What happens when you sit all day?
You've seen the flat line on an ECG, when all the doctors rush in? That's what's happening to your leg muscles when you're sitting. More than half of us spend over six hours sitting down every day, and a widening rear end isn’t the only result. Sitting can have short and long-term effects on your health and body, making this seemingly benign activity potentially deadly.
1. Weak Legs and Glutes
If you don’t use them, you lose them! By sitting all day, you’re not depending on your powerful lower body muscles to hold you up. This leads to muscle atrophy, which is the weakening of these muscles. Without strong leg and glute muscles to stabilize you, your body is at risk of injury.
2. Weight Gain
Moving causes your muscles to release molecules like lipoprotein lipase, which helps process the fats and sugars you eat. When you spend most of your day sitting, the release of these molecules is lessened and weight gain becomes inevitable.
3. Tight Hips and a Bad Back
As with your leg and glute muscles, your hips and back will suffer from sitting. Sitting causes your hip flexors to shorten, and your seated position can also hurt your back, particularly if you have bad posture or don’t use an ergonomic chair. Also, poor posture while sitting can cause compression on the discs in your spine which can result in chronic pain.
4. Stiff Shoulders and Neck
As with your legs, butt and lower back, your shoulders and neck will also suffer from prolonged sitting. This is especially true if you're hunched over looking at a computer screen.
5. Anxiety and Depression
Lesser understood than some of the physical effects of sitting, are the mental effects. But the risk of both depression and anxiety are higher in people who sit the most. This could be because the mental health benefits of fitness are lacking when one spends their days sitting down rather than moving. If so, these risks could be mitigated with regular exercise.
6. Other Major Health Risks
Links have also been made to cancer, heart disease, diabetes, varicose veins and deep vein thrombosis (DVT).
Sounds pretty bad huh?!
So... get moving!
Fortunately, the remedy is simple: avoid sitting for too long each day and get more movement into your life. The key is to exert your body against gravity.
While just about any movement will do, weight-bearing exercises are beneficial and suitable for most people regardless of fitness level, as is yoga. In addition, standing up as much as possible, preferably with a stand up desk, will greatly facilitate your ability to replicate ancestral movement patterns (ie. much more movement).
As a consequence of sitting, your blood sugar levels, blood pressure, cholesterol, and toxic buildup all rise. The solution to these adverse events do not involve a prescription - all you need to do is get up, and avoid sitting down as much as possible. Since many of us live lives that revolve around an office chair, a car seat and the couch, most will need to figure out how to eliminate many hours of sitting every day. As a general starting guideline, try standing up for at least 10 minutes each hour. If you've been sitting down for a full hour, you've sat too long. Think about getting a getting a standing desk - these are becoming more and more popular as people realise how much better it is for your health.
Make Walking a Part of Your Daily Routine
It's recommended to stand up and do exercises at your desk every 10-15 minutes to counteract the ill effects of sitting, however that's probably still insufficient. The answer really is to stand up as much as possible. Standing for 10 minutes for every hour of sitting is really the bare minimum. It would be wiser to strive to sit as little as possible - less than three hours a day would be a really healthy target, but would likely take some time to build up to.
Sitting less can dramatically help to alleviate persistent back pain - a major issue for much of the population.
The combination of high intensity exercise, low intensity activities like walking 7-10,000 steps a day, and avoiding sitting whenever possible, is the key to optimal fitness and enjoying a pain-free, joyful life. It is recommended to walk in addition to your regular fitness programme, not as a replacement for it. But if you're currently doing nothing in terms of fitness, walking is certainly a great place to start!
Fitness trackers can be a helpful way to keep track of your daily activity, with some models having the added advantage to record how much you're sleeping. This can help motivate you to get to bed earlier and get as close to the magic number of 8 hours of sleep as possible. Having good sleep habits really is huge in terms of positive benefits - it boosts your immune system, manages weight loss, and helps to retain memory.
Powerful Yoga Moves
Yoga is another form of exercise in which you're exerting yourself against gravity. And while it's certainly great for increasing flexibility, its benefits do not end there. Yoga also helps condition muscle, build strength, improve muscle tone and increases range of motion. In short, it promotes overall body health. Evidence also suggests it can help improve heart health by reducing known risk factors for heart disease, such as weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels.
Get a Massage
This can be one of the most effective things of all. Massage can treat every muscle group to the point of increasing performance noticeably as well as relieving pain. I’ve experienced it first hand being both a client and a therapist and there is nothing like it.
We're so used to hearing about having a "strong core" that it's easy to forget just how important it is to maintain strength in the muscles that surround the pelvis. These gluteal (buttock) muscles are responsible for stabilising and holding our pelvis (and therefore legs) in alignment. They also stabilise the lower back, enabling an upright posture and are key players in powering walking, running and climbing.
So when there's weakness in the glutes, there's often instability in the pelvis which throws things out of alignment, contributing to all sorts of issues down through the legs. Glute weakness is linked to problems in the knees, ITB, calves and achilles.
It's easy to have strong hamstrings, quadriceps and calves, but without isolating and working on the glutes, these other large muscles become disproportionately stronger. Another issue can be attributed to tight hip flexors which can inhibit the glutes from firing correctly.
So what exactly are the "glutes"?
The gluteus maximus is the biggest muscle in the human body, by volume. The gluteal muscle group - commonly known as the glutes - includes 3 muscles located at the back of each hip. The glutes are the major components of each buttock. Gluteus maximus is the largest and most superficial (closest to the surface) of the gluteal muscle group, which also include gluteus medius and gluteus minimus.
The good news is that there are plenty of exercises that will strengthen your glutes and provide you with a great looking butt!
Check out this Runner's World article for how to test your glute strength and what to do about it.
Having "tight traps" seems to be the human condition as pretty much all of my clients carry tension in this area and have tight trapezius muscles. They're often the first muscles to bother you when under stress and can ache from the base of your skull, across the tops of your shoulders and down between your shoulder blades.
The trapezius is a broad triangular muscle which attaches to the base of the skull, and lies at the back of the neck, over the upper shoulders and extends down your upper back to your mid back. It is one of the most likely muscles to get sore knots or “trigger points”.
The trap muscles lift the outside of your shoulders to create a “shrug”. They move the head and neck toward the shoulder. The middle of the muscles pull the shoulder blades together, while the lower draw the shoulder blades downward. They support the weight of the arms.
Often these movements are at play when we are under stress, and doing the activities that cause stress. Trap pain is classic stress pain. Your shoulders ache, your neck hurts and it is often deep and achy. You may have a headache, especially in the temples or behind your eyes or at the base of your skull. You may feel burning between your shoulder blades after sitting at your computer without elbow support.
The GOOD NEWS is that there are ways to reduce or avoid this ongoing condition.
What causes Trapezius pain?
You can prevent and relieve pain in your trapezius muscles by exercising them. Exercise brings circulation to the muscles, and it relaxes them.
1. Check for Tightness Throughout the Day
Whether you're sitting at your desk or out for a run, periodically check where your shoulders are. Are they relaxed or are your traps contracted? Are you shrugging your shoulders?
In the ideal state, your shoulders should be in line with your collarbone; not higher or pushed forward. You can easily check this by simply letting your shoulders "fall." You may realize you have them in a shrugged position too often.
2. Do Shoulder Shrugs
To prevent your traps from tightening, and to release tension from the traps, do shoulder shrugs regularly throughout the day.
Exaggerate the movement by pulling your shoulders all the way to your ears, holding them there for a few seconds, and then letting them fall to a relaxed position. You can also loosen your traps by rolling your shoulders in both directions.
Here's how to stretch tight traps, or those that may become tight after a long day of work or training:
Positioning: You can do this sitting or standing. Your neck should always remain inline with your back and the only body part that is moving is your head.
Forward stretch: Interlace both hands at the back of your head and gently pull your head forward dropping your chin toward your chest as if you were nodding, allowing your elbows to fall forward. Hold this position for 10 to 15 seconds.
Side stretch: Gently pull your head to the side so your ear approaches the opposite shoulder. Switch sides. Hold this position for 10 to 15 seconds.
Diagonal stretch: Gently pull your head diagonally forward so your chin approaches the opposite shoulder. Hold this position for 10 to 15 seconds.
Repeat these stretches for the other side. Go through these stretches 2 to 3 times in one sitting and repeat throughout the day.
Take up Yoga
I can't recommend yoga highly enough. Workout fads come and go, but virtually none are as enduring as yoga (approx 5000 years). Yoga does more than burn calories and tone muscles - it's a total mind-body workout that combines strengthening, balance and stretching poses with deep breathing and relaxation. If you do nothing else, do yoga! If you do lots of other physical activity, do yoga!
If you're keen to give yoga a try or get back into it, my friend Sarah Lei from RunYoga teaches classes in 4 locations in Rotorua. RunYoga classes aren't just for runners - they're for everyone.
Don't currently have the budget or time for a massage? No problem. You can do it on your own. All you need is a wall and a tennis ball.
First, massage yourself by rolling the ball on your traps, with some pressure. You will feel how tight it is and there will likely be one spot that hurts the most. Wherever that spot is, stay there with your tennis ball and slightly push. Hold that for at least 90 seconds or until you feel a release of tension. Repeat this until you feel that they have gotten looser.
Get a Deep Tissue Massage!
If you have the time and resources, get a massage. This will relieve you from tension and make you feel A LOT better!
Deep tissue massage focuses heavily on the area of pain and tension, working to ease the symptoms and facilitate restoration by realigning the muscle fibres and connective tissue, improving blood flow and flushing away toxins. The movements are slow and work deep into the tissue and muscle. This deeper pressure is beneficial in releasing general or chronic muscle tension and pain. Regular sessions will help to increase joint mobility (eg. in the neck and shoulders), improve flexibility and provide longer term relief.