In this series we explore the interplay between mind and movement, how neurological connections are formed and influenced by the way we sit, stand, and move!
Good posture is not just about aesthetics or obvious physiological benefits (i.e. breathing, muscle tension), studies recognise a correlation between alignment and better concentration, awareness and control.
Our guest expert introducing the series is Fiona Patterson, a yoga, tai chi, qigong instructor and the creator of ‘Salute the Desk’ a popular movement meditation app.
From the high-focus concentration of an air-traffic control officer, to the delicate precision of an archaeologist discerning the fine lines of a fossil—there are some professions that require the individual to be seated (sometimes at length).
So, if your job requires desk duty read on…
What’s wrong with sitting?
An increasing amount of research suggests that prolonged sitting has health implications far worse than simply attaining a more generous waistline.
While sitting can be comfortable, prolonged sitting can leave you feeling stiff and sore.
That’s because sitting at a desk all day, hammering on a keyboard, isn’t really something that is sympathetic to our body’s needs.
Modern humans have existed in our current anatomical form for around 200,000 years—and as an upright, walking ape for almost 2 million years. Our bodies have evolved through a Stone Age lifestyle—hunting and gathering in different environments.
Many things that we take for granted as definitively human are very recent cultural developments. In terms of a 2 million-year evolutionary timeline, planting crops occurred only in the last 15,000 years. This is the most likely period in which the chair and stool were invented. Personal computing, either sitting at a desk or hunched over a mobile screen, has been around for less than 25 years.
If the human evolutionary timeline was compressed into a single day—then the practice of sitting at a computer occupies the final 1.08 seconds of that day. Put in that context, it is impossible to assert that our bodies are naturally evolved to cope with prolonged sitting.
Sitting down, during most of our evolutionary history, involved squatting on our haunches, with open hips and feet flat to the ground. This is something that the majority of people in a western society would actually struggle to do.
Habitual squatting builds up leg muscles in a very different way to habitually sitting in a chair. Squatting builds strength in the quadriceps, the vastus medialis and vastus lateralis, as well as strength in the ankles and feet. It also builds flexibility through the lower back and pelvis.
Sitting in a chair, for most people, does nothing to build up strength in the legs—instead relying on fixing the muscles around the hip joints and lower back into whatever postural position is habitual. This causes relative tightness in muscle groups that are commonly associated with lower back pain, such as the psoas major, the adductors and the tensor fasciae late.
While sitting might seem comfortable, it’s the prolonged holding of these positions that causes problems. This includes the habitual way that we carry our upper body when working at a computer.
A good way to visualise how poor postural habits lead to chronic pain is to imagine holding a bottle of water.
Carrying a bottle around is easy, a bottle doesn’t weigh that much. However, what happens when you hold the bottle with the arm extended out to the side? It’s easy at first, but will progressively become harder the longer you hold out your arm. In fact, it’s hard to simply hold your arm out at an angle for a prolonged period even without a weight. The way your body performs routine activities makes a difference to how you cope with them.
Chronic pain due to bad posture is a similar thing. You don’t notice bad posture at first, and the time spent at a desk over the years gradually locks the muscles into a particular pattern of holding. This pattern may cause problems in the long run—either through using muscles and tendons in ways that ultimately cause strain, or through compromising the way you move when you are not at your desk. Many of the injuries people sustain while playing recreational sport can be traced back to issues such as tight hips and hamstrings, which might have their roots in poor seated posture.
An important factor is that many of us are not connected-in with our posture in the first place. This is exacerbated by stress and deadlines, where our focus is on completing a task rather than on how our body feels. In fact, stress itself can be associated with a range of postural bad habits—typically a tightening through the shoulders, neck and abdominal muscles.
All of that adds up to bad habits with physical consequences.
Sitting for prolonged periods doesn’t just change the way we use our muscles, it also changes the way the body functions. The latest research shows that our circulation and blood sugar levels are also impacted upon by sedentary behaviour, which has now been linked to a shorter life-span.
So what should I do?
Move around more—get up from your chair regularly and go for a bit of a walk. As well, follow some simple steps to achieve better seated posture.
The first is to build postural awareness.
Proprioception describes the brain’s internal, three-dimensional image of our body. It is a form of awareness, the sense of the relative position of different parts of the body, and the sense of the application of strength and movement.
Our proprioception can be trained and improved over time. It can also diminish from an optimal state.
For example, most of us walk with very little awareness. Mostly, when we are walking, we are thinking of where we are going and what we are going to do when we get there. Most of us do not train our proprioception while we walk, such as through focussing on how the heel strikes the ground or how the toes work to push off into a stride.
Typically, the only time we stop to think about such things is when we are recovering from injury. But it’s easy to try this out for yourself —the next time you are stressed, take a 10-minute walk focussing on nothing but how your body moves.
Think of it as the more advanced version of counting ten breaths.
A key component of developing unhealthy posture is ‘turning off’ our proprioception while seated at the desk.
Tuning in to your postural form will help to avoid long-term strain.
The next step is to train yourself in good seated posture—which we will explore in the next issue.