They say sitting is the new smoking, and even though that may offend some, it has truth to it. Chair sitting is a modern reality we all have to endure to some degree, in our cars, at the office, and in class. Let’s take a look at some key points that may reveal what is happening when sitting in a chair for too long.
1. Your hip flexors are shortened. This means that 11 hip muscles become shortened in an unnatural sitting position at 90 degrees. Why does this matter? Muscles form to the position they spend time in and tend to stay in that shortened position leading to poor posture, breathing patterns, and low back pain over time. If a group of muscles shorten they also affect the entire chain of muscle and fascia from the head down to the feet. This creates a host of issues that often go unnoticed until you decide to lift something heavy, run a 5k, or simply lie down on the ground.
- Your glutes don’t operate properly when your hip flexors are chronically shortened. Gluteus max is the largest of the 3 glutes, and along with the hamstrings acts to extend your hips. Think about walking up the stairs, squatting, and doing lunges. Glute max should be firing, but do to reciprocal inhibition, when the hip flexors are held tight, the glutes have a difficult time firing even if you’re consciously trying to get them to. Reciprocal inhibition is a relationship between opposite muscle groups that allows us to move. If our hip flexors didn’t relax when our glutes engaged, we would have an extremely difficult time walking up anything because we’d be hunched over. The problem with chair sitting is that this relationship slowly becomes dysfunctional without our conscious awareness.3. Next stop is the core. Now most people envision the core as the abs, but it also involves the obliques, which help us flex forward and rotate, the transverse abdominus, as well as the spinal erectors, hip, groin, and latissimus muscles. When sitting, the hips tend to tilt either forward (anterior) or tuck under (posterior) which causes imbalanced relationships throughout the trunk musculature leaving certain muscles tight, weak, lengthened, and/or short. Sitting at a 90 degree, hip flexed position with our work placed out in front of us leads to a lack of rotational strength, mobility, and places stress on the entire spine. A harmonious core is one that provides both stability and mobility simultaneously, which chair sitting does not promote.
- The relationship between your quads and hamstrings becomes dysfunctional due to the sustained 90-degree bend at the knee joint. The hamstring muscle fibers closer to your knee become shortened while the quadriceps fibers directly above your knee become lengthened. This is how the muscles are supposed to work together in order to flex and extend your knee joint. However, when chair sitting they are not resting at a complete end- range like when sitting on the floor in a kneeling position. Over time, chair sitting limits the range of motion available at your knee, which affects your ability to move well. Imagine you just biked to work and took a seat for 30 minutes to go through your emails for the day. Your muscles go from being used and warm to beginning to cool down within minutes. The problem occurs when they cool down in the wrong position and stay there for long periods of time. Even 30 minutes is a long time after a workout because muscle and fascial tissue cools and forms in that 90-degree position, just like a cast over your joint. If you’ve ever been in a cast you know how stiff it feels once you take it off and try moving your joint again. This same process happens when sitting in a chair.5. Your feet are inactive and not being stimulated by the ground. Sitting in chairs with shoes on created several problems. Sensory stimulation to the plantar surface is one of them. Without sensation and the tissue of your foot being challenged, the muscles no longer need to work anymore. Also, fluids pool in your feet while the lower leg veins are not being assisted by your calve muscles to aid blood return to the heart. The whole topic of foot health, self-care, and the implications of sitting on feet will all be discussed in a separate blog post of its own. It’s a fun and detailed discussion!
6. Your upper body slumps forward once your hips are stuck and the posterior chain fatigues. No wonder everyone has knots in their backs and shoulders after trying to hold “good” posture while sitting. Once the superficial front line (the myofascial chain linking the top of your feet to your neck) is closed at the hips, there’s only a matter of time before the rest of the body reacts and compensates to find a balance. Not to mention the fact that we gravitate closer to our computers to see what’s going on once our eyes begin to fatigue. This leads to short pecs, delts, biceps, and shoulder internal rotators, which then further restricts our posture and breathing and creates an imbalance between the back of our torso with the front.
7. When you go to stand up from a chair, your tissues will be stuck in that position. And the longer you sit, the worse it gets. Our bodies operate through neurofeedback loops that require regular practice to stay open and connected. If the only position you practice is sitting, then that’s the position your body will be used to and most comfortable being in. As a general rule of thumb, it takes 10 minutes for every 60 minutes of sitting to combat the negative effects and to keep your body upright and balanced.
So, how do you troubleshoot your sitting so you can still make a living, take road trips, and live in modern society? Your first priority is to develop a regular movement practice that takes your body throughout multiple natural ranges of motion on a regular basis. This is the single-most powerful thing you can do for your long-term health. Yoga, Pilates, functional training, gymnastics, martial arts, and dance will all challenge your body to stay mobile and strong while giving you the self-awareness needed to take care of your health. Add focused tissue work and you’re on a journey that will keep you mobile, stable, and free to enjoy life to its fullest.