Many people don’t realize that the detriment of sitting is not just in the not moving, but in these two primary things: 1) the change to the resting length of the muscles that happens when the body is in a static position for 8-16 hours per day, every day and 2) the change to the geometry of your blood vessels from maintaining this static position for hours on end, which affects how your blood flows through your blood vessels. Most people also don’t realize just how many hours per day then spend in a sitting position of hip and knee flexion (think work, driving, exercise machines, bikes, couches, mealtimes)- count them, you’ll be surprised.
First, to address the change in resting length of the muscles. Your body (every single system, tissue, cell) works best, when it is aligned as nature intended. We are designed to be moving creatures, not static creatures, and movement is different from exercise. To maintain this optimal alignment requires all of your muscles, that’s ALL of them, not just the 12 or so major muscles you work at the gym, to be at their correct length. When your body is in one position for many hours per day, this is your training program. Your hamstrings, calves, and hip flexors are in a chronically shortened position and you are training them to maintain this shortened position. The flip side of this is that to be able to stand up in alignment and walk optimally, you need your hamstrings, calves, and hip flexors to be at their optimal length- which, fyi, is not short. What do short hammies, calves, and hip flexors look like when standing? It looks a lot like sitting- bent knees and bent hips.
Muscles that are too short are muscles that have very little innervation. And muscles that are lowly innvervated use less energy and have less space to carry blood, which means higher blood pressure overall in your cardiovascular system. It also means, if you have great quantities of muscle that you are not able to use because the muscles are not innervated, you have a lower basal metabolic rate (metabolism) than you should have. Metabolic syndrome anyone? Diabetes? Obesity? It really is amazing, but it’s true: Stretching alone (proper stretching) can be the best weight loss program you’ve ever tried.
Second, the change in the geometry of your blood vessels is a bigger contributor- actually it’s the major contributor- to the increased risk of death. The reason that sitting increases the risk of death is much simpler than the fat, cholesterol, and chemistry that we are trying to make it…it’s about geometry. Your body’s circulatory system is arranged in such a way to maximize optimal blood flow. When you add random twists and turns to your blood vessels, which you do with chronic sitting, you affect the flow of your blood. What actually is happening on the cellular level, is an increase in the number and frequency of “wall wounding”. This is what causes plaques to form on the arterial walls. A blood cell bangs up against the blood vessel wall and creates a wound. This is the first stage of plaque accumulation. Allow this to keep happening over and over again, and you’ve got yourself some cardiovascular disease. Exercise doesn’t affect the wall wound or the wounding itself. But you can change your blood vessel geometry for the good and stop the wounding just as easily as you bent it all up when you sat down. Stand up. When you stand up, you remove all the arbitrary bends and curves you created when you sat down. Understand that if you’ve been sitting for many hours, for many days, for many years, your muscles, and thus your bones and joints, are not yet ready to jump up and stand for 8 hours straight. You need to add the necessary stretching. Start with a simple calf stretch done using a half foam roller. Do this multiple times throughout the day. Heck, you’re already standing, it’s easy to stretch your calves at the same time. Actually, the best thing you can do for your body is to change positions frequently. You can sit when you need to. Stand for part of the time. Even squat. Yes, I said squat. Can you sit on the floor for part of your workday?
Unfortunately, despite what fitness and the media have been telling us for years, we cannot make up for not moving and undo the chronic sitting position we hold our bodies in for 8-16 hours per day, with a short bout of intense exercise. It’s impossible. This is why, in the studies done on the deadly effects of sitting, those who exercised and those who did not, were at equal increased risk of death. Exercise does not undo the damage done by the change to the muscles length and the blood vessel geometry. Therefore, sitting on an exercise bike to do your work isn’t going to undo it either. Also, since the only way to walk on a treadmill is to flex at the hip and put one leg out in front, this is not the solution to undoing all that sitting hip flexion either.
Some of the changes you’ll need to make are contrary to what you think you can do. But you’re going to have to think a little differently about what is “normal” or what your coworkers will think if you want to save yourself from your maniacal killer chair. Besides you’ll have the last laugh when your coworker falls off their chair and keels over dead.
This article was written by Breena Maggio, Restorative Exercise Specialist and Owner of The B.E.A.C.H. (the Body Education Alignment Center for Health) in Ventura, CA. She is one of the top people in the fitness/wellness field. You can reach Breena at:firstname.lastname@example.org, www.alignmentbeach.com, 805.642.9900