What’s the Harm?
Pain and injuries as a result of work is a drastically increasing problem and the number of people working in jobs that require them to sit for long periods of time is also increasing. Prolonged sitting has been in the news recently with more and more evidence coming to light that it is a risk factor for some serious health conditions. It is also widely accepted that prolonged sitting is associated with musculoskeletal pain and disorders. Therefore, we need strategies to help minimise the risk of injuries and pain, while still being able to work effectively.
Posture is an extremely important determinant of how our body carries its loads. Good posture is considered to be when all the spinal curves are in their mid-position. This is known as a neutral spine. This is where the spinal loads distributed most evenly throughout the joints. This is also the position that enables us to most effectively activate our core muscle system.
One of the most important issues that need to be addressed when in a position for an extended period of time is posture. When in a seated position our spinal curves change. Our bottoms tuck under (pelvis posteriorly tilts) and we lose the curve of our lower back. This means that the lower part of our spine flattens. When this happens, the structures of the spine (e.g. discs, ligaments and vertebrae) become unevenly loaded. This can lead to pain and degeneration of those structures with increased loads through them. As the lower back flattens this leads to a domino effect up the spine to compensate for this. The thoracic spine (mid-back) tends to become more rounded (hunchback) and the neck curve becomes exaggerated and the head sits forward (forward head position). Due to gravity the slouch can become more and more exaggerated.
When in this position for a long time our muscles can also change. The muscles that are held in a lengthened position lengthen and those in a shortened position become tight. This can then influence our posture in other positions and the problem can become compounded. When these muscle changes occur it becomes harder for the muscles to work normally because the muscle fibres are either too close together or too far apart to contract well. This can lead to weakness of these muscles, particularly the core muscle system.
When sitting for a long period the hip flexors, pectoral muscles and anterior neck muscles become tight and the shoulder blade stabilisers, spinal extensors and the core muscles of the trunk become lengthened. This can affect the function of the body in other activities.
We rely on the core muscles to hold our joints in a good position to move or stay still while another part of the body is moving. They are purpose-built. They are able to work at a low level for a long period of time. This means they don’t fatigue quickly and they don’t stiffen us up so we are still able to move. They are pivotal in protecting our joints from injury. When we are not in a good posture the core muscles aren’t able to activate as well and this can lead to the further risk of injury and further muscle imbalance as other muscle groups try to take over the stabilising role.
There has been lots of research into strategies to prevent disorders from sitting for long periods. Ranging from chair settings, types of chairs, lower back supports and desk set-ups. It has been found that adjusting or changing the chair-type can have some impact in reducing musculoskeletal symptoms (van Niekerk et al, 2012). However, they also found that there was no strong evidence to support any specific guideline with regards to what may be ideal in a chair type. This may be also because everybody is different and have differing tasks at work. Research, recently, it seems has also turned to strategies to reduce sitting times altogether. The height-adjustable (sit-stand) workstations) have been found to be successful in reducing sitting times (Neuhaus, et al. 2014).
Therefore when sitting to reduce overloading of the spine it is important to be supported in a position that encourages a neutral spine. It is important when correcting your sitting posture though to not overcorrect. This can also lead to pain and fatigue in some muscles groups, particularly the spinal extensors.
Most importantly though it is important to move and change positions frequently. This can be achieved by getting up every 20 minutes and doing some stretches or walking to get a glass of water etc. Also setting little reminders to reset your posture habitually. Walking or standing during meetings, going for a short walk during lunch. Then also being aware of what your habits are at home. If you have been sitting all day at work, try not to compound that with sitting at home after work or on the weekends.
Tips for a Perfect Sitting Posture
- Sit on the front of the seat and then shuffle your bottom back as if spreading the bottom bones towards the back of the seat until you can’t wiggle any further, feel how you are now sitting forward on your sit bones instead of slumping in the pelvis onto the tailbone?
- Let your backrest support your lumbar spine, you don’t need to lean forward or “sit up straight” too much (adjust your lumbar support as required)
- Feet should be planted on the floor, if not, grab a footrest.
- Shoulders are tilted slightly back, never strain. And relaxed from the ears.
- Imagine there is a piece of string drawing the crown of the head up and grow tall.
- Stand up and move around frequently! As often as every 20-30 minutes.
At Q Pilates, we can help assess your sitting posture and work with you to formulate strategies to help manage or prevent injuries associated with prolonged sitting. We assess posture, the range of movement, muscle strength and patterning and can provide programs to help target any areas of weakness, overactivity or limited range. Our aim is to help you achieve your goals for a healthy, pain-free future and give you the skills to help manage or prevent injuries in the future.
Dunstan, D.W., Weisner, G., Eakin, E.G., Neuhaus, M., Owen, N., LaMontagne, A.D., Moodie, M., Winkler, E.A.H., Fjeldsoe, B.S., Lawler, S. & Healy, G.N. Reducing Office Workers’ Sitting Time: Rationale and Study Design for the Stand Up Victoria Cluster Randomized Trial. Biomed Central Public Health. 2013, 13:1057.
Image one: http://www.wentworthvillephysio.com.au/info-sheets/neck-pain/
Neuhaus, M., Healy, G.N., Dunstan, D.W., Owen, N. & Eakin E.G. Workplace sitting and height-adjustable workstations: a randomized controlled trial. American Journal of Preventative Medicine. 2014 Jan; 46(1): 30-40.
Van Niekerk, S-M., Louw, Q.A. & Hillier, S. The Effectiveness of a Chair Intervention in the Workplace to Reduce Musculoskeletal Symptoms. A Systematic Review. Biomed Central Musculoskeletal Disorders. 2012, 13: 145.
Zemp, R., Taylor, W.R. & Lorenzetti, S. In Vivo Spinal Posture during Upright and Reclined Sitting in an Office Chair. Biomed Research International. 2013, 2013.