The human body works best when in constant gentle motion. It is a fluid system of muscles, bones and nerves that interact dynamically, and, miraculously, the more we engage this system, the better it functions. The body did not evolve to be in one stationary position for a prolonged period of time. The anatomy of the posterior chain is not well-suited for sitting at desks and car seats for as much time as the modern lifestyle demands. Likewise, our shoulder joints and upper back muscles were not designed to type on a computer or text on a cellular device for multiple hours each day. The body is, however, extremely adaptive and will re-pattern itself on both muscular and neurological levels to sync with our daily activity. The bad news is that when we offer the body very little activity, it will respond with stiffening into the position of most use. The muscles that are overstretched will be in constant pain, while the muscles that are continually contracted will lose their range of motion, along with the associated joints. The good news is that, since the body and brain are adaptive, we can reprogram these pain and stiffness patterns with small adjustments in our daily lives.
Sitting has been labeled the new smoking. Bio-mechanist Katy Bowman, says that while this labeling may sell standing desks, it largely misses the point.* The problem is not necessarily sitting but a lack of movement. Standing in the same place for a long time will produce a different set of aches and pains, but the negative effects on the body are similar. During my years as a restaurant manager, I moved around the restaurant for ten hours at a time, and I always felt very agile. Every once in a while, there would be a particularly busy night during which I would have to stand at the host desk all night to control the flow, instead of moving around from table to table. Waking up the next day after those nights, my body felt very stiff, with both my feet and my back scolding me for my lack of motion the night before. Simply standing up for your whole work day can be just as detrimental as sitting. Bowman explains that the body will adapt to any type of repetitive positioning, so it’s best to avoid staying in a single position for indefinite periods of time. Adaptable workstations are the best, but many people do not have access to these. Her advice: move around. Take small breaks during the workday to get up and walk even if it’s just for three minutes at a time. If you stand, use those breaks for movement. Vary your positions, whether sitting or standing (better if you can do both during your day), so you are never in the same position for an extended period of time. One of Bowman’s main concerns with our current level of inactivity is that the body adapts not only on a musculoskeletal level, but at the cellular level as well. Lack of movement changes blood flow and arterial geometry, which can cause coronary artery calcification. This is an early marker of heart disease, making the case for increased movement that much more compelling.
It’s also important to keep the brain awake during periods of inactivity. Anat Baniel says “It’s the wakefulness of the brain that determines, to a great extent, the level of activity of the muscles, and, thus, our health and well-being.”** In other words, during prolonged sitting or standing, the parts of the body we are not using largely disappear from the brain’s activity map and the brain “goes to sleep”. The key, again, is to try to keep the entire body active when possible with constant gentle motion, so the entire body is being mapped to the brain. One easy way to accomplish this is to sit in chairs that encourage movement. Chair seats that are slanted backward, for example, immobilize the posterior chain, cause slouching and prohibit small movements while sitting. For periods of prolonged standing, you can keep the mind-body connection dynamic by activating your muscles and keeping your joints in proper alignment. Your joints should stack up one over the other and all muscles should be lightly engaged.
Those of us who log an hour or two of exercise in the morning are not immune to the negative effects of inactivity, if we are sedentary for the rest of the day. So-called “active couch potatoes” experience the same degenerative outcomes of multiple hours without motion, regardless of how hard they hit the CrossFit in the morning. Taking the time and incentive to take the stairs, perform gentle stretches at the desk, and to be mindful to stand dynamically when in the grocery line can benefit everyone. With just a few small tweaks to our daily routines, we can ensure that our bodies stay as supple and agile as possible for the benefit of our greater health.
*”Standing Pretty”, What Doctors Don’t Tell You, February 2017
**”Dynamic Sitting”, What Doctors Don’t Tell You, February 2017