Back in February, I wrote a blog post extolling the virtues of constant gentle movement. (You can read it here; it’s a good introduction to this post). However, the more I treat bodies, the more I see that a lack of varied movement is a huge problem for most people – bigger than just one blog post. Incorporating the small movements I suggested has helped most of my clients, but many of them with desk jobs still don’t get enough movement throughout the day, and their bodies are stiff in at least one area. The problem is that their bodies have slowly adapted to make it easier to do what they do most: sit. Bodies are efficient that way … adaptation is a blessing and a curse. Our bodies strive to use as little energy as possible in order to conserve what energy we have. If we perform some movement or adopt a position repetitively, the body will find a way to make itself proficient at that movement or position. Tissues that spend most of their time in a fixed position will actually alter themselves in order to make that position more readily attainable. It’s a wonderful system except when we take our bodies to extremes, like spending ten to twelve of our sixteen waking hours in only one position (this goes for any chronic position). The muscles lengthen or shorten, we develop fascial adhesions and our joints lose their range of motion. In other words, sitting in a chair (or a car) changes the body into more of a sitting shape even when we stand up. This is not something we can simply “stretch ourselves out of”, the change is relatively permanent until we switch up our general positioning and movement patterns. The chronic positioning most of us engage in on a daily basis creates stiffness and pain, and we need better advice than just “move more”. We need a recipe to help us “move better.” I turned to Katy Bowman, biomechanist and ancestral movement guru. In her latest book, “Move Your DNA: Restore Your Health Through Natural Movement”, Bowman addresses our movement diet. There is so much helpful content that it deserves a series of posts, so the next few will all focus on better movement.
The key to keeping our bodies agile (and hopefully pain-free) appears to be engaging in a wide variety of movements throughout the day. Bowman is careful to make a distinction between exercise and movement, however, and so am I. I have spent years doing multiple boot camp classes in one day and unfortunately doing that did not provide me with healthy movement in the long term. Exercise is absolutely necessary and very beneficial, but it cannot comprise the bulk of our movement profile. We can definitely perform targeted exercises in our daily sessions, but we need to fill in the rest of the day with different types of motion. Engaging in a wide variety of movements can mean engaging a greater number of muscles in micro-movements throughout the day, walking on different types of terrain, walking on varying gradients of incline or decline or even switching up our sitting positions. Our movements are dictated by our mechanical environment, so switching up the environment will be crucial to keeping our bodies in healthy motion. Environments that change constantly make more thorough use of our bodies. However, as I have mentioned many times before, the body does not adapt overnight. In fact, the body does not do well with too much change at one time. If we are relatively sedentary (regardless of whether or not we go to the gym for an hour every day), our current bodies might not be able to adapt to major changes without injury. Adopting a natural movement lifestyle may need to happen in stages. Before we can discuss movement, we should understand walking. However, Bowman notes that most of us are walking so inefficiently that our gait pattern is actually contributing to our pain and tension. So, before we can understand healthier walking, we need to take a step even further back to address two major gait influencers: chronic sitting and footwear.
We have already discussed how chronic sitting changes our bodies. Maintaining our hips and knees in continual flexion can wreak havoc on our bodies when we want to do anything other than sit. We need an antidote and the easiest one is to ditch our chairs. If at all possible, Bowman suggests that we slowly transition to sitting on the floor, since there are many more joint variations possible on the floor as opposed to a chair.* Most of us need pillows or rolled up blankets under our hips, but the possibilities are still almost endless. I remember when I published my original movement post, a fellow massage therapist (and dedicated natural mover) texted me a photo of her living room.** She and her husband have created a mechanical environment in their home that fully supports constant gentle movement: they have mats, pillows and rolled up blankets in a functional configuration instead of the traditional sofa, table and chairs. I loved it! We can all do some version of this at home. Even a little time spent in alternative sitting postures is helpful. Getting up and down into floor seated positions on a more regular basis will also keep the body functionally strong.
Another scenario created from ditching the chair would be to remain upright. My answer has been to create a standing desk out of my kitchen counter, but a box or stack of books on your current table would do nicely as well. Many of my clients stand with their feet slightly turned out, which can put pressure on the inside part of the knee and cause pain. If we are going to be doing more standing, it is useful to assess our standing posture. Bowman suggests a few helpful adjustments. Go to a mirror for these. First, line up your feet so they are facing forward. Your knees probably ended up turned inward, so the next step is to turn your thighs outward so your knees are facing forward (without picking up your feet). This step, in turn, probably caused your quads to tense up, so the next step is to relax them by aligning your pelvis vertically with your knees and ankles. This involves rotating your pelvis so that your two hip bones (where you put your hands on your hips) are lined up with your pubic bone. The final step is to allow your kneecaps to drop toward the floor by relaxing your quad muscles. This last step might take some practice (check out nutritiousmovement.com for help). The key, however, to a standing desk is not to just stand, as standing in a fixed position will stiffen your body as much as sitting will, albeit it in different ways. I vary my standing by moving around while I work, doing side and back lunges, practicing standing on one leg for better balance, standing on my stability board or cobblestone mat, rolling the sole of my foot on a textured roller, doing calf raises or calf stretches, moving a ball around with each foot in turn to create different angles in my joints…again, there are many possibilities. (I will get into all of these in more detail next week when we talk about feet!) A blend of sitting and standing is ideal.
You might be thinking: this is great for the home, but what about the place where I do most of my sitting …. the office? If you have a laptop and your office will allow it, you can comfortably sit on the floor and have a variety of sitting positions throughout the day. If you work in an environment in which it would be inappropriate to sit on the floor, you can still ditch your chair, at least some of the time. Stability balls are popular chair substitutes and can be used for short periods if we are mindful of the drawbacks. They are not ergonomically designed for long periods of sitting, so using them in this way may cause unnecessary fatigue for those with weak core muscles. Fatigue can easily lead to poor posture and injury. They are best used alternating with chair-sitting and standing over the course of the workday. Again, a combination of sitting and standing is ideal, so a convertible workstation is your best bet.
Many companies offer them, and if yours doesn’t, why not suggest it? You could also make your own as mentioned above with a box or stack of books. Be creative and enlist your office mates!
We could all benefit from more varied movement to reverse some of the adaptations that are not serving our bodies well. The first step is to switch up our chronic positioning, which for many involves ditching the standard chair. (If your chronic position is different and you want suggestions, email me!) Over the next few weeks, we will tackle the topics of feet, agility, walking and alignment as we work our way toward a better movement lifestyle.
“Move Your DNA: Restore Your Health Through Natural Movement – EXPANDED EDITION”, Katy Bowman, 2017
*Bowman suggests a few stretches to transition to more floor sitting:
- Sit on the floor with a blanket under your hips, with the soles of your feet touching. Allow the legs to fall open, stretching the inner thighs and opening up the pelvic girdle.
- Sit in a V on the floor, stretching both inner thighs and hamstrings.
- Sit on the floor with a blanket under your hips and the soles of your feet against a wall. Lean over to the point of resistance and gently hold. When you can, allow your head to slowly drop toward your legs.
**This is not the original photo, as I couldn’t find it! Amy, in case you are reading, thank you for the idea (even though this is not your living room)