Fidgets Sit Best
If you are desk-bound in your job then workplace wellbeing is key for your employer to recruit and retain top quality employees. If your employer hasn't run our seated workshop at your workplace, then here's an idea of how you can help yourself in the meantime.
'Sitting is the new smoking' - this 2017 study was used in the media to motivate us up and out of our seats. We all heard that the hour at the gym was no good to counter the 14 hour office day. Advice has varied over the years for how to manage the issues at work due to all this sitting. So what is the right advice?
What is Desk Posture?
Most people sit with their head reaching forward toward the screen this flattens the neck vertebra and draws the shoulder blades forwards, so that the chest collapses inwards. This makes the spine excessively round and low back unsupported as it collapses. The bent hip and knees shorten the muscles of the front hip (iliopsoas) and hamstrings. All lead to back pain, shoulder issues, neck pain, encourage jaw tension, headaches, tight hamstrings, weak buttocks and sciatica.
Your workplace will offer an assessment as part of your Health & Safety briefing. If you are unsure about your desk posture then the simplest approach is:
- Feel both sit bones on your seat evenly balanced.
- Imagine a pole along your spine and press your back of head, spine between your shoulder blades & tailbone into it.
- Let your shoulders hang over your ribs
- Relax the front of your hips (hip flexors) and exhale with a sigh to draw the abdominals in for support.
Answer 1: Strong Abs for Back Care
The original advice to counter these injuries was to get a strong abdominal area. But lots of ab crunches perpetuates the rounded back look of hunched shoulders and sore necks. Many Pilates teachers in London question whether it is healthy to encourage people to round their spine forward.
Abdominal work is great when done with proper alignment to strengthen muscles to the correct length and strength.
Exercises in neutral spine will build kinaesthetic awareness of the correct curves for the spine when seated or standing. Many gym classes focus on 'neutral' spine for this reason. BUT to fix our spine in one shape is unhealthy as it is rigid. We want to mobilise!
Flexion Core Work
Abdominal crunches promote mobility of the upper spine (thoracic spine) through the strength of the abdominal muscles rather than collapsing forwards at our desk. To correctly do an Ab Crunch exercise do the following:
- Neutral pelvis to correct the tilting lower back of a seated posture. Relax the hip flexors and keep the tailbone heavy to the ground at all times. There should be a little curve to the low back.
- Softly engage front neck muscles. Imagine someone pulling your skull off your neck and a gentle nod of the head before you lift yourself into an ab curl.
- Stabilise Shoulders. Draw your shoulder blades down your back & a little squeeze under the armpits like you are holding a newspaper.
- Draw your ribs down to hips. The ab muscles attach at your low ribs, so use drawing the ribs to the hips to lift your head & shoulders off the floor.
Backbends for Spinal Extension
Backbends are vital for mobility the other way, but focus must be on the upper spine (thoracic) to counter the hunched back and shoulders rounding forwards.
Just performing abdominal exercises neglects the other half of the 'core' - the back of the pelvic girdle that we sit on. Issues with tight hamstrings pull on the low back and gluteals with misfiring patterns result in sciatica and painful low backs. The solution?
Answer 2: Standing Desk
The theory of this solution: standing requires our legs work to support us. However, if you speak to any shop assistant they can tell you their back problems from standing all day too. Low back pain, thoracic pain and still neck forward issues are still common in these not 'desk-bound' jobs.
Yes, do stand as part of the day but do it with good posture. Those planks reinforcing your 'neutral spine' position will help here, but so will understanding how to use your feet, legs and pelvic muscles properly.
Good Standing Posture
- Shoe Free! If possible take your shoes off so your feet tendons & ligaments can begin to work in your feet.
- Even weight in both legs. Shifting your hips to one side weakens and destabilises the pelvic girdle.
- Four corners & Tripod of Foot. There are 3 arches, but we often talk of the 4 corners in the feet to help the inner & outer ankles work evenly. Your want your centre of gravity in the middle arch of the foot feeling buoyant like it draws energy up from the earth.
- Sit Bones Wide. Let your sit bones roll wide to allow for your natural low back curve.
- Pubic Bone draws up to navel. To engage low abdominal muscles & counter (4) for balanced muscles.
- Float Bottom Ribs - front ones down & in, back ones wide & up. This connects the top abdominals for support & prevents sinking in the low back arch.
- Rest Shoulder Blades on your Ribs. Let your shoulders soften and be supported by your ribcage.
If people standing are still reporting the same issues, then there is more than just sit vs stand at work. What is the solution?
Answer 3: Be a Fidget
Humans evolved and are designed to move! This is more than get up and walk to the toilet. It includes a full range of spinal, hip, shoulder, neck movements. Rigidity arises when we do not mobilise in all joints, muscles and ranges that our bodies can move within.
We must constantly move about all day in our chairs and standing. To be rigid seated or standing is unhealthy. If you feel that build up of stiffness then begin to mobilise. Keep it small.
Twists are fabulous for spinal mobility when we lengthen and then twist the spine. Do this in your chair at work:
- Square your front hip bones to your desk & keep them still.
- Lengthen your spine tall as you inhale.
- On your exhale imagine you are ringing our a dishcloth - long then twist.
- Try to use your abdominals to make the movement rather than your arms & shoulders.
Open the side waist, ribs and side armpits - you feel that you can breathe fully. In your seat:
- Square both front hip bones to the desk.
- As you inhale lengthen both sides of your torso.
- On the exhale imagine you are lifting one ear to the sky like you are a puppet and feel your side body lengthen.
Which is Right?
- NEUTRAL SPINE: Try to learn what this feels like so you become aware of your own posture. You can then make a choice of your posture and self-care.
- MOBILISE: Try to explore each joint and it's range of movement in different positions.
- KEEP MOVING: Continuous movement is what we need to do, any fixed shape for too long is unhealthy. Lift a knee, take a twist, hands behind your head and open your chest upwards - anything is better than nothing!
In reality, all of them are right and none of them are right.