(Older article republished on this blog several years later.)
We live and work in a world filled with computers and lots of chair time. We start training for it on our very first day of school. We replace our days of running around freely with structured chair time. And by the time we enter the work world several years later, we think nothing of sitting for 3-4 hours without moving.
Since marathon sitting is such a common experience, several myths have developed. Let’s discuss them so that you don’t make avoidable mistakes.
Myth #1 — I look like a computer user, but it’s no big deal.
We’re not talking about geeky pocket protectors or glasses with the nose piece taped. If you’re in an office now, look around at your co-workers. Most of them are slouched forward; their heads are jutting out over their laps instead of squarely over their shoulders (and it remains forward even when they stand); if they’re typing or using a mouse, most likely their elbows are not tucked in at their sides; and their legs may be crossed or else they’re sitting with their feet tucked under their chair and only their toes are bent back and touching the floor.
Since most of your coworkers fit the above description, it’s easy to think that it’s no big deal. But it is a big deal. Over and over people came to my office for issues that are the result of “looking like a computer user.”
- Carpal tunnel syndrome (and other repetitive stress and impingement syndromes)
- Impingement syndromes (a nerve is pinched enough that pain shoots up or down the arm, neck or both; another symptom is numbness or tingling)
- Early osteoarthritis—also known as early joint degeneration
- Disc bulge or herniation
- Pain—neck, shoulder, wrist, and lower back pain are most common
- Fatigue—slouching gives your lungs less room and getting less air makes you sleepy
- Muscle tightness and tension
- Strains and sprains that happen when a desk jockey sits 5 days and then suddenly explodes into a sport on the weekend
None of that sounds fun, does it? And that list doesn’t express the extent that pain and lack of mobility and strength rob other areas of your life. When your wrists hurt so much that you can’t pick up your coffee, imagine what else you can’t do.
Myth #2—There’s nothing that can be done about chronic pain that started from the repetitive nature of my job
Maybe you already knew that looking like a computer user isn’t harmless because you have friends or family members dealing with desk jockey issues…maybe you even recognized some of the symptoms in yourself. I hope you aren’t one of the people who think you just have to live with pain!
It always made me sad when a patient came to my office for one complaint, and never even mentioned another area that obviously hurt. They had accepted that their knee, shoulder, lower back, or whatever area was always going to hurt, so they didn’t even mention it. They’d decided that chronic pain was an acceptable way of life.
Sadly, in a few instances that meant that so much damage had occurred that we couldn’t make enough long-term changes to give them long-lasting relief. But much of the time, people were stunned to realize that something they’d learned to live with could be reversed enough that they got to enjoy a pain-free and active life again.
Even if your job is repetitive, small changes can make huge differences in the effects it has on you.
Myth #3—I know sitting is bad for me, but I have to work so there’s really nothing I can do about it.
While it might be true that you have to sit to do your job, there are things that can be done to minimize your chances of developing any of the problems associated with sitting.
We are all natural athletes. Our bodies are exceptionally talented at adapting to the positions and movements we perform most frequently. Though you probably never thought of it this way, by sitting all day you’re essentially training yourself to be a better sitter. If there were an Olympic event for desk jockeys, you’d probably qualify.
Don’t throw yourself in the dustbin just yet, though. There’s hope for even the most rigidly chair-shaped among us. It starts by sending your body a few reminders throughout the week, making sure your workstation is set up well, and doing a bit of warm-up before you play hard on the weekends. By adding just a few simple movements you can do throughout your day, you can “cross train” your body to be good at more than just sitting.
You want a couple of examples?
2 Exercises That Help
…and you can do them at your desk!
1) Hip Releases
Sit tall, cross your right leg over your left so your ankle is resting on your thigh (not your knee cap), and slowly lean forward while keeping a tall spine. You can apply gentle pressure to your right knee by lightly pressing it toward the floor, but be gentle. You can also use your left hand to hold your right ankle in place. Hold the position for a few seconds, sit up, put your right foot on the floor, and repeat with the other leg.
Slide forward to the edge of your chair and sit tall. Move your right foot so it sits flat on the floor about a foot’s length from the side of your body. Slowly “drop” your knee toward your other leg and down toward the floor. Your foot will come up on its inside edge as you lower your knee. Hold for a few seconds. You’ll feel this on the outside of your hip, and into your upper and inside thigh muscles if you’re really tight. Return to the starting position and repeat with the other leg.
Slide forward to the edge of your chair and sit tall. You’re going to perform a seated lunge. Move your right foot back in a straight line until your knee is pointing at the floor. You’ll already feel this in the hip flexor of the extended leg. Squeeze your right glute to get an even deeper stretch. Return to the starting position and repeat on the other side.
2) Chest and Shoulder release
This one’s easier to do standing, but you might be able to stay in your seat depending on the chair you use.
- Stand tall, reach both hands behind you, clasp them together at the base of your low back, and then gently push your hands toward the floor. Your shoulders will automatically “square” and your chest will expand.
- Take five slow, deep breaths and push your hands a bit further down with each inhale. Even if you can’t actually reach further down or you move only the tiniest amount, try to push your hands toward the floor.
- After five breathes, relax and release your hands.
- Repeat this at least twice a day, but as often as once an hour.
Myth Busting—When Will I See Results?
You may notice immediate small changes right after you do these exercises. If you do each exercise 2-3 times per day, you’ll see continued improvement over the course of a few weeks.