In today’s fast paced world, a typical day is ironically spent seated. We sleep for eight hours or so, then get up and drive to work, park as closely as possible to the door only to find ourselves back in our chairs hunched over a computer for the rest of the day until it’s time to get back into our cars, drive back home, sit down to have dinner, and flop onto the couch to unwind. I wish I was exaggerating but unfortunately, this is the daily pattern for most people.
As a result of what I call the sitting disease, so many people experience unexplained aches and pains in their necks, backs, and elsewhere in their bodies. The human body was not designed to sit for extended periods of time and for most of us, we sit far more than we stand or engage in activity. I understand that we can’t quit our jobs, but we can be more mindful of our postures with the following tips and stretches.
Why is Sitting So Bad?
Being seated causes the normal S-curve in your spine to become C-shaped, and for extended periods of time places tremendous stress on your lower back and pelvic region, especially if you’re not seated properly.
Do you remember the children’s song that goes “the hip bone’s connected to the back bone, the back bone’s connected to the neck bone”, and so on? Well, imagine the body as a linked chain tied together with ligaments, tendons and muscles. Whatever affects your feet will in one way or another affect your head and vice versa.
As a result of too much sitting, the muscles of the hip flexors (front of the hips) adapt to this flexed position and will cause your pelvis to tilt forward, giving you a more pronounced arch in your lower back and a protruding belly. The linked chain reaction causes the muscles of your stomach, hamstrings (back of thighs), and buttocks to become lengthened and weakened. The resulting pressure on the lower spine can eventually cause dysfunction and injury, such as sciatica, herniated discs, or muscle spasms.
Similarly, spending so much time at the computers causes people to have what is called the “rounded shoulders-forward head” syndrome. As a result of spending so much time hunched over computers, desks, steering wheels, and even nursing or holding our babies, the muscles in the chest and the base of the neck become overworked and tight. Meanwhile, the opposite effect takes place in the muscles of the upper back and shoulders, which places a lot of stress on the spine and causes the oh-so-common upper back and neck pains.
Correcting Faulty Postures
It is important to note that slow and consistent correction is the key to postural modification. Any abrupt attempt at making your posture more ideal is bound to cause pain and discomfort. Think of how sore your muscles feel after trying a new activity or exercise. Years of faulty sitting, standing or lying, will first require awareness of the problem, followed by daily corrections repeated over weeks, months or even years. Faulty posture is a bad habit that takes time to unlearn and retrain.
Here are some helpful tips to get you started:
Set a Reminder
Are you slouched? Sit up! Have you been seated for too long? Stand up! One easy way to limit the amount of time you spend seated or slouched forward is to set an alarm to remind you to get up every now and again. You can set it to beep every half hour and use that reminder to change positions or stand up and grab some water, or even do some light hip flexor and neck stretches.
You can even place two tennis balls on each side of the spine between your back and the chair as a reminder to keep your back pressed against the backrest.
If you’re the visual type, then a printed image such as my title picture above can be placed above your computer screen to remind you of your posture.
Angle Your Chair
It is ideal to sit on a chair with a reclined backrest that makes an angle of 110 to 120 degrees with the hip and trunk. This creates less tension on the lower back by decreasing the flexion at the hip flexors.
If your backrest does not recline, you can create the same effect by tilting the bottom of your chair forward so that your knees are below the height of your hips. Most car seats have this capability. In my experience, this simple tip has helped relieve those with sciatica problems, including my own pains during pregnancy.
Use a Stability Ball
If you work in a less formal and more open-minded environment, trade in your chair for a stability ball every now and again. It might look silly, but sitting on a ball requires the muscles of your core to work and keeps your back upright. Just keep in mind however that it should not be used all day because it can also cause muscle fatigue if used for extend periods of time.
Support, Stretch & Strengthen
Ergonomics like the distance of your keyboard, the height of your desk and the type of chair that you sit on can all affect your posture. Make sure that your lower back is well supported by using a soft pillow between your lower back and chair.
Stretching out the tight muscles of the hip flexors and doing chin tucks to strengthen the weakened muscles of the neck are two simple and effective exercises that can help regain muscular balance.
The Bottom Line
We live in a world where sitting for extended periods of time is unavoidable. Being aware of how much time you sit and making a conscious effort to correct your posture and limit the amount of time spent seated can help your health on the long run. You’ll be amazed at how these small changes can do wonders over time!
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