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How To Reverse the Effects of Sitting. (10 min read)

Updated: Aug 31, 2020

The intention of this blog is to highlight the negative effects of sitting for prolonged periods and give you insights and strategies, that if you have to be sitting, will minimise the stress on your body.

The perfect working posture is something you’ve probably been exploring recently while changing your work environment around. For some of us, it might mean sitting less, for some more, for some on the couch… so what’s the big deal and why is sitting so bad for us?

Is adopting the classic seated position with hips, knees, and elbows all bent to a perfect 90 degrees causing a lot of the daily aches and pains we’ve come to expect after a long day at work?

And if so, how do we reverse this process if our role demands “we have to sit to work”?

I’m here to tell you, it’s not sittings fault!

Our primary requirements for survival are to find food, water and (for the species) to mate. We have eyes to see long distances, we have legs to carry us far distances and we adapt to the environment when we need to or we adapt the environment to suit our needs. Either way, our system is constantly adapting.

In this blog I’m going to dive into:

  1. When is sitting bad for you

  2. What’s happening on the inside to your body systems

  3. Movement based exercises to save your spine

  4. Strategies for preventing future issues

To start, let me ask you this.

Which do you think is the worst part about sitting?

  1. The forward head posture and rounded back

  2. Your organs being squashed between your pelvis and ribcage

  3. Your eyes stuck on one object without change

  4. Shallow breathing

  5. The “flight, fight or freeze” response. Ie your stressed, maybe nervous, a little sweaty, heart pumping overtime... and you’re only sitting down.

Let’s briefly dive into these and at the same time look at how moving well and moving more is the simplest way you can reverse the effects of sitting and keep your system health and happy.

The Head

The human head weights about 5-7kg so for every cm it is off it’s central axis, there is extra load placed on all the tissues holding the head on. The major ones are your cervical vertebrae, the muscles attaching to your spine and skull, the nerves coming out of your cervical spine and the discs, ligaments and fascial attachments holding everything in place. For every 15 degrees of forward head posture you add an extra 4-5kg of force through these tissues. Multiply that force over days, weeks, months, years and it accumulates into you experiencing pain, headaches and/or stiffness in your head, neck, back and shoulders.

If this is you, try this simple neck strengthening exercise 2-3 times/day to keep your neck strong.

To do:

  • Lay on the ground

  • Pick your head up 1cm off the ground (so if you had hair like mine you can just feel the hairs touching the ground)

  • Make sure you don't give yourself a double chin as you lift, think about keeping your chin pointing to the roof.

  • Can add small rotations in if you're feeling good.

  • Try for 5 reps of 5 seconds

The Spine

The spine is a hugely versatile system, it can bend and twist it multiple directions while transferring force through each segment. Our system is built to survive, to do that it’s developed ways to utilise and store energy in the most efficient ways possible. Like a computer, when it’s working, it’s using energy. When we challenge/stimulate our body to do work or resist change, it becomes more efficient at the task, whether the task is good or bad for us in the long run is dependant on why we’re doing it and what we want the outcome to be, short and long term. When we sit for a long time, the constant stress acting upon us is gravity, which inevitably pulls us forward and down while we complete our survival task (working at your computer).

Sitting in a forward position for hours puts force (stress) through the vertebrae and all associated tissues causing them to try to adapt so the same task becomes more efficient and less work over time. An example of this is when our Thoracic spine becomes Kyphotic. In this state some tissues are locked short and some are locked long to enable efficiency in performing the task (sitting at a desk). If you don’t do work to challenge and reverse this adaptation, it eventually will become so strong, it’s almost irreversible.

If this is you, try this back extension stretch stretch 2-3 times/day to keep your spine mobile.

To do:

  • Use a couch or chair to put your elbows and head on

  • Have your knees under your hips and shoulder width apart

  • You can use a stick behind your head like I have or just put your hands together

  • Drop your chest down to the ground

  • As you breathe in and out think about all the muscles along your spine relaxing and melting as you sink deeper.

  • Don't hold your breath.

  • Hold for 1-2 minutes

After you've found a new length in your spine we want to strengthen the muscles that hold it together. Try this thoracic extension exercise 2-3 times/day.

To do:

  • Lay on the ground with a stick or skipping rope behind you at arms length (resting on your butt)

  • The first movement is to pull your shoulders back together

  • Then without shrugging them up to your ears, pull the stick up off your butt as far as you can (without your shoulders moving up)

  • Then pull your chest up off the ground as high as you can

  • Repeat 15 reps, rest 60 seconds, repeat 3 times.

After you've improved the mobility and strength of your spine we want to strengthen the muscles of the scapula instead of letting them stay long and weak (tight). Try this seated crab hold exercise 2-3 times/day.

To do:

  • Sit on the ground with your hands just behind your hips and your fingers turned 90 degrees to the side.

  • Screw your hands into the ground so the inside of your elbow is open and facing forward.

  • Then pull your shoulders back (scapulas together).

  • Push down into the ground with your hands without losing your shoulders back

  • Sit as tall as you can (think tall spine)

  • Breathe into your chest

  • Each time you breathe out challenge yourself to pull your shoulders back more and push down more.

  • Hold for 30 seconds, rest 30 seconds, repeat 3-5 times.

The Abdomen

There is only so much space in our abdominal cavity. When we’re standing or laying down is when our internal organs have the most space to move around (happy organs). When we sit, the space between the ribs and hips compress so our organs don’t have as much room to move around (sad organs). This will influence the digestive process through your organs as they require some manual manipulation (massage) from movement to help move waste along (peristalsis) the digestive tract. While you’re not moving, your digestive system has to work harder to do this work by itself. One potential reason for constipation.

The Eyes

When you don’t use it, you lose it. Which is absolutely true when you’re talking about the ability of your eye to adjust focus. Just like any muscles, the muscles of the eye require movement to stay strong. If they are fixed in one position, their ability to adapt to other objects diminishes over time. Just like if you break your arm and have it in a sling for 4-6 weeks, your bicep becomes “stuck” in the sling position once you take the sling off and effort is then required to get the arm moving again. This happens on a smaller, less obvious, scale to the muscles in your eyes which will result in your eyes having to work harder to focus (eye strain), leading to potential head aches, migraines and vision issues.

The Lungs

We breathe 20-30000 times/day. That’s a lot of repetitions, whether done well or poorly. What is good and bad breathing? Good breathing is when you’re breathing using as much of your capacity as possible. This might involve inhaling into your diaphragm, down into your stomach, then up into your chest. Bad breathing is short.

In a seated position one space our organs can go is up, pushing into our diaphragm or atleast creating a barrier. Try breathing down into your stomach while you’re sitting slouched. The breath will push your organs down and then the only way they have to go is outward. As you can feel this isn’t an efficient way to breath, it requires conscious thought and effort. Over time the diaphragm becomes somewhat inhibited while breathing which then asks the upper shoulder muscles to do more of the work during inspiration and expiration which are usually only required to work during physically exerting (stressful) situations like running toward (chasing your food) or away from what ever is trying to kill you. In this state you’re programming your brain to think it’s in a “flight or fight” scenario requiring the upper trunk muscles to work. This is called a negative feedback loop where increased output in one system inhibits output in another.

Fight, Flight or Freeze

Our safest protective position the body adopts for survival is the foetal position.

This bent forward, tucked in position is adopted in the following situations:

  • The developing foetus

  • When we suddenly have to protect ourselves from physical threat

  • When we feel scared

  • When we feel cold

  • When we feel depressed

  • When we have internal organ pain or injury

Sitting in this “protective” posture for extended periods of time creates a similar biological response in the body to actually being in one of the above situations. Basically telling your body, be prepared for flight, fight or freeze in order to survive. This adds to the “unseen” stress acting within us.

So we ask the question again… Which do you think is the worst part about sitting?

  1. The forward head posture and rounded back

  2. Your organs being squashed between your pelvis and ribcage

  3. Your eyes stuck on one object without change

  4. Shallow breathing

  5. The “flight, fight or freeze” response. Ie your stressed, maybe nervous, a little sweaty, heart pumping overtime... and you’re only sitting down.

There’s no real right answer here, but the common factor of looking for food, water and a mate is our need to MOVE to acquire what we want. Our bodies have evolved to MOVE. So without moving, our body slowly starts to deteriorate. Breathing is most important factor of survival (the brain can only survive for around 3 minutes without oxygen), we could say anything that restricts our capacity to breathe well, increases the stress/demand from all other systems of the body.

What’s the fix then?

Is a standing desk the answer?

It could be, but not really.

The only answer is to move more and sit less.

Moving makes the muscles work which increases blood flow required for hydration and delivery of essential nutrients and minerals to the cells.

Moving increases the demand for oxygen which demands we breathe more.

Moving helps your organs to digest your food.

Moving well, gives us the ability to continue to move well as we age.

But I know what you’re thinking, that would mean you might have to re-think and adjust your whole lifestyle at home and work... Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Because right now we as a community, a country and a race of beings are losing the health battle against Heart Disease and Diabetes which are 2 diseases that are preventable, but only if we have a preventative/proactive mindset instead of a reactive mindset (but that’s a whole other blog). You might think you’re not going to be one of them, that’s what most think until the bad news creeps up and slaps them in the face and then they’re left with two choices, take the hard road or the harder road back to health.

Yours in strength

Jason Dick

If you're not sure where to start, this At Home Mobility Assessment guide will help you recognise where you're at, so you know (instead of guessing) what you need to do next.

Download your copy here and tell us your score.


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