With the cold weather finally here we are typically spending more time indoors, and often that means more time seated. Our bodies need movement to help with circulation, digestion, joint nutrition, and many more physiological processes that keep us healthy. The effects of overdoing it with seated time can be thought of as a loss of balance in particular regions of the body. Certain parts of our spine and large joints like the shoulders and knees are held fixed at seated angles, and as our postural muscles fatigue this leads to muscle tension in common patterns. If we don't "undo" the effects of sitting by moving these joints around and utilizing their full range of motion, it can lead to tight muscles, pain in soft tissues, and eventually low grade inflammation in the joints. Here are 5 great exercises that can be done at your desk or almost anywhere to undo the muscle tension from too much sitting. Let's take a look from head to toe:
1. Stretch Your Levator Scapula
Your Levator Scapula is the muscle attaching from the inner top corner of your shoulder blade to the sides of your top four vertebrae (CI-C4). If we are sitting with our shoulders rounded forward and chin situated forward, this muscle tends to tighten which then affects our shoulder mobility and neck rotation. You may start to notice this as you have trouble checking a blind spot or an ache at the bottom of your neck on one side.
To loosen this up, sit up straight and with one hand touch the back of your shoulder blade. With your other hand, gently pull your head down and away. Hold this for 30 seconds while breathing calmly and then repeat 3x on each side.
2. Stretch Your Pecs
Find a door frame or a corner to stretch the pectoralis muscles and open up the chest. This allows the upper spine to more easily extend and maintain a more correct posture. Tightness in this area can cause poor circulation in the hands, additional strain on the neck, and can be a contributor to carpal tunnel symptoms. To stretch the pecs, place both hands on a door frame in front of you at shoulder height. Relax the neck and shoulders, engage the core and abdominal muscles, keep the chest up and lean forward until you feel a stretch across your chest. Hold for 30 seconds with diaphragmatic breathing and repeat 3x on each side.
3. Five Minutes of Deep Breathing
A consequence of prolong sitting is the tension created around the thorax that can alter breathing rhythm by limiting rib movement and lung inspiration capacity. Chronic dysfunctional breathing can also disrupt hormone balances, worsen asthma, and be a contributor to inflammation. On the contrary, sitting comfortably with mindful attention to good posture can be combined with deep breathing using the diaphragm to increase oxygenation of the body. Our central nervous system also tracks the quality of our breathing and decides if we are in a stressful and dangerous situation, or a safe environment - allowing us to be in a physiological state of healing, rest and repair. To keep our bodies in a restful and healing state remember to give attention to breathing well everyday. It takes practice!
4. The Hips DO Lie
Most hips that we assess tend to have limited extension as a result of tight anterior hip muscles. The typical seated position where our hips and knees are bent to 90 degrees leads to tightness in the Iliopsoas muscles. Sometimes we feel this as tight hips, but often the symptoms from this problem are experienced as low back pain, knee pain, and even constipation. To take the pressure off your low back, hips and knees, just stand up from your desk and slide your chair back a few feet and get into the position shown below. Make sure to keep your front knee inline with your toe and not anterior to it. Also, your low back should not become arched as you sink into the stretch (to offset this, tighten your core muscles before leaning forward). Hold for 30 seconds and repeat 3x for each leg.
5. Walk Often
Try to sit no longer then 45 minutes without standing up and walking around for a few minutes. This will take strain off ligaments in the spine that can get irritated if stretched for long periods. Move your feet, march on the spot, reach for the ceiling, it doesn't really matter what you do so much as you get off your butt! Don't look at it as a disruption to your work if you are at the office, but instead a means of increasing efficiency as you will be feeling lighter, more mobile and can focus more energy on getting your work done. For bonus points bring some appropriate winter attire and go for a 20-30 minute walk outside to maximize the healthy benefits of some day time sunshine (adjust for extreme weather).
These 5 simple tips are quick and easy and will help keep balance in our bodies and keep you feeling great. The most useful changes we can make aren't always complicated new exercises at the gym, but simple habits to use throughout the day. All of the above exercises can be done multiple times per day, and the more we do them the better we feel. Remember to move often and move well.
Peter Petropanagos, MScPT, FCAMPT