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Sitting is hard work. We don’t think of it that way, because nothing seems easier than not moving, but sitting is in fact one of the most punishing things you can do to your body.
Most of us are so adapted to sitting that we no longer notice the pressure that it puts on us until we feel pain – at which point the damage has been done. But if you were to imagine you treated any other part of your body like you treat your back, it’s easy to see why sitting is so hard on us.
Muscles are designed to contract and relax in a cyclical manner. They are not designed to contract constantly for an extended period of time, even if that contraction is at a low level. If you keep your back locked in a certain position, muscles that are adapted to generate power and movement will be contracted longer than they’re supposed to be and will eventually become exhausted.
People tend to power through this exhaustion and remain in the same position for hours upon hours, day after day, until all that excess muscle loading adds up to become a chronic condition: the dreaded bad back.
Do a quick Google image search for “sitting posture”. You’ll see pages and pages of people sitting bolt upright, which is exactly what comes to mind when we think of a good sitting posture, likely drilled into us at school, the dinner table or work.
And it is a good posture: the spine is in a neutral position, your shoulders aren’t overextended and your core is engaged. But no matter how good a posture may seem, you still shouldn’t be stuck like that for more than 20-30 minutes.
After that point your muscles will be contracted for too long and become overloaded. Instead, you need to find ways to regularly change position or maintain some movement.
Wriggle around in your chair, stand up to walk around regularly or set a reminder on your phone to change position every 20-30 minutes. Whatever works for you to stop yourself from getting stuck still for days, weeks, months – even years.
Remember, sitting bolt upright isn’t drilled into us because it’s what’s best for us, it’s because it’s aesthetically pleasing. Someone sitting up straight is a good “image” for someone working, especially if they have a public facing role like a receptionist or security, but you won’t be able to keep working that way for long without developing back, neck or hip pain.
It may seem odd for a physiotherapist to encourage you to slouch, but like any other strenuous activity, sitting should include periods of rest. In this case, slouching into the back of your chair gives relief to muscles that have been contracted for extended periods.
You shouldn’t be slouching for more than five minutes at a time, because that will create the opposite problem of under-utilising your muscles, but a five minute period of relaxation will let you resume sitting straight feeling reinvigorated – just like you would take short breaks when doing extended exercise.
By the time your back, neck or hips have developed sitting-related pain, you’ve already done damage to your body that will require more focused intervention to undo. If you currently don’t have pain but sit for hours a day, you need to start taking preventative measures now to avoid chronic pain and the lengthy rehabilitation it requires.
So regardless of whether or not you’re in pain at the moment, if you have a desk job or a job that involves standing all day, you should come and see us for advice and exercises that will allow you to keep working pain-free.
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