Is Sitting the New Smoking?

Mar 16, 2016

Jennifer Hallquist

by Jennifer Hallquist
PT, DPT | Biltmore Location

Foothills Sports Medicine’s unique, individualized approach to therapy makes us a leader of physical therapy in Arizona. We help our patients achieve their goals through a variety of hands-on techniques, and even offer a free assessment of your needs, which can be scheduled online here.
Jennifer Hallquist obtained her doctorate in physical therapy and has decades of experience working in the field with a diverse range of patients. She explains why a simple activity like sitting can actually be dangerous, and how you can change the way you sit to benefit your health.
Let’s stop and think about this for a second. What do we do from age 4 or 5 through our 20’s? We go to school. What do we do the majority of the time we are at school? Sit! Not only are we sitting for many hours a day, but we are often sitting at desks that are poorly designed. Yet as a collective society, we have adapted our bodies to these chairs, desks, and other objects (don’t even get me started on airplane seats) rather than the other way around.
Sitting is not the only issue; how we are sitting is a major problem. From playing video games, watching TV, using smart phones, computers, and iPads, our beloved electronic devices are slowly crippling our posture and contributing to weight gain, digestive issues, and joint problems like carpal tunnel syndrome, sciatica, headaches/migraines, and lower back pain—the list goes on and on.
When you think about sitting down, it seems innocuous and safe. And it is – but gravity and reaction forces also exist, and we are allowing them to win. We usually do not notice what these forces are doing to our body until we experience pain. It may take years and years of allowing yourself to sit in horrible positions before hitting the end of the road and finally feeling pain.
As miserable as back pain is, it might be the least of your worries if you spend a significant portion of your time on your keester. Much like smoking, sitting may actually cut years off your life. Lack of exercise is sitting’s evil accomplice. The more you sit, the less your body wants to move.
According to a study in the British Medical Journal,1 reducing the average time you spend sitting to less than three hours per day (a significant decrease from the 4.5 to 5 hours per day the average American now spends on a chair or the sofa) could increase your life expectancy by two years.
An analysis of 18 different studies showed that people who sat for the longest periods of time were twice as likely to have diabetes or heart disease, compared to those who sat the least. Sitting has actually joined smoking and obesity as an important risk factor for chronic disease. Yes, you read that right. However, I would still argue that it is the way you are sitting that is more likely to cause these physical problems and decrease life expectancy.
Fortunately, there are a few strategies and exercises, such as changing your position often and “reorganizing” your torso, which can address a lot of these potential problems and help keep you more fit and properly aligned. However, you have to create self-awareness and take responsibility for how you are sitting.
A simple and basic remedy is to simply get off your duff and stand up! Additionally, there are certain exercises you can perform to further reduce the adverse impact of sitting. Kelly Starrett, who has a doctorate in physical therapy and is popular mobility expert with CrossFit, shares some excellent tips for maintaining good posture while sitting for extended periods in a chair. The key is to vary your positions often – at least every 20 to 30 minutes – and maintain proper torso alignment, regardless of what position you’re in. Starrett also recommends standing up often and doing some specific realignment exercises, which are actually quick and easy.
Sitting, especially while doing computer work or texting, tends to result in leaning forward with your head, neck, shoulders and upper back. The key is to teach your body to support itself in a more neutral position, without overcorrecting.
Realigning Your Body in Five Easy Steps
Starrett recommends a five-step series of body “reorganizations” or realignments, done in the following sequence:

  1. Stand up with your with feet pointing straight forward or slightly inward.
  2. In the interview, Kelly recommends realigning the pelvis by simply squeezing your butt tightly. We would like to add that this will be more effective for the majority of people if they internally rotate their feet 10-15 degrees (big toes slightly towards each other), roll feet to the outside of the arch, and then try to pull the back of the legs together without the heels moving. This will allow the thigh and butt muscles to work together, making the squeeze more effective.
  3. Create some tension in your core by slightly tightening your abdominals (this is not an extreme tightening – just to 20 percent of your max).
  4. Correct your shoulder position by externally rotating (think of unscrewing) your shoulders and arms (rolling your shoulders back), which brings your shoulder blades closer together, your chest up and forward, and your thumbs pointing away from your body
  5. While keeping your shoulders externally rotated, turn your hands back to neutral, so that your thumbs are now facing forward

These basic alignments can be applied no matter what position you’re in – whether you’re standing, sitting, kneeling, or anything in between. If you practice these exercises regularly, you’ll be preventing many problems that commonly arise.
In case you’re wondering if you should just substitute a balance ball for your chair, there is little evidence of any benefit in doing this. Studies show minimal, if any, postural improvement, and one study even showed “spinal shrinkage” from using these balls as a chair. According to Kelly Starrett, the apparatus you sit on is far less important than the positions in which you teach your body to get into, no matter what the position is.
However, the ergonomic revolution has led to the birth of some interesting desks and workstations that offer the option of standing up to work. Some workstations even have a treadmill underneath for walking. Sales of the “TreadDesk” have reportedly grown tenfold since its introduction in 2008. There are a number of companies putting a lot of money into research and development in this area, and I suspect to see many more of these designs in the future.
Now, people! Take control over gravity and ground reaction forces and fight back! Don’t let them win! Go forth and conquer these forces while you are sitting, standing, kneeling, lying down or anything in between.
For more information about physical therapy in Arizona, follow our blog.

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