By now you’ve likely heard about the sitting problem right?
“Sitting is the new smoking”, “Sitting causes cancer”, etc…
It seems to be all over the news these days and rightly so…it’s a pretty serious situation we are dealing with and we are in desperate need of practical and effective solutions.
I first started to become aware of this problem early in my career as a physical therapist. My first job was at a spine clinic and every day I treated people with bulging discs, herniated discs, sciatica and so on. These people were in tremendous pain and often would take heavy doses of pain relievers, pay for expensive doctors visits and in many cases end up with multiple surgeries. It was difficult at times to see the negative impact pain can have on ones life.
As I sat with them and took their history I started to notice something they all had in common. After we discussed where they were experiencing pain, how long they had it, what makes it better and worse….I would always ask them what type of position their body was in throughout the day.
9 times out of 10 the answer they came back with was….
It didn’t take long for me to shift my focus on bringing more awareness to my patients about how they can overcome their sitting problem and, in doing so, we started to notice amazing results. Their pain would go away, they would restore their posture and return to normal levels of function with improved movement patterns.
I also started to notice that if we fixed the sitting problem, we not only fixed the back pain, but we also fixed the shoulder pain, the neck pain, the hip pain, and all kinds of pain. Where before my patients were only treating symptoms and getting little to no relief…we were able to get to the root of the issue and make drastic changes.
This realization got me very interested in sitting. I also couldn’t help but notice all the alarming headlines about sitting and what it was doing to our bodies (besides the acute and chronic pain I was witnessing in my patients). Studies are now confirming that chronic sitting (6-8 hours a day for the average person) is associated with increased risk of heart disease, cancer, obesity, and diabetes. It’s also been shown to decrease the production of an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase, which helps to burn fat. Too much sitting has also been shown to decrease bone mineral density, which raises the risk of fracture.
Not only that, we are now being told by behavioral psychologists that our body position can have significant impact on our hormones and emotions, both of which suffer in negative ways once we mold ourselves into hunched over positions that chronic sitting conforms us to.
So the sitting problem runs deep indeed and I’ve since seen an opportunity to share what I’ve learned along my journey to help, educate and inspire others to overcome this issue and lead healthier, more vibrant lives.
10 Simple Tips You Can Do To Deal With Your Sitting Problem
- 1. Choose a better position: This is primary! When my patients would sit on the therapy table and discuss their pain with me they NEVER had a proper sitting position. They would consistently slump with a hunched back, a forward neck and rounded shoulders. Likewise, if I saw them standing they would typically lean more to one side, shift one hip out and compromise positioning of their pelvis and lumbar spine.
When you are sitting at your desk position your chair such that the hips are slightly above your knees. This encourages a more neutral position of the pelvis and lumbar spine and will help you avoid slouching.
Make sure your feet are flat on the floor and not up on your toes with your knees overly bent.
Elongate your spine and be tall. You can either sit up straight or lean back but maintain a fairly neutral spine. If you do choose to lean back get your hips all the way back in the chair and then lean back. Leaning back with your hips in the middle or the front of the chair will cause you to have a poor spine position.
If possible… place the top of the monitor at eye level. You want to avoid looking up or down for long periods of time, as this will eventually lead to neck pain.
The shoulders should be relaxed and positioned on the rib cage, the wrists should be in neutral and not flexed or extended. Carpal tunnel is not fun!
Bonus: If you are standing (as in a standing desk) make sure you are standing with equal distribution of weight throughout your feet. Both feet should be pointed forward and not toed out or with one in front of the other.
“Center yourself” by leaning forward towards your toes and then leaning back towards your heels. Can you find the balance point?
Now lean to the left and then lean to the right? Can you find the balance point here? Good you’re off to a great start!
Now work up the body by becoming aware of your knees. They should NOT be locked out, but rather slightly soft. But, not so soft that they bend if that makes sense.
Squeeze your glutes and stomach to about a 20% contraction. Don’t squeeze so hard that you can’t breathe though! This sets the pelvis in a neutral position and provides support the spine.
Just like in sitting, make sure the shoulders are back and down sitting on the rib cage and not forward.
Whew… and we’re only on 1:)
- 2. Stay aware of that position: So we’ve discussed the proper positions to sit and stand but that’s only half of it. It’s incredibly important to stay AWARE of your body position throughout the day, as it’s so easy to get distracted with the work your doing. Check in with yourself frequently and ask yourself if this is a good or bad position you are in. This helps create inner body awareness which leads to you becoming more self-actualized…I promise. FEEL EVERYTHING! Be at least as interested in the internal as you are with the external.
- 3. Consider adding “health and well-being” to what you value in your workspace: This past year I read some amazing books. One of which was “Thrive” by Arianna Huffington. In it she describes how as a culture we value money and power above all else in our places of work and business. She then goes on to encourage a broadening of those values to include wisdom, well-being and wonder, which she calls “the third metric.”
I found this incredibly inspiring and it really motivated me to do more by helping others bring well-being in the workspace.
We’ve been working SO HARD to get somewhere and make more money only for it to come at a cost to our health. We eventually get unhappy and unfulfilled and this leads to more pain and suffering. This type of approach to work is an old paradigm that clearly isn’t doing us any favors.
If we can make our places of work more conducive to health and well-being it would radically change our human experience and lead to more creative and productive work that could change the world. I truly believe in that.
Also…look at how some of the most successful companies such as Google and Apple have incorporated more open and playful environments. It’s no surprise that they are two of the most successful companies in the world.
What type of changes can you make to your workspace to allow for health and well-being?
- 4. Surround your workspace with real whole food and drink lots of water: This should go without saying and every time I mention this to people I get a “yeah, yeah, yeah, I eat well.” However…I’ve given many talks to companies and I’m always amazed at the amount of processed and refined foods I see in the workplace. As I walk around I’m consistently seeing candy, sodas, and vending machines with no REAL food or water in sight.
These processed and refined foods that we’ve been eating are setting off inflammation in our bodies and causing us to have blood sugar issues which leads to hypertension, obesity, diabetes and our most common diseases such as heart disease and cancer.
Not only that…behind every physical pain you experience there is some form of inflammation that is contributing to the issue whether that be back pain, neck pain, or any other pain.
Do whatever it takes! Make it a priority… prep your food at home, seek out a quality restaurant, and have a plan.
Eat whole, REAL food as nature intended for you and avoid the fake and processed stuff that is most definitely contributing to the pains you experience… I can assure you of this – I’ve consistently witnessed my patients pain decrease when they begin to eat less sugar, toxic fats and liquid carbohydrates and moved to a whole food way of eating.
NOTE: I know this has nothing to do with your chair or exercises but I can’t give you tips on your sitting problem without mentioning this. When you sit for 6-8 hours a day and surround yourself with poor nutrition you are adding fuel to the fire.
Be better. Be more awesome. You deserve it.
- 5. Look away from your computer… preferably outside: When we are always looking up close to our brightly lit monitors, smart phones and iPads it can do some funky things to our eyesight…particularly our ability to see at a distance. It’s kind of like a muscle where if you don’t use it, you lose it. Take a break every now and then, walk over to a window and look out in the distance as far as you can. Try to really focus in on what you’re seeing out there and keep looking for 30 seconds or so. This will help maintain the muscles in your eyes that help you look far and avoid early contacts and glasses. This is a simple and highly effective solution to eye problems that stem from technology.
- 6. Get up and move every 30-45 minutes for a period of 2-4 minutes: Ok, so now we are getting into the nuts and bolts of the sitting problem. When my wife Brenda (also a Doctor of Physical Therapy) and I were doing research on sitting we noticed a couple of significant obstacles that needed to be addressed.
One of those issues was that of STAGNATION meaning we just aren’t moving enough. When you think about it we’re designed to be moving throughout the day like our ancestors did but we don’t do that any more. In fact, the more advanced we get as a society the less we tend to move.
This has severe negative consequences to our physiology! Think of how water is in nature and consider a flowing body of water such as a stream or river vs. a stagnant pond. Which would you rather drink from? It’s a pretty simple answer right? Of course you would drink from moving water as opposed to the stagnant water because you intuitively know that stagnant water sets the stage for harmful bacteria and parasites.
Well…the same thing happens in our body. When we sit and don’t move for long periods of time (like we do in the modern world) we set the stage in our body for all the chronic diseases I mentioned earlier like obesity, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and so on.
We are made to move! So let me give you a little “get out of jail free pass” with regards to these chronic diseases.
While you are working, if you get up and move for a period of 2-4 minutes every 30-45 minutes you will DRASTICALLY reduce your risk of being victim to these diseases due to stagnation.
The research kept pointing to this magic 2 minute window of movement, which could offset the negative effects of chronic sitting.
Just keep moving during that time! You can walk, do jumping jacks, skip, dance, whatever…. just keep moving.
Now if you want to take things to the next level move on to tip #7.
- 7. Move in specific and intentional directions: The second obstacle to the sitting problem is that of ADAPTATION. When people hear the word adaption they typically think of it as a good thing–like when you go to the gym, lift weights and your muscles get bigger and your bones get denser. But adaptation is not always a good thing…for instance if you go into outer space for 3 months you’ll come back more adapted to the space environment. Your muscles and bones will have weakened.
In other words your body is in a constant state of change and that change will be based on the stress it’s receiving from the environment.
When you chronically sit, day after day, month after month, year after year–like you’ve probably been doing since grade school – you’re body adapts to that sitting posture.
With this adaption process certain muscles are going to get tight and certain muscles are going to get lengthened or weak. For instance the pectoral muscles, the upper trapezius, and hip flexors will get very tight because they are consistently in a shortened position. While the gluteals, abdominals and muscles that retract the scapula will get weak.
These adaptations lead to musculoskeletal imbalances, which not only set us up for pain, they also jack up our posture, create poor movement patterns and eventually lead to loss of function. We’ve seen A LOT of people having to use walkers in their 50s and 60s with frequent falls as a consequence of losing function due to these imbalances coming from sitting.
Muscles that are shortened and tight will need mobility. Muscles that are weak and elongated will need stability. To put these terms in a simpler frame of understanding think of mobility as stretching and stability as strengthening. There is a whole lot more to it than that, but lets keep things simple for now.
Likewise, if we look at the joints of the body we can see that certain areas need more mobility than others and certain areas need more stability than others.
Here are the primary needs with major joints:
- Ankle (mobility)
- Knee (stability)
- Hips (mobility)
- Lumbar spine (stability)
- Thoracic spine (mobility)
- Scapula/shoulder blades (stability)
- Glenohumeral joint/shoulder (mobility)
This is incredibly important to know because if gives you a framework to create more effective exercise prescriptions for people WHILE they are in the workspace.
In other words…during those 2-4 minutes we can move in more specific and intentional directions and in doing so not only we prevent stagnation but we also can prevent adaption.
- 8. Watch this video and get a theraband. This video talks about fixing the thoracic spine and when you fix the thoracic spine it makes everything else much easier to fix. Watch and see:
- 9. Start doing “workspace workouts”
Here is a video that will show you and example:
- 10. Get the Sitting Solution: I know, I know…I’m a little biased here, but it’s only because I believe we’ve created something amazing that can radically improve your life. You can find out more about it here but just to give you some ideas it has over 70 of the most effective corrective exercises with over 25 workspace workouts. We then took those workouts and created 5 different daily routines, which can meet the needs of every possible workspace scenario…i.e. those who work in a cubicle, those who have room to use the wall or floor, those who work from home, as well as a routine for the traveler who is forced to sit for long periods.
We also show you creative ways to use therabands, trigger point balls, foam rolls and kettlebells in the workspace. It’s got a lot of great content but it also comes with instructional videos and demos.
I hope you found these tips helpful and that they improve your life. Until next time – keep moving and keep doing awesome things!