There are three main problems with sitting:
- We remain immobile for too long.
- We compress our discs.
- We crane our necks forwards to look at the screen.
WHAT REALLY HAPPENS WHEN WE SIT FOR TOO LONG?
Your muscles do not actually shorten
There’s a popular notion that sitting causes shortening of muscle tissue and this pulls on your lumbar spine. The idea that sitting causes your hip flexors to truly shorten, to lose extensibility — is widespread. This is not wrong in itself. For instance, a good quality 2012 study found that high heels cause adapative shortening of the calf musculature by 13%.
However, even when muscles do shorten, it doesn’t necessarily mean much. That calf muscle shortening I mentioned above was found by the authors to have no measurable effect on ankle function.
What actually happens is that immobilizing a joint for a long time can lead to contracture of connective tissue which is painful but this can be relieved by mobilizing the particular muscle.
In one study, researchers kept the soleus muscle (in back of the leg) of a rat completely immobilized in a cast for 10 days. Every two days the cast was removed and the muscle was stretched for fifteen minutes. This was enough to preserve tissue length.
In another study, just half an hour of stretch a day preserved range of motion and muscle length in a muscle that was immobilized in a shortened position for the rest of the day.
These studies suggest that sitting in a chair almost all day every day would not cause loss of tissue length, provided you get up to move every once in a while.
A lot of sitting is almost certainly problematic … but probably not because of shortening of muscles.
Do I Need To Stretch?
It is not necessary to stretch – any movement is sufficient to prevent the tissue contraction described above. What you really need is repeated, rhythmic elongation and contraction of muscle tissue, i.e. mobilization.
Stand and stretch your arms over your head. Stretch one then the other arm up towards the ceiling in a rhythmic way, whilst making sure you don’t over extend your spine. You can also stand on tip toes a few times.
That’s the perfect thing, but you need to do more of it. Do these ten times in a row a few times a day is mobilizing, and effective preventative health care. This elongation of the spine helps to relieve the pressure on the discs and allows the neck to resume its neutral position.
Should I get an expensive chair?
The importance of extremely comfy and ergonomically dazzling chairs is generally exaggerated. There is simply no such thing as a perfect chair: your body isn’t comfortable with any position for hours at a time. The problem isn’t necessarily the position that your body is in, but the lack of motion and variety of stimulation.
A comfortable, supportive chair is good but it still does not take away from the fact that you need to take microbreaks to mobilize your spine in order to avoid stiffness and back and neck pain.
The best chair is two or three quite different chairs used in rotation, including or used in conjunction with sitting on a fitness ball.
But I Get Up Regularly To Go To The Photocopier – That’s Surely Enough?
Yes and no. Any kind of getting up is so much better than being glued to your seat that I am always reluctant to criticise it. It really is better than nothing. But it really isn’t enough, either.
The key point that usually gets overlooked is that walking around the office does not actually give your back muscles all that much to do. Photocopying isn’t really a big musculoskeletal challenge. Going the bathroom isn’t exercise.
How Much Mobilizing Is Enough?
Actually, it doesn’t take all that much. An adequate antidote for an hour of sitting is approximately five minutes of mobilizing – although you are better off getting up every twenty minutes, particularly when you have back or neck pain to start with.
It’s not hard to counteract the effects of an hour of sitting with a few well-chosen exercises. If you make a point of flexing and using the muscles that are most needful, it really doesn’t take much to undo the damage.
What Are The Worst Office Offences and Solutions?
In my experience, the worst ergonomics offences are: no micro-breaks, too high or low monitors, slumping in your chair with bad posture – there are variations on this (see left!) and holding the phone to your ear.
- Always get on your feet for at least one minute in twenty, even if you don’t do any exercises, even if you just stand at your keyboard.
- Never look up or down at your monitor.
- Never talk with a phone pinched between your head and shoulder- creates headaches and neck cricks.
Am I Better Off Standing?
Standing to work has been gaining popularity as an answer to the perils of sitting. For instance, according to business blog, several Japanese companies have got rid of desks in their offices! Everyone stands to do their office work.
Standing is not without problems though and unless you are in a neutral position, standing for too long will give you muscle and joint aches too.
It is more tiring, it has been said to increase the risks of carotid atherosclerosis because of the additional load on the circulatory system, and it also increases the risks of varicose veins, so standing all day is unhealthy. The performance of many fine motor skills also is less good when people stand rather than sit.
The conclusion to various studies into the benefits of standing over sitting to work was that it is better to mainly sit to work but get up and mobilise regularly:
The answer is to build movement variety into the normal workday.
Above all, take the risk seriously. True health and fitness are simply not compatible with sitting all day. Take these simple preventative measures in order to reduce back pain, stiffness, headaches and neck pain from developing – you are a long time at work and you need to be pain free to concentrate effectively.
A few minutes every hour will help your productivity so thinking you can’t make time may result in less effective work being done!