While it’s easy to think of blue-collar laborers as suffering wear and tear on the body, but lack of movement (whether it’s standing or sitting all day) is the most connected with poor health. A new study from the University of Sydney finds that workers are more productive and have more energy if they stand more during the day. How might we find a happy medium?
Bridget Concato, a certified athletic trainer in Manalapan, New Jersey, works with clients who must sit for extended periods. Professional drivers, for example, have poor gluteus activation and get pain in the hips and back. When people sit too much, the gluteus muscles “shut off,” said Concato.
“This is not a good thing, since they provide much of the stability to our spine, like a basement,” Concato told LifeZette. Weak gluteus muscles lead to back pain, disc herniations, leg length discrepancies and poor posture as a result of tight hip flexors, she said.
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To enhance posture and work the gluteus, she urges people to sit upright and practice squeezing the gluteus muscles one at a time.
Workers who sit at computers all day develop “computer posture,” in which the person rounds the shoulders, leans the head forward and curves the spine. This causes the tracking of the scapula to change and literally travel away from the centralized location near the spine — leading to bicep tendonitis, rotator cuff injuries, numbness of the shoulders and neck, and immobile shoulders, said Concato.
Kathryn Hurley, of Alexandria, Virginia, said she sits 80 percent of her day for her work as a project manager at a health care IT consulting company. She works 45 to 50 hours per week.
“I’ve worked in office environments for about seven years and while I haven’t seen major changes, I’ve noticed some weight gain and shoulder and neck tension,” Hurley said.
She now takes the stairs instead of the elevator and goes for walks outside during the day in order to get in some movement and fresh air.
If you’re sitting at a desk for long stretches of time, Concato recommends getting up from time to time, doing a couple of squats, and then repositioning yourself correctly. The best sitting position is upright with your ears over your shoulders, your shoulders back and aligned with your hips, and your abs pulled in at 20 percent strength to keep the spine neutral.
“This position helps counter the effects of gravity that pulls the head and shoulders forward while sitting,” Dr. Peter Joffe, a chiropractor also in Manalapan, New Jersey, told LifeZette.
Concato has her clients perform exercises with the aid of mini bands for resistance. She also recommends walking laterally with light bands around the feet. This stimulates lateral stability and also forces you to hold in your core in order to improve posture.
Hitting the gym two to four times per week is another way Hurley tackles the unhealthy part of her job — something Concato recommends.
“If we don’t use it we lose it,” said Concato. “We need that 20 minutes of heart rate-ramped movement.”
A 2015 study in the Annals of Internal Medicine, however, showed that regardless of how much physical activity a person gets, a sedentary lifestyle leads to a higher chance of chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even death. If a person meets exercise requirements for the day but stays sedentary otherwise, there is a reduced risk of death by 30 percent.
Avi Biswas, a doctoral student at University of Toronto and the study’s lead author, said the largest threat of a sedentary lifestyle was a 90 percent greater chance of developing type 2 diabetes. “There (is) more to being active than just the small chunk of your day you spend at the gym. You need to think about the rest of your day,” Biswas said.
“While we all recognize sitting isn’t good, our bodies have adapted to it in that physical activity and standing for long periods of time get harder,” Hurley explained. “I don’t think we have fully seen the full negative effect of lifestyle on disease and lifespan.”
Standing for long periods of time, however, is not a healthy alternative. Five hours of standing for work results in significant muscle fatigue and lower back problems, according to a 2014 study in Human Factors.
“People who stand a lot may get varicose veins, a circulation issue when your veins are unable to get the blood from the legs up to the heart effectively and efficiently,” Concato said. “The legs feel heavy and strained. Not fun.” She prescribes exercises such as single leg heel raises and kick outs, hip swings and circles, and mini squats.
Dr. Joffe, the chiropractor, recommends frequent breaks and stretches of the lower back and legs. “Any postures that are (used) daily over time over-stress the spine and surrounding muscles. If not addressed, this can lead to chronic neck and low back pain and premature degenerative changes to the spine, discs and joints.”
Hurley’s office is working to counter the negative effects of sitting too much by providing standing and treadmill desks as options. The company is discussing the idea of “walking meetings” so workers can catch up on projects with colleagues.
“Performing movements regularly in all the planes of movements with your upper and lower body will ensure that all your muscles will continue to do their jobs,” Concato affirmed.