Although we’re living in the digital age, our bodies are still analogue. The forces with which evolution shaped our hominid shells over the last 250,000 years never operated in the context seen in the last half century.
The dramatic change in technology as the main means of production – previous constant and often hard labour has given way to desk-bound spaces full of laptops, smartphones and vending machines. Sitting for up to 10 hours a day, like most of us do, means that we are exposing our bodies to a new kind of evolutionary pressure – and something’s got to give.
Research from 2004 already showed us that prolonged sitting negatively affects the standard indicators of physiological health: waist circumference, BMI, triglyceride levels and 2h plasma glucose.(1) Interestingly, the fact that you may be exercising for the recommended 45 minutes every morning may do little to prevent this negative impact.
On top of that, whether you sit poorly or not makes a difference too. Being slouched and immersed in the two dimensional reality of your computer screen for hours not only messes up your posture but also your psychological well-being. (2)
One solution that seems to work is frequent breaks filled with short bouts of moderate physical activity, along with paying attention to your posture whilst sitting. Here is a step-by-step practical guide on how to do all three things, so that you can grow stronger despite being desk-bound.
Before you start
Step 1: Decide that for every half an hour of work you will dedicate at least three minutes to benefit your body. The research shows that that frequent activity breaks make a huge difference when it comes to overcoming the negative effects of sitting. (3) Funnily enough, periods of focused work interspersed with frequent short breaks tend to improve your productivity too. This kind of interval is used in the ‘pomodoro technique’, a time management method popular with techies to improve their output.
Step 2: Make sure that your desk space is set up in a way that supports a physiologically good sitting position. This means that your chair height has to allow your knees to be below your hip level, that your feet can both touch the ground with their full surface, and that you’re using your sit bones and not the lower back against the back rest to support yourself.
You are looking to establish a gentle lordosis (inward curve) at your lower back so that the core muscles can be activated whilst sitting. If you can, get a saddle chair without a back rest, as these are great for maintaining correct spinal curvature.
Make sure that the top edge of your screen is just below your eye level so that your facial and neck muscles don’t tense up. Your forearms should be resting on the desk without you needing to work to keep them raised, and at the same time they should not be loaded with your weight.
The following exercises for your three minute break for every 30 minutes of inactivity can be done in any combination. It’s important to remember to pair with breathing awareness as this makes the exercises much more effective. Immersing yourself in the fully embodied experience of the movement will give you the best possible environment not only to improve your fitness but also to temporarily relieve your brain from the cerebral efforts of your desk-bound job.
Exercise 1: Sternum reach
Sit with both of your feet evenly touching the ground, your sit bones supporting your spine, and your back not supported by the chair. Raise both of your arms up and connect to the sensation of your breastbone. On the inhale, allow your breastbone to float gently upwards and let it hang there whilst elongating your inspiration. When you are ready to exhale, allow the breath to empty and at the same time let the breast bone fold back to the initial position. Keep your arms raised throughout the entire exercise. Repeat 6–8 times.
Benefits: Elevates oxygen intake, decongests chronically compressed area of the upper ribs and breast bone, aids organ mobility, elevates mood.
Exercise 2: Rooting
As before, sit with both of your feet evenly on the ground, your sit bones supporting you, your spine free of the back rest support and the palms of your hands resting on your lap. On the inhale, increase the pressure through your feet as if you were about to stand up. Allow the sit bones to elevate a few millimetres, but don’t get off the chair. Feel the muscles of the legs tensing up underneath your hands. As you exhale, allow the body to soften and return to a resting position. Again, repeat 6–8 times.
Benefits: Activates areas that are dormant in sitting, i.e. quads and buttocks. Increases the sense of rootedness in the body. Gives the nervous system a boost, improves posture, and elevates metabolic rate.
Exercise 3: Curling in/out
Maintaining an even contact with the ground with both feet, allow your sit bones to support your weight. Make sure that your lumbars are not resting against the back rest. Place one hand on your breastbone and the other on your lower belly.
On the inhale, allow both hands to travel as far from each other as possible so that your breast bone is reaching up to the sky, whilst your belly is pointing to the floor. When you have exhausted your capacity to inhale, empty your lungs whilst allowing both of the hands to come as close together as possible, so that you are curling in like a sleeping hedgehog. Repeat 6–8 times.
Benefits: Increased spinal mobility, hydration of the spinal discs, aids organ mobility.
Sitting is here to stay and we’d better get adapted to it before it’s too late.
If you are committed to sit well and keep taking regular breaks from inactivity every half an hour or so whilst keeping your three minute exercises focused and consistent, then in an average week of work, you will have accumulated nearly four hours of sophisticated and well-distributed workout.
The changes should be noticeable at the end of week two, and you will have become stronger without leaving your desk.
About the author: Luke Gregorczyk is a certified practitioner in the Rolfing Structural Integration, a bodywork modality that treats the fascia to effect lasting postural changes. He specialises in treating the root causes of chronic back pain and the causes of back pain in St Albans and London. For further information please visit: rolfing.london
(1) M. C. Hamilton et al., Too Little Exercise And Too Much Sitting, Inactivity Physiology And The Need For New Recommendations On Sedentary Behavior, Current Cardiovascular Risk Rep.
(2) P. Brinol, R.E. Petty, B Wagner, Body Posture Effects On Self Evaluation: A Self Validation Approach, European Journal of Social Psychology.
(3) GN Healy et al., Breaks In Sedentary Time: Beneficial Associations With Metabolic Risks. Diabetes Care.