Sitting Down All Day? – Well it Just Might Be Killing You!

First and foremost, those of you sitting at a computer as part of your work life, tick that box: that’s one. Do you drive a car? That’s two. DO you ride on public transport as part of your daily work grind? That’s three, unless you are unlucky enough to ride the Melbourne train system at peak hours, in which case you are probably standing up in cramped conditions. (Not such a bad thing after all) Do you watch TV? That’s three.

The newspaper clipping my client sent me came from Melbourne’s “The Age” (12/7/2009) and was written by Gary Tippet on this exact topic. It stated that Professor Neville Owen, of Behavior Health at University of Queensland claims that too much sitting is associated with a unique sedentary physiology. According to his study, cells in the muscles start putting out signals and chemicals into the blood that cascade up through a series of changes to things like unhealthy triglyceride patterns, too much glucose. He also claims that long periods of sitting are also a likely factor in heart disease and breast and bowel cancers.

As a species, the Homosapien has been around for approximately 2 million years. “Lucy” one of the first primate fossils discovered that had the pelvic and femur joint of a “bipedal” (up on two legs) species was dated as being approximately 4 million years old.

Paul Chek a world renowned Holistic Lifestyle Exercise Practitioner describes seven primal movement patterns for the human species. These include, squat, lunge, push, pull, bend, twist and gait (walk, jog, and run). You’ll note that sitting down was not one of those patterns and this is because our physical make up was never designed to sit down.

Archaeology tells us that the first time our species ever sat in chairs was only 14,000 years ago, when ancient Aztec’s had the highest people (their rulers) sit on thrones. So when you think about it, in terms of evolution, 14,000 years is only a very small period of time and so, we have yet to fully evolve into a “sitting” species, but we are getting there.

Over the past 100 years, our lifestyle evolved so much though that we can almost perform an entire day’s activities in the seated position. That’s a total of our entire waking life, sitting down.

This causes all sorts of problems because as we haven’t yet evolved to cope with all this sitting.

Lets have a quick anatomy lesson to see how sitting all day affects your posture. Even sitting in a perfectly designed ergonomic chair, it is physically impossible to maintain perfect posture for your entire seated work day. Sitting down invokes what is known in the fitness industry as the “Double Flexed” Position. Flexed at the hip and flexed at the knee.

Flexion is simply an anatomical term used to describe when the angle at a joint is decreased. When we stand upright our hip and knee joint are at 180 degrees. When we sit down, both of these joints are held at 90 degrees, they are both reduced and therefore they are flexed.

An issue with maintaining this constant state of flexion is that the muscles that cross over these two joints on the shortened side of the angle become short and tight, often causing a muscular imbalance within the body, thus affecting posture. Correspondingly, on the other side of the joint, there are balancing muscles that will become longer than normal and therefore weaker as a result. Remember muscles are similar in properties to rubber bands, if it’s stretched, it’s weaker. These muscles that shorten include the hip flexors, superficial abdominals, quads and hamstrings. The muscles that become longer and weaker can include the Glutes (that’s your backside) and lower back.

So, sitting all day can shorten and tighten some major muscles and stretch and weaken others. That’s one major downside to sitting all day.

What else is detrimentally wrong with sitting? (Posture related that is) For those of you who spend the majority of your time behind a computer as part of your working life, then there are other postural issues, that I’m about to describe. Spending all day in front of a computer screen causes your shoulders to roll forward towards the screen. This causes your chest muscles to become short and tight. On the opposite side, muscles including your rhomboids and middle trapezius become stretched and weak. This rounded shoulder position can decrease your ability to take deeper breaths than normal thus requiring you to breathe more often.

Also, staring at a computer screen all day can lead to your eye sight fatiguing leading to people often squint to see the words on the screen. A by product of this is that people will move their head closer to the screen to re-focus and this can lead to what we call forward head carriage, or poke neck.

(This is a syndrome, when your chin arrives in the room 5 mins before the rest of you) Next time you are out and about, see if you can spot someone with this affliction and look at the position of their head in relation to their shoulders. So what you ask? Well if you think about it, your head is attached to your body via your neck. In fact 8% of your body weight is contained in your head. Here’s an experiment for you when you are next in the gym. Take an 8kg medicine ball and hold it in the palm of your hand directly overhead.

Now without bending your arm, move the medicine ball 5 degrees forward of your head line. How much heavier did the medicine ball just become? Like all postural imbalances, muscles on the front of your neck become short and tight and conversely, muscles on the back of your neck become long or stretched and weak. This particular condition, if left undiagnosed and untreated can lead to severe postural issues further down your spine because your head is considered the most important part of your body and so in order to compensate for any deviations from normal, your body will make adjustments down the spine to compensate for your heads position, however, this is the topic of another article. That’s another major downside to sitting all day.

I’ve left the most obvious downside to sitting all day to last and that is, sitting all day reduces your calorie expenditure and is probably the leading cause of obesity today. When you move less (i.e. sit all day) but don’t adjust your calorie intake downwards, you gain body fat. Compound this simple equation (calories in more than calories out equals body fat gain) by eating more refined sugars and more saturated fat and your weight gain propensity explodes uncontrollably upward. I don’t have the time to detail the downsides of obesity. There’s ample information out there outlining all of the major causes of death today are related to obesity.

So, what have we learned so far?

1. Sitting all day creates postural imbalances that can lead to decreased range of movement (motion) with various muscles

2. This can lead to a decreased ability to perform our primal movement patterns of squat, lunge pull, push, bend, twist and gait

3. Leading to a reduction in every day functioning.

4. It also can lead to a reduction in calorie expenditure, increasing the chances of gaining body fat.

So, are we all doomed? I don’t believe we are. I’ve got some very simple strategies to help you minimise the effects of sitting all day, that A; won’t deviate your daily activity from what it is today, meaning they should be reasonably easy to implement and maintain without too much trouble, B; they won’t cost the earth and C; are time efficient for today’s time poor person. SO, here they are:

1. If you drive to work, park 5 minutes away from your workplace and spend the extra 5 minutes walking to the office. As you become used to this walk, you can choose to park further away until such time as time constraint prevents you from parking too far away.

2. If you catch public transport, try and avoid sitting all the way. Stand up 5 minutes earlier than your proposed stop, again enabling you to stretch. Better still, get off one stop early and walk the extra distance.

3. When using escalators, don’t stand still. Even though they are moving up or down, continue to walk on them. If you find your path obstructed by someone standing still, politely say “excuse me please” and you’ll find they will step aside and allow you to pass. This applies to travelators at airports. By all means use them but continue to walk while on them, that way you continue to move.

4. Once you get to work, sitting down can’t be helped, because you have a work station, but the length of time spent sitting can be broken down into more manageable bite sized chunks. Where’s your printer located? Is it in your office? Can your default printer be changed to another one on the floor further away from you? If so, change your default printer forcing you up out of your chair so that you have to get up and walk.

5. Where is the water fountain? Is there more than one on your floor? If so, refill your water bottle from one furthest away.

6. Likewise for toilets. Do you have a choice? Can you use the one further away from you? If you drink your required amount of water per day, (that’s the topic of an article on its own) you should be forced to go to the toilet a few times a day, thus creating the need to get up out of your chair.

7. Why do board meetings, staff meetings and other formalized gatherings at the workplace have to be conducted sitting down? Why can’t they be done standing up? This will encourage them to be more productive and kept to shorter time frame, thus minimizing the time spent “in meetings”.

8. If you work in a building with multiple floors, avoid using the lifts. Some may find this difficult, so my suggestion here is to get off a floor short of your destination and walk one floor up or down. Then as you become used to this, slowly increase the distance you walk.

9. Once you’re home at night time and want to sit down to watch TV, don’t sit on the couch, grab yourself a pillow, lie on the floor and do some relaxing stretches. It’s a fantastic way to unwind after a long day at the office and you’ll slowly wind down.

10. When sitting down for dinner, enjoy this family time. Turn off the TV, put away books and newspapers and spend some quality time with the family. Talk about the day’s activities; who did what etc and re-bond with your family.

So, all is not lost. Implement what I’ve shown you here and you can certainly make a difference to your “incidental moving” equation and this will lead you down the path to a healthier and longer life.

An important point to remember though is that simply moving more is not enough on its own. You’ll need to introduce some form of exercise routine, perhaps make some nutritional adjustments, reduce your stress levels, perhaps improved your sleep patterns all of which I can help you with.

For more information on what I’ve covered here, please don’t hesitate to contact me. So until next time,