You may have seen claims that “sitting is the new smoking”. There is nothing inherently bad about sitting: very little is as bad for your health as smoking! What they are talking about is being sedentary. But as long as you are balancing your sitting time with enough activity each day you aren’t putting your health at risk. A useful guide is an hour of movement (more than pottering) for 8 hours of being still.
However, even with an active lifestyle many of us experience pain or discomfort sitting for long periods in a desk job.
Is ergonomics the answer?
Improving their set up can be the answer for some people, but having the “perfect chair” or ergonomically prescribed desk area often isn’t the whole story when it comes to looking after ourselves. Anyway, many of us don’t have that luxury, we may have to hot desk, or work at different places.
I wouldn’t advise trying to concertina yourself into an inadequate workspace every day. Sometimes a small change can really help eg a wedge on a backwards sloping chair, or a footrest if your chair is too high. Do what you can to allow yourself to use your body well. However, you shouldn’t feel that pain is inevitable because your desk and chair aren’t perfect for you.
Just getting up and moving around regularly, say every half an hour, or whatever fits with your type of job is a good start. Our bodies are made to move, so ‘movement snacks’ of 1-10 minutes on occasions through the day is good for general health as well as being beneficial for pain.
You can make these casual e.g. going to get a glass of water, you don’t have to draw attention to needing to move to prevent discomfort.
For most of the time though, you will need to be sitting down, so how can we do that differently?
Does bad posture cause pain?
Large studies show that whether people have good or bad posture is poorly related to whether they have pain or not. This is likely to be because posture, as it is measured in studies, just looks at the position of the person, not HOW they are holding the position. Posture is more likely to cause pain when it is a reflection of someone’s stress, and the pattern of body use and reactions that go with that stress. So, if you are tense and rigid in whatever posture you hold, whether “good” or “bad”, you are more likely to have pain problems.
So why bother to sit up straight?
We find in Alexander Technique that an upright “good” posture is easier to maintain ( with some practice). When you are sitting up, balanced on your sitting bones, that allows more small movements within the posture. If you are slumped you cannot pivot at your hip joints and it is also more difficult to turn your head properly. So, a slumped posture is more fixed: remember being still too much often contributes to pain.
Thanks to Visible Body for image
If you are forcing yourself up into a “correct” posture you are likely putting a lot of effort into it. Pulling the shoulders back is commonly thought of as the “right” thing to do, but it is very hard to keep up, because it is using extra muscular effort. We want to influence our bodies to gradually change their habit of posture, so it is then less effortful and stressful to be upright. Poise is nice word to describe what we want to achieve: where positions are lightly held, and easy to maintain.
Pressurising yourself into remembering to have a correct posture, and maybe blaming your back pain on not trying hard enough to keep it up, may actually contribute to a high stress state that doesn’t help your pain (see this on how interlinked body, mind and stress hormones are).
Try less hard, but check in on yourself more often:
- Are you slumped, or crouching into your screen?
- Are you pulling yourself up hard, maybe pulling in or pushing out your lower back?
- What are your legs doing: are you pulling your legs tight together, or always having them crossed one way?
- Are your feet on the floor, or wound round the chair legs, or pulled underneath?
If you catch yourself doing something “bad”, don’t berate yourself, posture isn’t about right or wrong, it is about recognising habits of sitting that are unhelpful to you if you do them too much. Just make a gentle adjustment and congratulate yourself for noticing!
This doing less to achieve a good posture can feel a bit strange at first, and that’s where an Alexander Technique teacher’s hands can guide you. Sometimes we don’t feel how much effort we are using because it is so normal for us.
If you would like some help in achieving an easy, light posture I would love to help. Get in touch.