nuanced language and slang having to do with it. For example, it is hospitable and courteous to offer someone to “have a seat, or “please, sit down,” to make them feel welcome and at ease. Not accepting the seat is either rude or calls for an explanation which may still make the host or any guests, uncomfortable. Unfortunately, I’ve felt the glare of loved ones toward my upright frame on many a social occasion. I’m tall and have a penchant for standing. In circumstances such as this, “sit down” becomes a reprimand. “Sit up” is also a criticism, this of your posture, (or your laziness-as is “sitting around”) and quite an accurate one, which I’ll discuss later.
“Sitting,” as in baby or house, implies trust in the sitter as a safeguard. But “sitting” is also a disrespectful reference to a person in authority who is seen as an obstacle, as in “sitting President” or “sitting Chairman.” If said authority is respected the “sitting” isn’t there. Whereas, “sitting on” also suggests a powerful position, as in “sitting on the throne.” Although around my house when I was growing up, it meant my father was on the toilet. While “sit in,” could either be a type of protest, maybe against that aforementioned authority figure, or a reference to a replacement person. “Sit on it” could mean “delay it,” or it could be a retro slang term of disdain uttered by a “Happy Days” fan.
We openly both love and disrespect sitting. And although that position is right for squares, rectangles, 3 o’clock, 9 o’clock, intersections and many other things, its wrong for our bodies, if done for prolonged periods. It’s so bent that there are stores dedicated to relieving symptoms caused by it. There are also many branches of health care which treat these symptoms: Massage Therapists, Physical Therapists, Doctors of Chiropractic, Orthopedists, Osteopaths and Phyisatrists. And, as a Personal Trainer, I come across the effects of prolonged sitting with most of my clients and even with myself.
But sitting is generally relaxing and easy, so why does it cause problems? We are bipeds, two footed animals, meant to be upright, not sitting, most of the time. When we sit there is a chain reaction which causes some muscles to relax, too much, while others are overused to stabilize where the relaxed muscles should be helping. As our body adapts to make sitting more comfortable, it takes away from our ability to function efficiently while standing. Below is the chain reaction from the legs up:
The back of our legs (Hamstrings) are continually flexed, and thus, shorten and get tight. They pull on our sarcum causing it to tuck which compresses our lower spine. Our hip flexors (Iliopsoas) shorten with the continual hip bend (flexion), inhibiting hip extension and buttocks engagement. Our gluteus maximus lengthens and becomes a minimus. Our low back muscles (Erector Spinae), which are fighting the rounding effects of tight hamstrings, have to work too hard to stabilize the spine because our butt is “sitting out” its partial duty of support when we bend our hip. Our low back is also left orphaned from our now disengaged stomach muscles (abdominals). With all this extra load, and being put into a rounded position for prolonged periods, which goes against its natural concave arch (lumbar loardosis), our lower back becomes highly vulnerable to injury.
The more we sit the more our bodies adapt to sitting and eventually…standing could be a challenge! OK, breathe. I’m not going to tell you to stop sitting? Or, are you secretly hoping I tell you to stop? It would be silly, as most of our lives require times for sitting, even mine as a personal trainer. But I do highly recommend some corrective strategies if you want to retain, or regain, your bipedal body’s full functional abilities.
First is to make sure you’re sitting to properly support yourself. The arch in your low back must be maintained. If it is, it will cause you to sit up straight and take some pressure off your low back, off your discs and off your supporting ligaments. If your supporting ligaments are weakened a displaced disc can put pressure on your sciatic nerve and cause pain in your buttocks and down your leg. Let me tell you from experience, you don’t want that!
If sitting up straight with your back arched all day seems daunting, you could look into getting a lumbar pad or roll, to give you support and position your spine correctly. Or, try an ergonomic chair with the kneeling posture. The kneeling chair keeps the spine aligned by lowering the angle of the lower body. This is especially important when working at a computer where you might lean forward. And don’t worry about your knees with this kind of chair, most of your weight will be on your buttocks and some on your shins. You can get these chairs for under $100.
Sitting correctly will limit the severity of the compensations acquired due to prolonged sitting, but it will not eliminate them. We are going to sit, and for long periods, so we all need to find ways to straighten our legs and extend our hips regularly throughout the day. And while doing that, stretch and strengthen those muscles which have become imbalanced. Here are a few ideas:
* Be aware of your POSTURE throughout the day. Try to keep your head above your shoulders which are back and down. Your chest is up, your stomach is gently pulled in and you have a natural arch in your low back. Your hips are over your knees which are over your ankles. You feel you are standing tall. Postural awareness will alert you to any slouching or leaning or rounding you may revert into while sitting.
* STAND UP and WALK around every 30 minutes.
* Stand up and LEAN BACK or extend your back as far as possible, every hour. Keep your knees straight, your feet shoulder width apart and support your upper hip/lower back with your hands. Hold for a second or two and straighten up. Repeat ten times.
* CHAIR SQUATS every hour or two. Stand with your back to your chair as if you are about to sit down. Feet shoulder width apart, slowly lower yourself into the chair without the help of your arms or hands. By slow, I mean take 4 seconds. You’ll want to sit far enough back so your knees don’t extend past your toes on the way down. The slow descent into the chair will help reintroduce your glutes to perform one of their major functions, to decelerate us when we bend (flex) our hip. When you stand back up, go at a normal speed, again, without the aid of your upper limbs. Putting an emphasis on your heels will help employ your glutes.
* FLOOR BRIDGES (another gluteus maximus strengthener and abdominal enlister) daily. Lie flat on the floor, knees bent, feet flat on the floor, draw your stomach in to engage your core stabilizers, which protect your low back, and slowly, in 4 seconds, extend your hips up toward the ceiling to a neutral spine position. Focus on feeling low abs and glutes. Hold for 2 seconds. Slowly descend toward the floor in 2 seconds. When you touch down you’ll immediately extend back up slowly and repeat. You may have to adjust your feet to feel your abs and glutes working. When you can do 15 of these, you can progress this exercise by using one leg at a time and holding longer at the top.
For the STRETCHES below, it’s best to do them after a warm up, possibly after a walk or the chair squats. Rather than offering passive stretches, I am recommending stretches which may challenge your balance, thus, requiring stabilization. If done correctly, these stretches will help your body recruit the proper muscle at the right time.
* Standing HIP FLEXOR (PSOAS) STRETCH, daily. Feet shoulder width apart, good posture (head over shoulders, shoulders back and down, chest up), extend one leg behind you as far as possible. Keep your heel on the floor and rotate the back foot inward. It should be pointing to your front foot. Draw your abs in, round your low back (posteriorally rotate your pelvis) and tighten your butt. Hold for 30 seconds. This will stretch those shortened hip flexors.
* THE TRACK STRETCH is another stretch you can do while on your feet-daily. Place your feet shoulder width apart, heel to toe alignment (one foot out in front), front leg is the stretch leg. Bend down and put your hands on the floor, parallel with the toes on your front foot. Now draw your stomach in and straighten your legs until you feel a good stretch in the back of your legs. Hold this for 30 seconds. This will lengthen your shortened hamstrings.
* LYING LEG EXTENSION is an alternative hamstring stretch, if the track stretch seems difficult-daily. You can lie on the floor, one leg straight ahead, the other leg straight up with a bent knee. Squeeze your thigh (quadriceps) and straighten your leg. Hold up to 30 seconds. If you can’t hold it that long, stop and start up to:30.
* LOW BACK (ERECTOR SPINAE) STRETCH-daily and only if you have no back pain. Sit on the floor with your left leg straight. Cross your right leg over and place your foot to the outside of the left knee. Put your left elbow on the outside of your right knee and rotate your chest to the right. Hold for 30 seconds.
* PLANKS (ISOMETRIC ABDOMINAL HOLDS) instead of crunches to strengthen your abdominals and your lower back, daily. Lie face down and place your elbows under your shoulders, resting on your elbows. Draw in your stomach and lift your torso so its parallel to the floor, your toes on the floor (a pushup-like position but on your forearms). Keep your chin tucked. Breathe and hold for as long as possible. Then repeat.
* LOVE HANDLE HOLDS (ISOMETRIC OBLIQUE HOLDS), EXERCISE-daily. This is similar to the Plank, but targets the sides of your waist and is done on your side on one forearm. Sit on the floor. Lean to the side and hold your torso up on your elbow which should be directly under your shoulder. Draw your stomach in, tuck your chin and straighten your legs, creating a long triangle. Either, rest one foot on top of the other or straddle your feet. Hold as long as possible. Then repeat for both sides. You’ll feel the floor side oblique muscle working as you keep your hip up to maintain the triangle. If this is too hard you can rest on your knee and build up to full leg extension.
* TRUNK ROTATIONS, EXERCISE-daily. Standing with feet shoulder width apart and arms extended out to the side, draw in your stomach and slowly rotate your torso back and forth. You can advance is exercise by adding weight to hold in your hands while rotating. This will also work your entire core.
If your lower back is in pain you should consult a doctor. But if you just have stiffness try these stretches:
* THE SYPHNIX – (PRONATED EXTENSION) is an alternative low back STRETCH, daily, but can be done if you have back pain (but consult your physician first) – Lie face down on the floor, arms to your side, and completely relax for 1 to 2 minutes. Then place your elbows under your shoulders, resting on your elbows. After several deep breaths, let your low back, hips and legs relax and feel like they are sinking into the floor. Stay in this position for 2 to 3 minutes. This stretch will help decompress your spine. You may feel tightness after performing this, if you had tightness when you started. But in a day or two your low back tightness should dissipate.
You can advance this stretch into HYPEREXTENSION by straightening your elbows and pushing your upper body up while keeping your pelvis, hips and legs completely relaxed. At the top of the position, breath deep and exhale allowing your low back to sag. Hold for 1 to 5 seconds and repeat 10 times. Try to push up further with each repetition.
And finally, SLEEP with your back arched rather than rolling into a ball, if you sleep in the fetal position. Try to straighten your legs to lengthen those hamstrings. But don’t kick your partner.
Sitting isn’t so bad. Robert Benchley, an American humorist, 1889-1945, said, “I do most of my work sitting down; that’s where I shine.” And the last wish for Bette Davis was “to be buried sitting up.” Just be careful about ignoring the effects sitting has on your life. But don’t fret either. Any physical imbalances you may have acquired can be corrected and don’t have to be taken “sitting down.”