By now you’ve heard that “sitting is the new smoking”—meaning it’s a danger to your health and can shave years off your life.
1. Sitting Can Lead to Carpal Tunnel
“When you’re not moving your body and changing postures on a regular basis, that exposes you to issues that we call accumulative trauma disorders,” says Karen Jacobs, occupational therapist, board-certified professional ergonomist, and clinical professor at Boston University. If you’re sitting at a desk(or standing) and your mouse and keyboard aren’t set up properly, it could lead to wrist, hand, and arm pain.
“Carpal tunnel syndrome is when a median nerve is squeezed or compressed through the wrist,” Jacobs says. It can feel like your fingers are hurting or tingling. You may feel wrist pain.
Try this wrist extension stretch from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons:
2. Sitting Can Lead to Back Pain
If you’ve sat at a desk for too long—especially one that wasn’t set up properly—your back was probably one of the first places you experienced pain. Parham Tabloei, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., works at Active Therapy Center in Santa Monica, CA, and has many clients who work at desk jobs in Silicon Valley. “They sit all day and ask, ‘Why is my lower back hurting?’"
Most work environments are not ergonomically fit for each employee, he says. “After two or three hours of sitting, the muscles in the lower back tend to elongate. They stretch out the ligaments and the muscles themselves,” he says. “The pelvis tilts backward, and that slouching effect ends up putting [pressure] on all of those muscles that run up and down close to the spine, to the vertebrae.
"This could lead to dysfunction, radiculopathy (pinched nerve), or even shooting pains down the legs and sciatica," Tabloei says. “At the same time, you have stuff going on in your mid-upper back and neck. One thing often leads to another.” This causes a cascade of issues: The back muscles get really tight and stiff, the neck ends up hurting, and then people begin complaining of headaches because of that period of extension, he says.
"Even if you have an ergonomically perfect environment, you're still going to run into health issues down the road if all you're doing is sitting, and then going home and sitting in front of your computer or TV and then going to bed," Tabloei says. “For every hour of sitting, spend an hour of either standing or stretching.” If you have a sit-to-stand desk, he suggests switching from standing to sitting every hour with some stretching in between.
Try these desk stretches to relieve tight back muscles:
3. Sitting Can Lead to Sciatica
Sciatica is a type of nerve pain that originates in the lower spine and branches down the back of both legs, which can hinder simple movements like sitting and walking.
“One of the things I have people do when I’m evaluating their computer work station is, I have them keep a one-week time log of activities they’re doing,” Jacobs says. “So that I get the whole picture of what a week looks like, and then we go over that. I might say, ‘Could you highlight in yellow when you start having some symptoms? When are your back, neck, and shoulder hurting? Or when is your wrist hurting you?’ That helps me identify what the triggers are.” You can keep a log yourself to identify what body parts hurt and when they start to ache so you have a better idea of what may be causing those pains.
“If you sit all day and then go to the gym and pump weights, you're setting yourself up for more stiffening around your body, specifically the joints,” says Tabloie. “That's going to cause all kinds of issues like sciatica, compressed nerves, neurological issues, and pain.”
“I recommend taking a break from sitting or standing every 30 minutes. If you're standing, take a walk. If you're sitting, get up and stretch, and take a walk to the water cooler,” Jacobs suggests. This can help prevent sciatica, as can practicing good posture, according to the Mayo Clinic. "I suggest everyone change and vary their postures often," Jacobs adds. “Stretch before starting your day at your computer.”
You may want to see if your company has a policy about standing desks to set up at your office. Both Jacobs and Tabloie suggest switching from sitting to standing every hour if you have a standing desk.
4. Sitting Can Lead to Tight Hips and Butt Muscles
Experiencing hip pain could be due to a number of factors, but if you’re sitting at a desk all day, your hips and glutes can become tight.
“When you’re sitting, your knee is at 90 degrees, and that puts the hip in a shortened position. All the muscles in the front of your hip that run down (like your quads) tend to get stiff and short in that position,” Tabloie says. “Then, some of the rotators of the hip—in the back toward the buttocks—also become short.”
If the gluteal muscles and your IT band are too tight, they can pull at the thigh bone where they attach and cause pain on the side.
Think you shouldn’t care about hip mobility? Having looser, more flexible hips can help you get into a deeper squat when lifting.
“People are spending all day sitting and then going to the gym pumping weights thinking that the resistance training is going to save them from some of the back pain,” Tabloie says. “It all comes down to flexibility, mobility. You need to have mobility before you can start to create strength and stability around the joint."
Try this stretch after warming up for a few minutes at the gym or at home:
Deep hip flexor and glute warmup:
How to Reduce Your Daily Sitting Time
Take the time to go for a 10-minute walk every hour or every couple of hours, Tabloie suggests. When you're going to the bathroom, maybe go to one on a different floor or farther down the hall so it forces you to walk a little bit more. When you're sitting statically, things slow down in the body—your metabolism rates drop and you have less flow of fluid throughout your body. Getting up and moving is going to lubricate your joints and get your blood flowing.
“It's also important to not just think about what you're doing at your job, but how you're using technology at home or traveling,” says Jacobs.
You may sit on the train or bus for a commute and have your neck bent to read from your phone. Or, you may have your laptop open while sitting on your couch later, which isn't great for your health, either.
Just typed all day at work and then texting all night with friends? You’re doing a number on your hands.
“One of the things I tell people to do when they're starting to become symptomatic and experiencing pain is to use voice recognition software when texting or using their smartphones,” Jacobs says. “It’s another way you want to give your body a break if you're doing a lot of repetitive movements."
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