Don’t Just Sit There!
Consider the modern-day cubicle dweller: slouching forward in her swivel chair, she zones out in front of a computer while cradling a phone between her shoulder and ear. Her left hand holds a venti latte, her right purposefully pushes a mouse. She’ll remain like this. All. Day. Long.
This image of the corporate working stiff is problematic on many levels, but it’s the improper posture and sustained sitting – unavoidable in many professions -- that may be most hazardous.
The Science of Sitting
In recent years, the medical industry has conducted numerous studies on the hazards of prolonged sitting. The most recent data comes from the largest ongoing analysis of healthy aging in the Southern Hemisphere, the Sax Institute’s 45 and Up Study. In it, more than 200,000 participants were questioned about the amount of time they spend sitting per day. Researchers found a surprising 40 percent increase in the risk of dying in the next three years for those who sat for 11 hours or more a day, compared with those who sat for less than four hours. Even controlling for factors like physical activity, weight, and health status, the troubling correlation between prolonged sitting and decreased longevity persists.
But can sitting really be a cause of death? The results of the Sax study echo a 2009 report published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. Researchers tracked the sitting habits of more than 7,000 people over 12 years and found that the risk of mortality – especially due to cardiovascular disease – increased proportionally with the number of hours participants spent on their derierres. Not surprisingly, a 2010 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that prolonged sitting has a negative effect on metabolic functions, which in turn increases the risk of obesity and type II diabetes. These findings boil down to a sobering conclusion: sitting all day, every day, is ravaging our bodies.
Sitting for prolonged periods of time without standing, walking or stretching shortens key stabilizing muscles in the spine such as the psoas, iliacus, and abdominal muscles,” explains Dr. Heather Galan, a Hawaii-based chiropractor who specializes in an innovative practice called Active Release Technique (ART). “Also, slouching while sitting overstretches the muscles and ligaments in and around our spine that hold our spine upright.”
Based in a thorough understanding of the soft tissue system, ART is a form of movement-based massage that treats conditions associated with the overuse of muscles and nerves including headaches, back pain, and carpal tunnel syndrome. By using one of over 500 moves specific to ART, a practitioner can evaluate muscle texture and movement and tailor sessions to patients’ specific needs.
The combination of overstretching and shortening the muscles puts excess strain on the vertebral discs, the spine’s natural shock absorbers. And when the spine is out of whack, everything else in the body is negatively impacted.
Get Out and Get Moving
Simply moving our bodies, even for short spurts of moderate activity, can not only improve physical well-being but also increase productivity and focus. Researchers from the University of Stockholm studied the difference between workers who took 2.5 hours out of their workweek and devoted it to physical activity and those who didn’t. The study, published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, found that those who exercised accomplished the same amout of work in a shorter time period. Whether it’s taking a few short laps around the office or standing up and stretching, Galan suggests that repositioning every half-hour can make a world of difference.
Stand Up for Your Health
Sitting may not be going out of style, but innovative techniques may mitigate its side effects. For example, the ART practiced by Galan integrates precise motions from the practitioner with specific patient movements, a combination effective in alleviating the neck, lower back, and hip issues associated with prolonged sitting. “ART requires the patient be active during treatment,” explains Galan.
Technology could solve the sitting quandary. From electronically adjustable platforms to attachments that put regular desks at eye level, the latest advances in standing desks offer eco-friendly to aesthetically pleasing options while providing an alignment-enhancing alternative to the sit, slouch, and swivel chair. In a move straight from science fiction, researchers are working on a monitor with a built-in camera that follows the pupils to determine if the body is positioned ergonomically. With technological advances, self-awareness and physical activity, cubicle-dwellers don’t have to take sitting-related aches and pains sitting down anymore.
Perfecting Your Posture
Making small adjustments to your posture and your work space can make a big difference.
Get comfortable: To find the correct ergonomic position, says Galan, close your eyes and nod your head up and down. Upon opening your eyes, wherever your gaze is directed is where your screen should be. (This can often be a problem with laptops; Galan suggests propping the computer on a few books to put it at eye level and investing in an external keyboard.)
Drink up: The disks between the vertebrae are made mostly of water, so stay hydrated to keep them “spongy” – and to counteract the dehydrating effects of caffeine.
Seek stability: Use a pillow to support the lower back, experiment with an adjustable-height desk or a stability ball. Be sure the ball is the correct height, says Galan, or it won’t put you in the correct ergonomic position.
Slow down to stand up: Stand in slow motion and notice where weight bearing and strain occur. Simple awareness is key.
Get moving: Galan recommends repositioning every 20-30 minutes, even if it’s just standing up and stretching at your desk.