Sitting skills: Simple strategies to reduce aches, pains, and health issues

You’ve probably heard the popular slogan that “sitting is the new smoking.” But the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in four Americans sit for more than eight hours a day.

So what can you do about it? While there’s tons of advice out there, combating the negative impact of sitting is less about ergonomics and posture (although both matter) and more about changing positions often and overall movement quality. Below we’ll talk a bit more about both.

Why is sitting dangerous?

The change to longer periods of sitting is fairly recent in the scope of human history, so studies are still attempting to keep up with our increasingly sedentary lifestyles. So far sitting has been linked to everything from increased risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes to poor leg vascular health, reduced medial temporal lobe thickness, and even increased mortality risk.

And the problems don’t end after you stand up. Prolonged exposure to poor posture can cause other negative changes in everything from the way you walk to chronic pain. Jaime Mor, an EXOS physical therapist in Frisco, Texas, says the most common issues he sees from patients who sit too much are back pain, neck pain, shoulder pain, elbow pain, and carpal tunnel from typing.

If I have perfect posture, can I sit still all day?

The short answer is no. We have to go beyond basic sitting posture advice and focus more on overall sitting health. And for that it’s important to have a variety of options when it comes to sitting postures so you can switch it up.

Omi Iwasaki, physical therapist and senior vice president of performance at EXOS, says, “No one posture is ideal for a prolonged period of time. Our bodies require frequent movement and, most importantly, the ability to change postures and utilize different postures and strategies to accomplish various tasks.”

No one posture is ideal for a prolonged period of time. Our bodies require frequent movement.

If you’re squatting down to play with your kids on the floor, you might have a rounded spine without issues, but that rounded spine position would be problematic for someone in a gym squatting with a bar on their back. Sitting postures and strategies also vary for different situations. The main problem comes from time spent in the position, rather than the position itself.

Stefan Underwood, director of continuous improvement at EXOS says, “It’s less about the posture and more about prolonged static positions. Have you ever tried to hold a ‘good’ posture for a long time? It gets uncomfortable. If a muscle is working the whole time, it starts to deplete itself of oxygen and build up byproducts. Postural muscles are no different. If I hold the same posture the whole time, whether it’s good or bad, I’m going to start exhausting some muscles.”

How can I prevent problems from sitting?

As problematic as sitting can be, there is hope. Physical activity breaks during your day can help reduce your risk of Type 2 diabetes and improve cardiometabolic markers. Just like you take breaks to grab something to eat, Underwood suggests carving out time for “movement snacks.” This can mean getting up frequently to refill your water bottle and use the bathroom or fitting in some no-sweat workouts. The same goes for other times you’re sitting for a long period of time. On a long flight, opt for the aisle and drink lots of water. Then you’ll be more inclined to get up and use the bathroom and move around.

“The human body was designed to move,” Underwood says. “Good or bad posture, staying in the same position for long periods is when we will feel it the most. The key here is to move throughout your day. Vary your positions. Vary your postures.”

Since sitting still is the problem, does that mean a standing desk is the answer? Not necessarily. Just like with sitting, standing in the same position for eight hours can be just as hard on your body. Again, the key is to vary your position. A quick trick to remember to change it up is to switch from standing to sitting every time you go to the bathroom, which can be every hour or so if you’re properly hydrated.

What can I do if I’m already having problems?

If you’re already in pain, it’s important to work with someone you’re comfortable with, whether that’s a physical therapist, a chiropractor, an occupational therapist, a massage therapist, or a strength coach. Then, depending on what issues you’re having, they can help you work on improvements to mobility and stability to improve overall movement proficiency, helping your body better cope with the demands of your day.

Of course, it’s best to prevent issues before they start by training proactively and improving your movement quality, rather than waiting until there’s a problem. Iwasaki says, “It’s important to train for movement variability, or the ability to comfortably make a variety of shapes and patterns. When we only have one strategy to complete a task, oftentimes that strategy takes the path of least resistance and could result in compensatory movement.”

The more you move, and the better you move, the more latitude you have when it comes to postures.

And of course, try to be as active as you can. A recent study found that you can reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease by 24% by trading a half-hour of sedentary activity for something more active.

With the right training, you’ll find your body is better able to tolerate even bad postures for short periods of time. “The more you move, and the better you move, the more latitude you have when it comes to postures,” says Underwood.

“For example, let’s consider our cervical spine while we’re using a laptop. The cervical spine has seven vertebrae, and ideally there should be a uniform curvature that evenly distributes the load when I have a flexed neck looking down at the screen,” explains Underwood. “But if some segments don’t move well, the neck creates a hinge point that places all the stress on one segment, significantly increasing the chances of neck pain and other problems.”

In the end, it’s less about finding the perfect posture to sit in all day, and more about not restricting your body to confined positions. Your body was made to move, and the more you move the better you’ll feel.

Learn four sitting positions that could be hurting your body (and how to fix them).

About the Author

Kelsey Webb

As an editorial assistant at EXOS, I'm eager to help others improve every aspect of their lives through healthy living. I enjoy bringing effective strategies and information to light by working with experts in all fields.

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