Saturday, April 2, 2011

Step 1: Sit Less!

The Desk Warriors Guide to Building a Healthy Back! 1/10

The International Journal of Obesity found in 2001 that Australian men working full-time on average spent 9.8 hours sitting in a chair daily. Since we Americans work more than most any other country, I'd estimate we sit perhaps 10 hours per day on average. This may seem like a lot at first but think about ones typical day. We wake up and may sit down for breakfast, if not we sit in the car as we drive to work. Most of us spend the majority of time seated at work. We sit down for lunch and dinner. The drive home is spent sitting in traffic and finally we crash on the couch to watch some night time television or to check our Facebooks. So now 10 hours per day doesn't seem so outrageous. 10 hours per day is 3,650 hours per year, or 42% of our day!

This “trend” of sitting for such long hours on a daily basis is surely not in line with our evolution. Accountants and I.T. Professionals are rather recent vocations. Sitting through rush-hour traffic and sitcoms are also new endeavors. We are evolving from hunter-gatherers who spent very little time sitting and when they did, they sat like this to amorphis blobs that vegetate in front of computer screens. (see below)

So why is all this sitting a problem for our backs? Why does it contribute to pain? To understand this we must understand a little anatomy.

When we stand with ideal posture, the curve in the small of our backs (lumbar curve) enables us to stand with a minimum of core muscle activity. Small amounts of core muscle activity while at rest (lying, sitting, standing, walking) is a good thing, because all core muscle activity compresses the spine. Too much compression of the spine will require a large percentage of your backs daily tolerance to loading.(which we'll talk about later)

You see, a muscle can only contract, or shorten. The muscles that support the spine go from your ribs to your hips or from the vertebrae of the spine itself to your hips and femur. Thus when these muscles contract, they shorten effectively compressing the spine. This is all fine and dandy when we are doing athletic moves and need a stable spine, but when we are simply sitting and resting, we want minimal spinal compression thus we want our normal lumbar curve.

When we sit, our lumber curve is attenuated, even in the best of chairs. Thus, we lose our lumbar curve and contribute to spinal column compression via excess muscular activation. Excessive core activation overtime via sitting or poor posture will... as my man Dr. Stuart McGill, the leading spine researcher in the English speaking world states A.) Decrease our work capacity B.) Degenerate the spine more rapidly C.) Exacerbate pain and disc problems. D.) Increase in intradiscal pressure when compared to standing postures.E.) Increase in posterior annulus strain. (Thats your disc trying to herniate or bulge backward)F.) Creep in posterior passive tissues which decreases anterior/posterior stiffness and increases sheering movement. (less stabile/more painful)G.) Posterior migration of the mechanical fulcrum which reduces the mechanical advantage of the extensor musculature (resulting in compressive loading).

In Layman's terms, prolonged sitting forces the spine to bend forward. See the spine above, picture it bent forward. The front of the vertebrates compressed together, pushing the center (nucleus) of the disks backwards. This is how we get bulging and herniated discs without traumatic injury. Also, the ligaments that support the vertebrae on the back side are elongated. They adapt to this elongated position. This is referred to as ligamentous creep. The ligaments are stretched out and your spine is now less stable. We want a stable lumbar spine and good movement in the thoracic or mid-spine and the cervical or neck regions.

When we sit, our quads (muscles in front of our legs) and our hip flexors (deep muscles connecting spine-hip-femur) are in a shortened state. Since we are very adaptive organisms, our bodies adapt to this shortened position as the new norm. The end result is short, tight muscles. These short tight muscles then pull our hips into an anterior-tilt (forward). (IMAGE) This is a problem because our lower backs compensate.

Our lower backs also will compensate for the anterior, or forward head position as seen below. This problematic posture loads the neck muscles much more, resulting in increased compression and thus neck pain, cervical disk herniations, arthritis, pinched nerves, shoulder pain and other problems related to nerve impingement that will manifest elsewhere in the body. Now this forward head position throws off our spinal equilibrium. The neck is flexed forward, the mid-spine is stable due to the articulations with the ribs. The mid-spine is less mobile and therefore our lower backs will again pick up the slack and take on the extra flexion. This is PRECISELY WHY YOU SHOULD NOT LOOK UPWARDS WHEN SQUATTING!

So when we have tight, short muscles in one area that inhibit proper movement patterns, other joints must pick up the movement slack. In this case, the joints directly above and below our tight hips pick up the slack. These joints of course would be the five vertebrae of the lumbar spine and the knees. Let's think real quick of the top 2 complaints that would lead one to see an orthopedic specialist. YEP, you guessed it achy LOWER BACKS and KNEES! The sitting posture tightens the anterior muscles and subsequently elongates and weakens the posterior muscles, leading to poor motor control and decreased tolerance to injury.

Hopefully we understand better why sitting is awful for us. It makes us shorter, weaker, less attractive and more prone to injury and pain. But how can we expect to sit less? Our livelihoods now depend on our ability to sit for extended periods of time. This 10 part series on spine health will cover the best ways to sit all the way to strengthening and rehabilitating your jacked-up spine.

O yes, and my references...


  1. SON I didn't authorize your use of that picture of me sitting at my desk!!!!!!!!!

  2. Ah, what does that Dr. Stuart Mcgill guy know?

    Just kidding pal. Excellent post. What audience are you writing to?

  3. I'm trying to hit the general public. Trying to help anyone who sits. Desk Warriors.