The Health Hazards of Sitting
This is the title of an article in the Washington Post which aims to address some of the health problems associated with sitting, particularly for long periods of time. Whilst many of these problems were familiar to me as an Alexander teacher, I was rather surprised when I saw that over-sitting increases your risk of mortality.
A research study of people watching TV over a period of 8.5 years, showed that those who watched for 1-2 hours a day had a 4% risk of dying, whereas people who watched 5-6 hours had a 31% risk – and over 7 hours a day resulted in a massive 61% risk of dying. Of course many office workers also sit at their desks for over 7 hours a day – so beware.
Some of the health hazards listed that are associated with too sedentary a lifestyle are organ damage, poor circulation and brain function, muscle degeneration, soft bones, strained necks and bad backs. Quite a list!
What Can We Do to Avoid Problems?
So what does the article suggest people can do about this if they have to sit or use desks for long periods of time? Some gentle exercises are mentioned and these may well help, depending on how they are performed.
One suggestion is to sit on something wobbly (intentionally wobbly, that is). I understand Google has supplied them for their staff to use, which is great. I must say I do love sitting on my exercise ball whilst computing and I am doing so right now.
I agree that using a ball in this way can help us stop fixing our bodies which in turn helps to keep our musculature active and flexible – and it’s hard to slump when sitting on a ball. But some people start locking their hip and leg muscles when on the ball, perhaps because of fearing falling off, so it can help them to learn how to avoid that tension reaction and allow themselves to sit freely, despite the constant movements. Balls can also be used for gentle exercises and for having a good stress-busting bounce occasionally (like a grown-up Space Hopper).
Another good suggestion the article made is to use desks that enable people to alternate sitting and standing. One of my pupils had an adjustable desk at work and it did help her manage her back pain – but of course she also had to learn new ways of sitting, standing and moving around in order to make best use of this facility because previously, using the desk on its own had not get rid of her back pain. That’s where learning the AT can be so very useful, because applying the AT whilst working and living her life, my pupil gradually got rid of her debilitating back problems and then joined a dance class for fun – she could not have done that before! The article also illustrates some of the impacts of slumping at a desk and makes it very clear how unhelpful this can be, showing a woman sitting in a collapsed position. However, the text here is somewhat misleading as it seems to suggest that we avoid using our sitting bones:
People who sit more are at greater risk for herniated lumbar discs. A muscle called the psoas travels through the abdominal cavity and, when
it tightens, pulls the upper lumbar spine forward. Upper-body weight rests
entirely on the ischeal tuberosity (sitting bones) instead of being distributed
along the arch of the spine.
But we do need to sit on our sitting bones! The main illustration in the article, of the slumped woman, does show too much weight going through the rear part of the sitting bones, which is not helpful and would be likely to cause lumbar back pain. However, if the pelvis were realigned to be more upright, the weight could be distributed through the spine, then transferred through the pelvis and into the central part of the sitting bones, or into the legs if standing.
Strangely, the illustrations showing people the ‘correct’ way to sit and stand, omit showing the pelvis and sitting bones altogether, so the person appears to be finely balanced on thin air and the tiny coccyx.
“There’s No Such Thing As A Right Position” FM Alexander
It is so easy to fall into wanting a quick fix and assume that standing or sitting up straight for sensible amounts of time and then taking exercise, will solve all problems. Well, while this strategy may help a bit, it’s quite possible to sit and stand in a rigid manner, for instance, which can build up tensions, restrict our breathing and may lead to other problems in the future. Stiffening like this is tiring and people usually can’t keep it up for long.
As Alexander himself put it when teaching:
“I am putting into gear the muscles that hold you up, and you are putting them out of gear and then making a tremendous effort to hold yourself up, with the result that, when you cease that effort, you slump down worse than ever”. (FM Alexander Aphorisms)
So it is not just about the positions we sit and stand in, but the manner in which we use our bodies during our activities that makes the biggest difference of all. We can learn to be aware of our body use, gradually putting our muscles ‘into gear’ so we find an easier and more balanced way of sitting and moving around that enhances, not damages, our health.