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Originally published on All About Ann Arbor (A4).

ANN ARBOR – Health experts are saying “sitting is the new smoking” for good reason. Try these exercises and stretches for people who sit all day.

There is mounting evidence​ that suggests the cumulative effects of sitting, either at a desk all day or because of a sedentary lifestyle, can have a profoundly negative impact on health. In addition to musculoskeletal issues, people who sit all day are more likely to suffer from obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular issues, metabolic disorders, cancer and early mortality

Exercising every day may not be enough

Say you ride your bike to and from work, but sit for most of the day at work and log a couple of hours on the couch in the evening. Some researchers call this the “Active Couch Potato” and stress that even though you might be reaching your daily exercise quota, it doesn’t outweigh the “deleterious health consequences of prolonged sitting time.” 

The call to MOVE more

Simply put, our bodies are not meant to be still for long periods. I know I am oversimplifying, but I think of it like this: The body is a comprehensive system which operates on the basis of circulation to stimulate the various systems and tissues to keep you healthy. Circulation is stimulated by movement. When our hearts beat faster, we increase circulation, and when we are still, circulation slows down (sort of like when your hand or foot “falls asleep”).

These are two extreme cases, but imagine your liver or kidneys slowing down from poor circulation. Now imagine that cumulative effect over months or years and it’s easier to see how our “system” for optimal health can be compromised by being sedentary.  
 
Taking frequent movement breaks is one part of the answer. Current recommendations vary from moving once every 20 minutes to once every hour ​at a minimum

Genetic vs. cultural posture (A.K.A. Ouch, my back hurts!)

As a Pilates and ​GYROTONIC® ​trainer, I see the impact of prolonged sitting on the human body all the time. At my studio, one of the first questions we ask clients when they meet us for the first session is how long they sit. If we know that they’re sitting the majority of the day (or standing with bad posture), we expect to hear and see some or all of the following effects of sitting too long: 

  • Low back pain from the compressive forces on the spine and the position of the pelvis while seated. 
  • Shoulder or rotator cuff issues from “computer posture” pulling your shoulders forward and changing the alignment of the shoulder joint. 
  • Neck strain from alignment issues in the spine and adjusting the eyes to see a screen or phone. 
  • Weak muscles in the upper back from “computer posture.”  
  • Tight and short hip flexors, which can play a role in low back pain. 

Each of us has a unique skeleton, which I call our “genetic posture.” Our genetic posture plays a role in the impact of sitting on our skeletal muscles and alignment. If you combine this genetic posture with our “cultural posture” or lifestyle (i.e. what we do all day and love to do for movement) you can see that creating a movement plan unique to you requires some intentional planning and understanding of yourself.  

A three-step solution to sitting too much

1. Reduce 

​Think honestly about how long you sit each day. Include car trips, commuting, desk time and end-of-day relaxation. See if there are natural ways to break up the time you spend sedentary, and then decide how often you will commit to getting up and moving around. Add reminders in your phone or computer.  

If you’re an evening sitter, perhaps you add one small movement activity then. Here in Ann Arbor, there’s no way an evening walk appeals to me in winter, but I commit to moving around my home more. If I can, I schedule a couple of extra evening exercise classes each week until the weather warms up.  

2. Strategize

Focusing on some key areas of your body with specific exercises can help you mitigate the effects of sitting on your spine, shoulders, hips and back. Below are simple stretches that are safe to repeat throughout your day to help keep your postural muscles active and your body balanced. Be sure to include a well-rounded workout routine that includes mobility, strength and cardio-training.  

3. Vary

Vary your position throughout the day. If you can, stand (with good posture!) for part of your work day and shift your weight gently to keep moving. You may love to do something like running, dance, yoga or walking, so bring more of it into your life.  If movement is tough because of an ache or a pain, see your doctor to get some support. Quite often, adding a regular mindful movement program like Pilates – which builds mobility, flexibility, and strength – can help you unravel your issues and keep you safe and injury-free.  

12 Easy Activity Breaks After Sitting Too Long

1. GO FOR A WALK – ​ ​Be sure that one or more of your daily breaks includes a brisk walk. This can be a walk around the office building during lunch time. 
 
2. STANDING WALL STRETCH – ​Stand facing a wall, about 1 foot away. ​Reach your arms up the wall and shift your weight forward. Feel your upper back extend and breathe into the stretch. Keep your shoulders down and as relaxed as possible. 

3. CHEST OPENER -​ Clasp your hands behind your head. Lift sternum as you press elbows farther back. Relax your shoulders down your back and feel your chest open. As you open your chest, engage your abs and focus on lifting up to avoid compressing your low back. 

4. LATERAL FLEXION (WALL) – ​Stand with your back resting against the wall and knees slightly bent. Clasp your hands behind your head. Reach through the crown of your head and bend to one side. Repeat on other side. 
 

5. HIP OPENER – ​Lunge forward by bending your front knee.  Forward foot stays flat on floor with knee over ankle, and back foot shifts to the ball of foot. Bring your hips forward until you feel a stretch in the front of your hips.  

6. STANDING CAT COW – ​Start leaning over a chair or desk. On an exhale round back into “angry cat” position. On next inhale, drop belly and lift chest up into “cow.” Repeat 5 times. 

7. PIRIFORMIS (FIGURE 4 STRETCH) – ​From a standing position, cross one ankle over the opposite thigh. Pull the bent leg to your chest and feel a stretch across your glutes and hips.   

8. LATERAL FLEXION CHAIR – ​Using the chair for support, reach one arm up long and bend to the side. Feel the stretch along your opposite side. 
 

9. TRUNK ROTATION – ​Sitting straight, pull abdominals in and gently rotate to one side. Stretch arm out in the direction of the rotation until you feel a chest stretch. 

10. HAMSTRING STRETCH – ​Sitting tall at the edge of your chair, extend one leg out and flex your foot. Hinge at your waist as far as is comfortable and feel the stretch in your extended leg.  
 

11. SHOULDER ROLLS & SHRUGS – ​Roll your shoulders back for 20 seconds. Shrug your shoulders and hold the elevated position for 3 seconds. Release down, feeling the tension melt away. 
Repeat 3 times.  
 

12. WHOLE-BODY STRETCH – ​Lie on your back and bring your knees into your chest. Breathe deeply and relax your lower back into the floor. From here, squeeze tight and then release, extending your body long on the mat. 

Elaine Economou, PMA-CPT®, is a Pilates Instructor Trainer and GYROTONIC® trainer. She co-owns the Ann Arbor mind-body fitness studio MOVE Wellness. She can be reached at elaine@movewellness.com or 734-761-2306.