This is the third and final part of this series of articles related to sitting for extended periods of time. The first article explained key points on WHY sitting for extended periods of time can be contraindicative to your posture and your health. The second article discussed several exercise pointers to counter-balance long hours behind a desk, wheel of a car, etc. either BEFORE or AFTER your workday.
Paul Chek eloquently describes people with too much curve in their lumbar spines as “Donald Ducks”; and people with flat lumbar spines as “Pink Panthers”. He then raises serial frog the question: How do you turn a Donald Duck into a Pink Panther? Answer: Put him in a chair for eight hours a day. Many people who spend too much time in a seated position will have flatter than ideal lumbar curvatures.
I’m going to borrow a metaphor that was introduced to me by Rich Campe, a Tony Robins certified personal coach and serial entrepreneur. If you take a frog and drop it into a boiling pot of water the frog will instinctively and immediately jump out of the pot. If you take that same frog and place it in a pot of water that’s at room temperature the frog will stay in the pot. If you turn up the heat on the pot and gradually warm up the water the frog will not attempt to jump out. Eventually, the frog will be overcome by the heat and die in the pot without ever attempting to escape.
For many of us sitting is how we earn our livelihood. In many ways it’s also like being in a pot of water that is warming up. Each day we spend sitting in our chairs without taking corrective action (turning the heat down on the burner) we are getting closer and closer to chronic pain, postural problems, and related headaches (being overcome by the heat).
Finding a job where we can stand most of the time is not necessarily in our best overall interest. The next best strategy to battle the seated blues is to apply corrective exercise principles throughout our workday. Many of the ideas in this article are from Dr. Scott Donkin’s, D.C. book Sitting on the Job: A Practical Survival Guide for People Who Earn Their Livings While Sitting.
1. Take plenty of breaks. Just getting away from your desk for 10 minutes per hour will help to regain circulation to your lower extremities and get the spinal fluids in your lower back moving again.
Take micro breaks. During the 50 minutes that you are stationary be sure to take some time out from what you’re doing to give your “head” a break. Steal a couple moments to look away from your monitor. Look across the room or out the window.
2. Take a lunch. If you think working at your desk during lunch is maximizing your output think again. Your body NEEDS a solid 30-minute break every four hours. Take some time out. Walk away from your desk. Go outside and enjoy a healthy lunch. Get some fresh air. Refocus your eyes. Clear out your head. If you MUST eat lunch in your office at least get away from your monitor for a few minutes. Stand up and eat. It’ll at least stretch out the old legs.
3. Be “posture aware”. If you sit at your desk most of the day there’s absolutely NO WAY you are going to be able to maintain an “ideal” posture during the day. We are creatures of habit. Sooner or later you are going to cross your legs (hopefully your wallet is IN your desk and NOT in your back pocket)… You’re going to slouch in your seat… and you’re going to shift your weight from one side to the other. The least you can do is be aware of your poor posture and correct yourself. Maybe, if you’re good, you’ll end up spending 25 percent of your day in good postural alignment (instead of 0 percent). Any improvement, no matter how small, is progress.
4. Proper workspace setup. How you arrange your desk, monitor, keyboard, mouse, paperwork, lighting, etc., will have a huge impact on how your body feels by the end of the day. Make your space efficient… Don’t force your head to be turned to the left or right; your eyes should remain straight ahead. By now we’ve all seen plenty of articles on proper positioning of the feet, monitor, etc. In case you have not, you can order a handy booklet called Ten Tips for Health Ergonomics from the C.H.E.K Institute.
5. Squeeze in some exercise. You don’t need to get down on the floor and pump out 25 pushups to have exercise during the day. Simple moves such as raising your arms high above your head, lowering your head towards your knees, stretching your neck muscles and stretching out your legs will help. Many of these techniques can be employed in public places such as airports in such a way that nobody will even know that you are “exercising”. And if they did know, so what. You might be starting a new craze.
6. Lose the chair. Many employers have significantly improved the workplace by replacing el-cheapo chairs with fully adjustable ergonomic chairs. Don’t be fooled. In the end, a chair is still a chair. We were never designed to sit for eight hours a day, even on a $750 chair. Standing in place might be an option but eventually you’ll tire of standing in one place and end up back in your chair. A nice compromise would be to replace your chair with a Swiss ball. I promise you, you’ll be a lot less inclined to slouch or cross you legs on a Swiss ball. Have you ever noticed what happens when a person first sits on a Swiss ball? It doesn’t take long and they’re either bouncing up and down on it OR they’ll be rotating their hips left-to-right and front-to-back. Like crossing their legs in a chair, they won’t even know that they are doing it. Unlike crossing their legs, bouncing and moving about on the ball is GOOD for the hip and low back. Bring it on!!! When sizing a Swiss ball for a chair you’ll want to get a ball that’s one size larger than what you would normally exercise on. For example, if you exercise on a 55cm ball, you’ll want to use a 65cm ball for your chair. When correctly sized for a chair, the knees will be slightly lower than your hips.
7. Don’t ignore pain. If you start to feel pain in your shoulder or arms don’t ignore it and expect it to go away on its own. Take corrective steps immediately. Reevaluate your work environment. If you are experiencing pain in the forearm or shoulder on the side where you use you mouse change your mouse to the other hand. At first it’ll probably feel awkward. Fortunately using a computer mouse is not like throwing a baseball. You CAN learn to use a mouse with the opposite hand without being ambidextrous. Be patient with yourself and give yourself some time. After a while, you won’t even know that you’re using the mouse with the opposite hand… It’ll feel natural to you. If the pain persists see your medical doctor. Don’t let the condition get to the point where surgery is your only remaining option. It’s definitely NOT the path of least resistance.
By definition, sitting in a chair all day is against nature. But if you MUST defy the laws of Mother Nature there are steps you can take to protect your body from the ravages of our modern, technology driven workplaces. Most of them are common sense and only require a conscious awareness of the problem and solutions. Clicking on a keyboard, monitoring a video security system, or driving in an automobile all day is more taxing on our bodies than it looks. Don’t fall into the trap of underestimating the load you are placing on your body.