Ergonomics, or How to Lessen the Effects of Sitting All Day

sitting at desk

We live in a sitting society. Most of the jobs that are available involve sitting in front of a desk or computer or sitting in some other capacity that is equally sednentary.

A generation or two ago, most jobs involved standing. Most jobs involved working on a conveyor belt, or being a clerk, or other jobs that involved being on your feet.

Now that we are sitting more and more, we are seeing the long term effects of a lifetime of sitting.

Sitting for long periods can create a myriad of health issues.

The muscular issues it can cause are: ankle pain, knee pain, hip pain, low back pain, abdominal pain, mid back pain, upper back pain, shoulder pain, elbow pain, wrist pain, and neck pain.

It can also make you more susceptible to chronic illnesses such as: heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and it makes you more likely to become obese.

Sitting for just one day will not create an issue. It will create problems when done repetitively- day in and day out, for weeks to months to usually years. Sitting long term causes cumulative trauma. The trauma and damage doesn’t come on all at once. It isn’t caused by one traumatic event. The damage from cumulative or repetitive trauma is slow and insidious. It comes on so slowly that most people don’t even realize that a problem is building up. They only notice the problem when it becomes symptomatic.

Cumulative trauma occurs from many minor injuries or irritations. But these minor irritations build up over time to cause muscle damage and injury. Think of a stream or creek that slowly, over many years, wears away rock and eventually can alter a landscape. The same is true with repetitive trauma. It will slowly wear away at the muscles. The minor injuries it causes will slowly build up over time to become a major injury.

Pain is the last symptom of a problem to appear, and the first symptom to go away. Just because you aren’t having any pain doesn’t mean that a problem isn’t brewing and building up and just waiting for a small event to become symptomatic or painful.

If you sit at a desk all day and you do not exercise and stretch, then your muscles will be getting tighter and more irritated on a daily basis. Every day that you spend sitting in front of your computer will cause the muscles to slowly tighten up, if you do nothing about it. When your muscles are tight and irritated, they are primed to become injured. The tighter a muscle is, the less it takes for that muscle to tear and become sprained or worse.

When a muscle is tight and irritated a minor trip or fall can cause a major injury. When muscles are tight and irritated it takes very little to further injure them. When someone bends over to tie their shoe and throws out their back, the action of bending over to tie the shoe was the straw that broke the camels back. Usually there are some other irritants that have been building up for some time to prime the muscles for injury.

If you can exercise and stretch, you can actually prevent some of these health issues from coming on in the first place. The looser and stronger a muscle is, the more stabile it will be. The more likely it will be to endure the rigors of daily life. The muscles will be able to stand up to the stresses of repetitive motions much better the stronger and looser they are.

In 2002, the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports coined the term Sedentary Death Syndrome to address the growing consequences of sitting long term.

Dr. Mladen Golubic, the medical director for the Center for Lifestyle Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute, said that “There are studies on Sedentary Death Syndrome that show that sitting for hours can cause anything from lower back pain to high cholesterol, diabetes and obesity.” He sees patients with multiple chronic illnesses regularly, and nearly all of them sit for long periods each day.

Dr. Golubic goes on to say that “if you do this (sitting) all day, and your muscles are not strong, the whole skeleton changes. I’m not aware of any studies that look at the changes in the volume of organs like the liver and spleen when you sit up straight or slump forward. But we do know that when you slouch, you project an attitude of depression and low motivation. When you sit up straight, psychologically, your attitude is better.”

I see this on a daily basis. If your muscles are not strong, then they will not be able to deal with the stresses of daily life as well as if they were stronger and more stabile. Muscles will tighten up slowly over time with repetitive and prolonged sitting. These tight muscles will then put different stresses on the skeleton and cause it to change slowly over time. Eventually your body will become shaped like the chair you have been sitting in for years.

Tight muscles will pull on the skeleton and alter its’ shape. This is what causes poor posture. I think that it is impossible to sit at a desk all day and not slouch and not have poor posture. Eventually at some point while sitting throughout the day your body will tire and you will slouch.

How can you prevent these issues if you sit all day?

Dr. Golubic explains the ideal sitting position. Sit straight up with your back away from the back of your chair. Have your feet placed firmly on the ground, about hip width apart. He also recommends putting a blue dot on your computer to remind yourself to sit up straight and to stretch and to take a deep breath when you feel pain.

Besides that, I have found that getting up from your chair every 30 minutes is very helpful in breaking the muscles out of the position they have been in all day while sitting. Get a drink of water, go to the bathroom. Do anything to get out of your chair frequently. I recommend setting a timer next to your computer that will alert you when 30 minutes has passed by. Otherwise it is too easy to get engrossed in a project and forget to get up. And the longer you sit, the more pain and irritation you will feel when you finally do stand up. Just standing up and moving around for a few minutes will be enough to get some blood flowing into your muscles, and get them loosened up so that they will not be as tight and as irritated by the end of the day.

Something else that is helpful with managing prolonged sitting is using a gym or physio ball to sit on. I can’t imagine sitting on a gym/ physio ball all day long. But sitting on one for just 10 minutes out of every hour is enough to get you to sit actively. It will get you to use the muscles that are shortened and deactivated while sitting in a regular chair. The more you use your muscles, the better off they will be, and the better off you will feel in the long run.

If you do suffer from any of the ailments that prolonged sitting can cause, a standing desk might be a good alternative. Many of my patients have had great success using standing desks. I have patients who have had horrible back, hip, leg, knee, or ankle pain that has gone away while using a standing desk. It will take some time to get used to standing all day, but when you do, you will be much better off for it.

You will have to slowly work your way up to standing all day at a desk if you are not used to it. I recommend starting standing for an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon. Do this for a week, then add in an extra hour in the morning and an extra hour in the afternoon. If this is too much, then start with just 1 hour of standing per day. And if that is too much lower it to 30 minutes of standing per day. You can lower even more than that if you need to. Go at your own pace. And slowly increase the time you are standing for. Once you increase the amount of time that you are standing for, give it 1 week before you add more time. This week time frame will allow your body to adjust to standing slowly, so as to prevent injury.

Besides that, the best thing to do to prevent the aches and pains from sitting all day, and to prevent the chronic illnesses that can be associated with sitting all day, is to exercise and stretch. The stronger and looser your muscles are, the more capable they will be to deal with the rigors and stresses of daily life. The stronger and looser the muscles are, the more stabile your joints and overall body will be.

Dr. Golubic always advises his patients to start yoga. “The first thing we learn in yoga is how to sit properly,” he says. Yoga is a great system that teaches you how to use your body. It teaches you proper control of your body and helps to improve core strength and flexibility. It strengthens and stretches out your muscles through specific poses that are designed to balance your body and loosen up your muscles to prevent injury.

I also like pilates and ti chi. I recommend that you try all 3 of these systems to find out which one is the right fit for you. You might like one style, one studio, or one specific instructor. Trust your instincts. If you don’t like something about the class (whether it be the studio, the instructor or the system) you will not do it long enough or consistently enough to benefit from it.

If you want to prevent any of the myriad of issues associated with prolonged sitting, then try to sit less. Try to sit differently. Try to get up frequently. Most importantly though, is exercise. Exercising and stretching will prevent and manage most of the health issues associated with prolonged sitting.

The Pain Free Lifestyle program is a strength and flexibility program that is set up to be easy to follow, and easy to get into. If you are not exercising now, you can easily get into it through Pain Free Lifestyle.

Improving your life, reducing pain, and managing health issues and illnesses through proper exercise, stretching and nutrition is The Pain Free Way.



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