By now you’ve heard about the benefits of sitting less a time or two. Maybe you’ve created a standing desk or experimented with sitting on the floor in a variety of positions. Changing you position throughout the day (rather than sitting in one position ALL day) has improved your health in countless ways. Well done!
Here is series to help relieve the lower body tension caused by excessive sitting. These exercises can easily be done at the work– no need to change clothes, get all sweaty, or buy special equipment! The tension in the legs and hips can cause back/hip/leg pain, incontinence, prostate inflammation, pelvic pain, sciatica, poor circulation, muscle weakness and countless other ailments. For best results, do these at least 2-3 times during the day. It is best to do these exercises barefoot or in socks, as wearing shoes will interfere and make the exercise less effective. You can also combine these exercises with short walks around your office (or even outside of your building) every time you need to make a phone call. Even if it’s just for 5-10 minutes, moving instead of being stationary improves circulation and glucose regulation. Some say that sitting for too long increases your risk for developing type 2 diabetes by 91% even if you exercise regularly!
1) Double Calf Stretch: This is a great way to work on untucking the pelvis and stretch the calves and hamstrings. Roll up a towel or yoga mat. Place the balls of both feet on the towel with the heels on the floor. Place your hands on a chair and bend forward from the hips. Your feet should be pointing straight ahead. Let your hips back up so that there is more weight in your heels. Lift the tailbone up towards the ceiling without bending your knees.
2) #4 Stretch: This stretches the piriformis and is great for those suffering from sciatica. It can be done any time you are sitting or standing.
Seated: Sit on your “sitz bones” the edge of your seat. Cross your left ankle over your right knee without letting your pelvis tuck. Relax the left knee towards the floor without letting your pelvis shift to the side
Standing: Stand on your right leg and cross the left ankle over the right knee. Bend the right knee like you are sitting in a chair (like a 1 leg squat). Lift the tailbone towards the ceiling as you back the hips up. Hold onto a chair or wall for balance.
3) Wide Leg Wall Glide: To stretch the inner thighs, stand with your legs wide and feet about 6 inches from a wall. Hinge forward from the hips, tailbone to the ceiling. Then glide the pelvis right to leg along the wall. Keep your gluts against the wall and the knees straight (relax the quads if you can). The hands can rest on a chair for support. This can be done without a wall as well.
4) Pelvic List: Stand with the right foot on a step, phone book or block. Line up the outside edge of your foot with the edge of the step to straighten the foot. Slowly lower the left foot towards the ground (without bending the knee) and bring it back up using the muscles of the standing leg (not the muscles of the low back or waist). This exercise strengthens the muscles on the outside of the hip.
5) Door Knob Squats: These are a great way to simultaneously stretch and strengthen the gluts and hamstrings. The strength and mobility required to squat is essential for pelvic floor, hip and low back health. As you bend your knees, back up your hips as far as you can, untuck the pelvis and lift the tailbone. Keep the knees over the ankles (vertical shins) to both protect the knees and help you use your gluts and hamstrings. Holding onto a door knob will help you back your pelvis up.
For more “at work” exercises to address computer claw hands and shoulder tension, see Part 2.
I recommend Katy Bowman’s book, Don’t Just Sit There. It’s a comprehensive guide to sitting less and moving more, without compromising your productivity. Another good resource is this list of ways to create a more active workstation.
I know, I know. Hear me out.
You may have seen this article in Buinessweek that came out a few years ago titled Your Office Chair is Killing You. It focuses mainly on the way that sitting negatively affects the alignment of your spine, encouraging a “C” shape instead of the natural “S” curve, which leads to degenerative disks, neck/back pain, osteoporosis of the vertebra, bulging disks, high blood pressure and about a hundred other things. It also talks about the metabolic changes that occur after prolonged sitting, which increase our risks for obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
Sitting in a chair all day make the muscles of the legs very tight, which causes hip/leg pain and significantly reduces the circulation to the lower body. Do your feet or legs get numb halfway through the work day? Now you know why! Tight muscles of the hips and leg are also a huge culprit in back pain because they can pull the spine out of alignment. When you are sitting, your muscles are pretty inactive, which significantly affects metabolic processes in your body.
We all know that it’s unhealthy to be sedentary, but here is the part that is often misunderstood.
“People need to understand that the qualitative mechanisms of sitting are completely different from walking or exercising,” says University of Missouri microbiologist Marc Hamilton. “Sitting too much is not the same as exercising too little. They do completely different things to the body.”
Did you catch that? Sitting too much is not the same as exercising too little. If you go to the gym everyday, you may consider yourself an active or fit person. What you need to understand is that an hour at the gym everyday is not enough to counteract the damage of sitting all day. That’s like eating a salad for dinner to make up for the fact that you smoked all day. It doesn’t work like that, right? No amount of kale is going to undo those cigarettes. The research shows we need to sit less, not just exercise more.
Take this quiz to find out how much you ACTUALLY sit each day. It’s very eye opening. The first time I did it, I was shocked!
If you are a student or have a desk job, sitting less requires some creativity. Read how to transition to a standing desk here.
This is my new desk that I made recently. It started out as a $19 baby changing table from the thrift store. Unfortunately, in my excitement, I forgot to take the “before” picture before I tore off the box part on top. (You know, those side pieces that keep the baby from rolling off.)
I attached a piece of plywood on top, painted it, and found some cute hardware in the clearance bin at Cost Plus World Market. A non traditional desk doesn’t have to be expensive or ugly!
I like to multi task by stretching my calves while I work. My dog likes to be RIGHT next to me all the time. Sometimes it ends up looking like this.
Just by standing up you will:
- Increase your metabolism & circulation
- Use more muscles during your day
- Reduce hip, leg & back pain
- Build bone density
- Decrease your risk for cardiovascular disease, obesity & diabetes
It’s not that standing is a magic pill, it’s just a simple way to start reducing the amount of time you are sitting in a chair. You can swap your chair sitting time for sitting on the floor in different positions and other types of movement. The goal is varied and regular movement throughout the day.
Here are a few ideas:
- Instead of meeting a friend for coffee, meet at a park and take a walk.
- Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
- Instead of sitting at a desk, try sitting on the floor while studying or working on the computer. Cycle through different sitting positions.
- Look for the furthest parking spot instead of the one closest to the store.
- Stretch while watching TV or reading rather than sitting on the couch.
- Read Don’t Just Sit There, by Katy Bowman for ways to get in more movement while you work.
Right off the bat let me say that I can’t take credit for this title. It’s been all over the news, which makes me exceedingly happy for two reasons: it’s a fantastic headline, and it’s becoming mainstream (not just for the health nerds anymore!).
I had to steal the title because, the truth is, sitting IS the new smoking. It’s so ingrained in our culture that we don’t even think about it. If you went to a work meeting or a party and you chose to stand instead of sit, it would be weird, people would notice. I know because I do this quite often, and it really freaks people out. Sixty years ago, if you were at a meeting or a party and chose not to smoke, it would be weird, people would notice. I know because I’ve watched Mad Men, and it really freaks me out. (Seriously, have you SEEN how much they smoke? And drink. And cheat on their wives. The whole thing is out of control.)
But seriously, at one time, smoking was acceptable, popular even. People smoked everywhere, and it was normal. If you weren’t smoking, someone would politely offer you a cigarette just like today, if you aren’t sitting, someone will politely offer you a chair. Smoking was a national health crisis, only they didn’t realize it. The new national health crisis is the number of hours we sit each day: in the car, at work, on the couch, at mealtime.
Sitting for the bulk of our day causes the muscles of the legs to become very short and tight. This causes poor circulation (cold, numb, or swollen feet, anyone?), decreased space in the joints (=friction=pain), sciatica and lower metabolism. This tension pulls the pelvis out of alignment, and since the pelvis is the base for the spine, the spine also gets pulled out of alignment causing things like herniated discs, nerve impingement and generalized neck/back pain. When muscles are tight and inactive, they aren’t pulling as much blood into the smaller blood vessels as they normally would. This increases the pressure in the larger vessels, making it harder for the heart to work and increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease.
If you think about our history, this excessive sitting is a relatively recent phenomena. A few hundred years ago people had jobs that kept them moving throughout the day. If they wanted to go visit a friend, they walked or maybe rode a horse. They didn’t have desk jobs or cars that kept them sitting for hours on end. Sure, they had chairs, but they used them far less than we do today.
As obesity, heart disease, cancer and other diseases of affluence became more widespread, we realized this was due to the fact that we were sedentary, which was true. So we invented exercise to make up for our lack of movement during the day. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but today we see these diseases are still on the rise. Exercise hasn’t solved the problem.
The AARP put out an article last year titled “Sitting: Hazardous to Your Health” where they tell us:
“Mounting evidence suggests that sitting for long periods increases the risk of obesity, diabetes, cancer and early death, even for people who exercise daily.”
Did you catch that? The more you sit, the higher your risk for disease and early death, even if you regularly exercise. The new research shows that the best thing you can do for your health isn’t to exercise more, it’s to sit less. This is hard for a lot of us to hear, because we have been talking about the importance of exercise for the last 40 years. What scientists now understand is that going to the gym for one hour a day doesn’t undo the damage of sitting for 8+ hours a day. Avid exercisers and couch potatoes are dying from the same illnesses. Fitness activities are fun and have their place, but what the human body really needs for disease prevention is regular movement throughout the day.
Here is the fun part! Take this “How Much Do I Sit?” Quiz and read the suggestions at the very end for ways you can start incorporating more movement into you day.
Coming Next: How to transition to a standing work station.