We know it’s bad, yet we continue to sit for hours on end, day after day. Sitting in the car on the way to work, sitting the entire day whilst at work, driving to meetings to sit through the meetings. Another seated car trip home in the evenings where we find ourselves sitting while we eat dinner and then move to the couch to watch TV. That’s a lot of sitting. But what exactly goes wrong in our bodies when we park off for 8 hours per day?
Organ damage, bad backs and muscle degeneration and more…
Muscles burn less fat and blood flow significantly decreases when sitting for even a short space of time. This allows fatty acids to deposit in arteries around the heart. People who sit and live a sedentary lifestyle are more susceptible to high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol levels in comparison to people who live active lifestyles. Sitting increases the likelihood of heart disease and other cardiovascular complications.
Poor brain function
Fresh blood is supplied to muscles which are moving, causing an increase in blood flow, oxygen and nutrients directly to the brain. This triggers the release of endorphins and other mood enhancing chemicals. When we sit for period of longer than 20 minutes, everything slows down, including brain function.
Strained necks and upper backs
If most of your sitting occurs a desk in front of a computer, craning your neck forward toward a keyboard or cradling a phone to your ear whilst typing can strain the ligaments and muscles which function to support the neck vertebrae and over time can lead to irreversible changes.
The inflexible spine
Our spines are designed to move with the help of the intervertebral discs which are gel-like cushions located between each vertebra. The discs expand and contract and work as shock absorbers. But when we sit for a long time, discs are squashed unevenly. Collagen hardens around supporting tendons and ligaments, which can limit normal movement and increase the risk of spinal disease.
People who sit more are at greater risk for herniated lumbar discs. A muscle called the psoas muscle travels through the abdominal cavity and, when it tightens, pulls the upper lumbar spine forward. The weight of the entire upper body then rests entirely on the ischial tuberosities of the pelvis (sit bones) instead of being distributed along the arch of the lumbar spine. This poor lumbar spine alignment stresses the discs beyond their anatomical limit and results in herniated discs when they can no longer bear the load.
Sitting for long periods hampers adequate blood circulation, which causes fluid to pool in the legs. Problems range from swollen ankles and varicose veins to blood clots called deep vein thrombosis (DVT).
Adverse changes to bone density
Weight-bearing activities such as walking and running stimulate proper bone maintenance and deposition resulting in thicker, denser and stronger bones. Doctors partially attribute the recent surge in cases of osteoporosis to lack of activity.
Weak abdominal muscles
When you stand, move or even sit CORRECTLY, abdominal muscles keep you upright (think of pulling your belly button into your spine). But when you slouch in a chair, they go unused. Tight back muscles and inactive, weak abs form a posture-wrecking alliance that can exaggerate the spine’s natural arch, a condition called hyperlordosis.
Flexible hips help keep you balanced, but chronic sitters rarely extend the hip flexor muscles that they become short and tight, limiting range of motion and stride length. Studies have found that decreased hip mobility is a main reason elderly people tend to fall.
Prolonged sitting requires your glutes to do absolutely nothing, and they get used to it. This is responsible for poor circulation and lack of oxygen to the tissue contributing to inhibition and atrophy. Soft glutes lead to an unstable, weak pelvis which is unable maintain a powerful stride or correct pelvic posture.
Generally, maintaining the normal spinal curves is considered to be beneficial during sitting; however a common tendency for most people, especially those sitting at computers with improper screen height is to assume a forward head posture along with kyphosis of the thoracic spine. Forward head posture has been shown to increase the incidence of neck and shoulder trigger points and pain, along with alterations in shoulder muscle activity and a further interference with the flow of nerve impulses and messages as the spinal cord runs though the centre of the spine.
As a result, individuals who regularly sit this way may be more prone to conditions such as neck and back pain, scapulothoracic and shoulder impingement and neurological compromise if their posture is not properly assessed and corrected.
Poor posture while driving or sitting at your desk can produce a repetitive load to the tissues that causes sustained stress. Simply staying in the car seat with poor posture long enough will eventually ensure damage. The effects of poor posture may not be experienced immediately as their effects are cumulative, which is why it is imperative to start making small changes now and turn them into positive postural habits.
An example of positive postural advice whilst driving or sitting at a desk is to squeeze the shoulder blades together for 20-30 seconds and then letting go and repeating 2-3 times. Performing cervical range of motion and shoulder retraction with elevation and depression will also help combat poor prolonged posture.
Use this checklist for ‘proper sitting’ while driving a car or in your office:
- Sit up against the seatback with a tall spine.
- Ideally knees and hips should be at 90°, with feet planted firmly on the floor.
- Adjust the back rest up and down to your comfort level. It should be placed firm against your back and may be tilted a bit backwards for more comfort.
- Adjust your hips so that they are level and square; remove your wallet from your back pocket.
- Lightly draw your belly button in towards your spine to engage your core.
- Try get into the habit of keeping the shoulder blades active-pretend you are squeezing a tennis
- ball between your shoulder blades. This opens out the chest and prevents rounding of the shoulders.
- Take as many active breaks as possible; one every hour at least. A simple walk around is enough if that is all you can manage. Some simple stretches is an additional bonus.