Is Sitting the New Smoking?

Sitting is the new Smoking.

Maybe you have heard this phrase already. When I first encountered it, I thought, ‘Really? How sensationalist do we have to be?’

But then I took a road trip with my kids, driving 8,000 miles during the summer of 2015. That made for a lot more sitting than I usually do and it took me a good 1 ½ years to recover from it. During the trip, I developed hip pain and later a back-issue (bulging disk and all), which limited my movement, my exercise and my general sense of stability (not to talk of the pain). I had never had a ‘weak back’ so I was quite blind-sided. And, as is usual because that’s what it takes, the pain motivated me to investigate. I received quite a bit of structural bodywork and messed around with finetuning (as well as rough-tuning) my exercise routine. I observed daily life and the ups and downs it produced in my back. Here’s what I found out:

Sitting is indeed the new smoking.

Why is that?

Sitting is not what our human bodies have evolved to do. Sitting makes us spend significant chunks of time non-moving, with hips and knees flexed and often the back rounded. As a consequence, our structure stiffens and shortens. We get ‘cemented’ into our sitting position.

How does this work? – Our bodies re-build all the time. Bodies lay down collagen to ‘reinforce’ whatever is not moving. You experience this when you get up in the morning and you are just a bit stiffer than you are at night. (My colleague Gil Headley has an awesome video on youtube describing this process. It’s called ‘The fuzz’ and is not only highly informative, but also fun to watch.)

This collagen reinforcement is an ongoing process. When we move, we break up the new ‘glue’ wherever we don’t need it. However, those places that do not participate in the movement receive more and more ‘glue’ until they become reinforced so much that simple motion cannot break the adhesions any more. Our structure changes; our movement possibilities become more limited; and we may need hands-on work to free up again. (That’s of course where your Rolfer comes in.)

However, after a Rolfing series, this process of self-reinforcement does not stop (fortunately, because we do need to re-generate ourselves). So, whether we have gone through a Rolfing series or not, if we sit too much, we reinforce our bodies in the wrong places and lose a good amount of the flexibility which we need in order to perform everyday movements such as standing up straight, walking or breathing with ease and efficiency. We get short in the hip flexors and calves as well as the mid and upper back. When we sit at a desk, we keep the joints at acute angles which compresses blood vessels and nerves. (Imagine what would happen if you put a few hairpin curves into I95 and narrowed the lanes to boot, maybe right in the Providence area? – Nice thought, isn’t it?)

When there is a computer involved it is even worse. Computer work makes us spend hours focusing tightly on the screen, rather than shifting our gaze between different distances and moving between a wide anda narrow focus. Because our eyes are hard-wired with the very top of the neck, we tighten up the atlanto-occipital region between the head and spine and compress all the nerves and blood-vessels that support our brains. (The resulting fatigue and sluggishness can be easily masked with caffeine, and who doesn’t.)

In addition to deforming your structure, sitting slows the metabolism; it compresses our visceral column (our organ space) and deprives our sensory-motor system of vital information, thus making us less somatically aware (That’s why you can get used to sitting a lot and won’t necessarily notice the discomfort right at the source.)

What to do about that? Most of us have desk jobs; most of us have to stare at a screen for long periods of time. However, we can mitigate the effects.

First, you can make sure your ergonomic setup is perfect. Put your screen horizontally in front of your eyes. If you use a laptop, get an external keyboard (try the Kinesis freestyle ergonomic keyboard)so you can raise the screen. Put a silicone cushion under your wrists. Try a standing desk (with a silicone mat under your feet and a footstool so you can raise one or the other foot at times.)

Second, third and fourth, move. Move again. Move often. Move wherever and whenever you can. Studies have found that it does more for your cardiovascular health to cultivate a routine of many small moving moments throughout the day, than to sit all day and then hit the gym for an hour or two.

So, break up your sitting day with as many small moving moments as you can. Visit the water cooler regularly. Drink a lot so you have to pee often. When you visit the restroom, use the one a floor above or below yours (and take the stairs). Come to think of it, take the stairs anyway. Elevators are only for sprained ankle times. Move your standing desk up and down over the course of the day, so you spend some time standing, some time sitting. Try a sitting ball or inflated disk to sit on, which forces your low back to find a moving balance. Don’t email colleagues who are in the same room or building. Get up and talk to them in person. Press for walking meetings where possible. Link tiny units of exercise to routine tasks – you can circle your feet under your desk every time you take a phone call; you can isometrically contract your glutes, straighten your knees and lift your lower legs, or roll your shoulders every time you hit the send button on your emails. You can add ten squats or trunk twists to every bathroom or water cooler visit. (Bathroom if you don’t want to be seen. Water cooler if you want to start a movement;-)

It does not matter much what you do – not all ideas may be great for you, and you can come up with many of your own. This is really a matter of chipping away at your habits and pushing the envelope in creative ways in order to include more movement into your normal day. None of these ideas is going to cost significant time, but collectively, they are going to provide ongoing stimulus for your metabolism so it doesn’t go to sleep. Regular movement will stimulate blood flow to the brain (actually potentially boosting performance) and keep your structure more mobile. And once you have your days set up so they include as much movement as possible, think about exercise.

Develop an exercise routine that you like. Mix it up. Do not let your system go to sleep on a treadmill in front of a screen. Find a class that you like – my passion these days is aerial silks practice. For the quality of the movement, I also really like MovNat and Gyrotonic/Gyrokinesis. But it doesn’t really matter. Find what inspires you, whether that is running, kickboxing, yoga or ballroom dance and go for it. If you need something gentler, try MeltMethod.

And fifth, remember that bodywork is your friend. Come for a tune up when you need help or inspiration.

Leave a Reply