For years, I worked at a desk for long hours and wondered why my body progressed from stiff to stuck accompanied by progressive back pain. If you work at a desk job and are suffering from stiffness and back pain, read this now. Please understand that the position you are in the most wins over time. This doesn’t mean you have to quit your desk job. You can keep doing it and just fix a few things.
When you sit for long periods, lots of bad things happen in your body
Contracted Muscles Continually Fire
The sitting position involves a contraction of the hip flexor muscles and the hamstrings. When these muscles are contracted, like any muscle, they fire. When they fire for a long time even at low level it causes an inflammatory response that leads to cross-linking. This means that as the muscles get inflamed, they attempt to heal the inflammation which leads to scaring in the muscle. That scaring causes the cross-linking which is referred to as a shortening of the muscle. This is why the hip flexor and hamstring muscles get short and tight from sitting.
Stretched Muscles are Getting Weaker
Opposite of the hip flexors, the gluteal muscles are being stretched when sitting. Any muscle that is stretched for a long period of time will weaken. As the gluteal muscles weaken and the hamstring muscles get short and tight, the pelvis will change position over time. It can result in what’s called an anterior pelvic tilt or a posterior pelvic tilt, meaning that it’s either rotated forward or backward. Either case can cause the spinal musculature or other hip muscles to attempt to compensate. Since these smaller muscles are not prime movers like the gluteals, this often results in strains.
Reduced Oxygen to Tissue
Additionally leading to weakness is the pressure on tissue that comes from sitting. There is less blood flow to the area. This means that there is less oxygen getting to the muscles. When there is not sufficient oxygen to the tissue, cells die at a faster rate than they would normally. Without sufficient blood flow and oxygen, the tissue weakens and becomes less functional which is part of a cascade of effects that leads to pain above and below the hips.
Sitting for long periods coupled with no physical exercise slows down the body’s metabolism. There is no demand on the body and so all fat stores are untapped. The body’s supply of glycogen is unused, but likely the brain has been used. The brain will require more food in the form of glucose and a further cascade of detrimental metabolic effects take place. Over time, continual feeding with long periods of sitting can result in obesity along with diabetes since the cellular turnover rate is so low.
Counteracting the effects of sitting
The number one thing you can do to counteract the effects of sitting is to move. General categories of movement that are beneficial are walking and running. However, if you have been sitting for years and have very weakened muscles along with a poor metabolism, then the activities needed are more specific.
Retrain and Strengthen Muscle
The muscles in the hip are the foundation for the spine. Strengthening the gluteal muscles and retraining the hip flexors along with the spinal muscles are the keys. The movements to do are the squat to train the gluteal muscles, leg raises to train the abdomen and hip flexors, and back extensions to train the spinal musculature.
For the chronic sitter who does not exercise, this is a very solid place to start. Here’s a starter program.
- Body weight squats with correct form for 3 sets of 10 reps done with very slow up and down (10 seconds down and 10 seconds up) is more than enough and completely safe to do.
- Leg raises can be done lying on the floor with your back flat and lifting the leg with a bent knee using the same number of reps, sets and cadence above.
- Back extensions can be done while lying face down on the floor and raising the chest off the ground, while keeping the legs on the ground. Do this for 3 sets of 20 reps but with a quicker cadence of 2 seconds up and 2 seconds down.
Turn on Metabolism
One of the great things about training muscle is that it gets energy released from the cells. It also generates lactic acid which requires the body to convert it to pyruvate which gets processed by the mitochrondria which overall means that your muscles get more oxygen, your metabolism goes up and you get more muscle. This all makes it easier to move around.
Break up Sitting Periods
For chronic sitters, an effective tactic is to break up the sitting periods. Every 30 minutes to an hour depending on your flow of work, get up and walk around the block or up and down some stairs just for 5 minutes. This simple tactic is very effective and is extremely easy to do…assuming you can walk.
Changing to a standing desk is a popular choice today. If you do this you should know that it will take a while for your body to adjust. Your feet may get sore, your back might ache. You should also know a standing desk is better than sitting, but it will also not fix your posture. Remember, the position you are in the longest wins. If you stand at your desk slumped over leaning on your desk for hours, there will be shoulder and neck pains to come. It’s best to combine a standing desk with some periods of sitting and movement. It’s the variety of movement that’s important.
Here are a couple of cool ones to consider. Both portable, interesting and one is extremely affordable.
- http://www.ombee.com/ – adjustable, light, $249.00
- http://oristand.co/ – made entirely of cardboard, $25.00
Sit less because your body needs varied movement. Your older self will thank you.
- Set up a reminder every 30 minutes to get up and walk around.
- Take 15 minute brisk walks daily.
- Try a standing desk.
- Retrain your muscles with these 3 key exercises: squat, lying leg raise, and back extension.
Want more? Enter your email address below and I’ll give you the Resolving Back Pain for Desk Workers Program and Log. This will help you to…
- Get out of pain related to sitting
- Strengthen muscle
- Boost your metabolism
- And more!