“Sitting Disease” – The Hard Truth and How To Combat its Negative Effects

By October 29, 2014Training Tips

Today’s content comes from an in-depth conversation I had with some close family and friends last weekend about how tough it is to sit all day at work. Upon researching the topic – and as you’ll see below – things look pretty bleak. But keep reading because I provide some tips on how to manage your time better and beat the daunted “sitting disease”.

Believe me, I know I’m lucky to get to walk around in sweats all day listening to music but I wasn’t aware just how common the seated workspace really is. I have also noticed that since starting the website, I have been feeling some ill effects of extended periods of sitting. Lots of people sit for prolonged periods of their day, which seems to be where the real problem lies. Whether that is commuting to and from work or their children’s events, actually being at work or just “relaxing” at home. Our lives have become predominantly comprised of sitting on our butts.

When you think of the things that our first ancestors did on a daily basis, not much of it involved sitting. They were constantly moving and active, only stopping to eat when they absolutely had to. We have an incredibly intricate and intuitive set of bones, joints and muscles that were not meant to be dormant all day. WE created sitting and this entire culture of sitting. Therefore, we also created “sitting disease”.

Our bodies are literally built to move.

The scariest part about extended periods of sitting is that we may not be able to fix it with regular physical activity. “…recent epidemiologic evidence suggests that sitting time has deleterious cardiovascular and metabolic effects that are independent of whether adults meet physical activity guidelines.” (2). Translated, you can run your ass off on a treadmill after work, but if you’re logging 40 hours a week in an office chair, you may need to do even more to alleviate the problem.

Other problems that will most likely crop up for office workers include:

Weight gain, or difficulty losing weight

Not only are there legitimate cardiovascular and metabolic concerns associated with prolonged sitting, the way your body burns calories is a very fluid thing. As I’ve said before, the body adapts to its surroundings very quickly. This is a part of our DNA so we can cope with changing environments and survive. So, when we sit for long periods consistently, the body will adapt by burning less calories. Why? It doesn’t need to burn those calories because it’s not expending any energy (other than vital processes).

Musculoskeletal symptoms, with subjects reporting the head/neck, lower back, upper back, wrists, ankles and knees as the most prevalent (1,3)

“Sites of symptoms, in order of prevalence, were head/neck (42%), low back (34%), upper back (28%), wrists/hands (20%), shoulders (16%)… Musculoskeletal symptoms are common among office workers with a high proportion experiencing symptoms in the spine.” (3).

Overall feeling of lethargy and lack of energy for evening activities (like a post-work workout)

A junior hockey coach of mine used to have a great saying. “You need to burn energy to have energy, laziness breeds laziness.” I’m not saying that people who sit at work are lazy, but the point is the same nonetheless. The less you do, the less you will want to do.

Increased risk of cancer

A recent study published by the National Cancer Institute concluded that each 2-hour increase in daily sitting time can increase risk of several types of cancer by as much as 10%! They also state that sitting has harmful health consequences, even for those who exercise regularly (4).

**That’s two pretty major studies reporting the same thing, and I didn’t even have to look that hard to find this stuff…

However, don’t let me get you down in the dumps if you work in an office. I’m not here to tell you you’re doomed and need to change career paths. There are certainly solutions to every problem, including what I will outline below. But the above findings show us just how seriously we should be treating this issue on both a personal and societal level.

How can we fix the problem?

The most important thing to understand is that you may not have control of the amount of sitting you need to do in your daily life. If your job entails sitting at a desk for long periods of time, your boss probably won’t be happy with you not being at said desk to complete your work. If you live in a rural area or a big city and have kids involved in sports or extra-curricular activities, you may be commuting for over an hour just to get to a practice, game or recital on a regular basis. And, if you’re like most people and spend time running around after work like crazy, you end up getting home and just wanting to drop onto the couch and “relax”.

In Dr. Kelly Starrett’s (K-Star’s) book, Becoming a Supple Leopard (which I’ve referenced before and will reference again), he states “ … you can’t avoid sitting. It’s an unfortunate construct of modern society.” (5)

Because sitting is inevitable, let’s look at sitting posture. If we can at least get that cleaned up, we can hopefully save you from some of the musculoskeletal issues outlined above. Below are two examples of how most of us end up after spending some serious time at the desk or on the couch.

Note:

– Forward head posture

– Globally flexed spine

– Weight distributed on lumbar spine and sacrum

– Flexed hips

Note:

– Forward head posture

– Internally rotated shoulders

– Flexed thoracic (upper) spine

– Flexed Hips

You will notice that, although both photos display a different scenario (at home vs. at the office), different sitting implements (couch vs. seemingly ergonomic chair) and different overall positions, the notes I made are actually quite similar. Look at any person who has been sitting for an extended period of time (myself included at the moment), and you will notice something that loosely resembles the photos above.

“Sitting – like standing – is one of the most technically challenging things we do.” (5).

I implore you to take a look at my article, Set it Up!, where I reference K-Star’s bracing sequence. Once you learn the bracing sequence and acquire the basic tools you learn from that article, you will have the tools to transfer that philosophy to your sitting posture.

As you can see above, K-Star is sitting in several different positions with a neutral spinal and neck position. So try this at your workstation. How far is your screen from your line of vision? Can you reach all your necessary tools and stay in a neutral posture? Maybe your employer is willing to help or maybe you need to get creative and help yourself (a $40 laptop stand is a lot cheaper than weekly physiotherapy appointments).

But here’s the problem, in order to keep this position, we need to be able to hold about 20% tension in our abdominals for long periods of time. It doesn’t matter how strong you are, you need muscle endurance to maintain this position. So most of the time, even with the best intentions, we have completely collapsed into a broken position after about five minutes. Why? It’s more comfortable and it doesn’t require any work.

“The best way to avoid defaulting into a bad position is to stand up and get reorganized every ten to fifteen minutes… Another helpful strategy is to change your position as often as possible… You can kneel in front of the computer to open your hips while answering emails, go for a walk while talking on the phone, or even stretch while sitting at your desk.” (5).

Get up and move

As I said, a lot of your sitting time may be absolutely necessary. However, you can control what you do away from that necessary sitting time. Stand or slowly walk while watching your child practice or play sports (this may also help calm the nerves) and try to get out of that chair and move around as often as you can at work. We all know that standing up every 10-15 minutes could be a tough one to slide by co-workers and the boss, so try and make a point of doing it every hour. Take the long way to the bathroom or staff room or stand while you’re on break or reading paper documents. Read K-Star’s quote above and try some of those techniques. You’ll probably have to get creative, but the key is to limit sitting time.

When you’re at home, do your best to limit “couch” time as most couches and recliners are built for comfort and not for health. If you’re going to sit, grab a more solid chair from the dining room or kitchen.

Reverse the Trends

If you haven’t read up to this point, or if you’ve just skimmed, let me catch you up to speed.

SITTING SUCKS.

In order to alleviate the issues caused by sitting, we should, in a perfect world, be standing every 10 to 15 minutes. The best reason for this is to re-organize your positioning.

So let’s change the way we think about it. Even though sitting may be necessary for your life, think of it like an offence that needs to be penalized. For every ___ minutes of sitting, you need to mobilize for ___ minutes.

Below are three “bang-for-your-buck stretches that are pretty easy to do right at the office.

1. Proposal Hip Flexor Stretch

Ensure a neutral spine by keeping the ribcage down. Squeeze the glute to push that hip forward.

– Progression: Couch Hip Flexor Stretch
Note the same technique, but the quad is now stretched at the knee and the hip… nasty. Courtesy of Becoming a Supple Leopard.

2. Door Frame Pec Stretch

Again important to ensure neutral spine. Puff the chest out. You can do one arm or both at the same time.

– Progression: Band Assisted Back Pack Stretch
Make sure the bar is secured. Lean forward slightly and step forward with one foot.

3. Seated Pretzel Stretch

My recommendation is that you should mobilize for 2 minutes every hour. Just like hockey, it’s a two-minute penalty for an hour of sitting. I know that seems like a lot, but trust me, it’s better than feeling like you can’t move for days on end.

You may also want to add the following three exercises to your workouts. These are fairly low-level movements but can be quite challenging if completed properly.

I can also check out my FREE E-Book for some tips on getting more out of your time in the gym.
THE ESSENTIALS PACKAGE

1. Supine Hip Bridge

– Make it Harder: Single Leg Hip Bridge

2. Single Leg Heel Drops

– Make it Harder: Deadbugs

3. Perfect Plank

Note elbows under shoulders, abs TIGHT, bum TIGHT, quads TIGHT. NO hammocks and NO tents!

– Make it Harder: Perfect Plank Up-Downs

If you have read the Set it Up! Article, you will notice two of the same exercises are included there as well. This is a trend that I want you to become aware of as these are two of my absolute favourites for beginner core stability.

“Keep things as simple as possible, but not simpler.” – Albert Einstein

Sign up for my email list or inquire about training in order to see progressions on these basic principles.

At the end of the day, we cannot avoid sitting. What we can do, however, is attack it’s negative effects with the techniques presented above and do everything we can to ensure it does not erode our posture or physiological health.

To your continued health,

GM

Some of the information found in this article was adapted from an article written by Michael J. Mullin, ATC, PTA, PRC (Twitter: @MJMATC) on www.ericcressey.com.

References

1. Cagnie B, et al. Individual and work related risk factors for neck pain among office workers: a cross sectional study. Eur Spine J, 2007; 16:679-686 / Smith P, et al. The relationship between chronic conditions and work-related injuries and repetitive strain injuries in Canada. J Occup Environ Med, 2012; 54(7):841-846.

2. Hamilton M, et al. Too little exercise and too much sitting: Inactivity physiology and the need for new recommendations on sedentary behavior. Current Cardiovasc Risk Reports, 2008; 2:292-298.

3. Janwantanakul P, et al. Prevalence of self-reported musuloskeletal symptoms among office workers. Occup Med, 2008; 58(6):436-438.

4. Schmid, D. & Colditz, G. Sedentary behaviour increases the risk of certain cancers. Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 2014; 106 (7):206.

4. Starrett, K., & Cordoza, G. (n.d.). Becoming a supple leopard: The ultimate guide to resolving pain, preventing injury, and optimizing athletic performance. Victory Belt Publishing. 2012.

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Gavin McHale

Author Gavin McHale

Online training and nutrition coach, retired semi-pro hockey goalie, and ex-skinny kid. Currently a beer league superstar, and lover of lifting heavy things, Gavin will help you reclaim that athletic, dead sexy body, and shrink your clothing budget. Because tarps are always optional.

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