As with my previous blog about two men who had injured their backs, I was prompted to write this article by coming across another instance of back pain on the ‘net. This time, it was a woman who had been sitting at a meeting and asked if she could lie on the floor because her back was hurting.
It’s a known fact that if we want to have healthy, comfortable and usable bodies, sitting is the worst thing we can do.–And lying down on the job may not be the best thing you can do if you want to keep your job!–For desk and computer workers, sitting involves long periods of time with the body in a stationary position–generally, one that is slumped to one degree or another, with the shoulders dropped forward and head and neck ahead of the back. Over time, this position plays havoc with both the physical and physiological aspects of our bodies, and the only way they can tell us of their discomforts is through the pain they give us.
Much has been said and written about how to sit properly to avoid strain. In fact, an entire ergonomic industry has been built around chairs, desks, footstools and other equipment for the same purpose of alleviating strain. But are these what is really needed?
Before the days of computers, women secretaries and telephone switch operators sat for many hours at a time, and I have to wonder how they coped in those days. Wouldn’t they have experienced as much discomfort as computer workers do now? Perhaps posture was more important then and, because of that, back pain wasn’t as common as it is now.
I wonder, too, whether the emergence of aerobics and the emphasis on motor muscle strength in the last century overshadowed the importance of posture. If so, the pendulum swung too far to the aerobic side and, fortunately, is now returning to the side of posture. The simple fact is, as long as we’re on this gravity-dominated planet, “use it or lose it” applies just as much to the muscles that are meant to support our weight as to the muscles that move our limbs and bodies through space.
While sitting looks passive, it is in fact an activity by virtue of the fact that sitting requires the same muscle use as when we’re standing or walking, and these muscles – essentially our abdominal and back muscles – need strengthening. More than that, to relieve strain and fatigue, sitting also requires proper spine alignment and enough hip joint flexibility to stay comfortably at a more or less ninety-degree angle.
Even with these requirements in place, our muscles easily tire when we stay in one position for a long time. We then either stay semi-collapsed or, if we’re at all attuned to our body, we find ourselves intermittently picking ourselves up only to fall back into the round-shouldered, back out, sunken chest posture so easily succumbed to; our breathing is shallow, circulation of lymph and blood stagnates and the health of our body is seriously compromised. Not the best state to be in for productive mental work.
Compounding the problem is the reliance on ergonomics to save us from using our muscles. While some ergonomic aids can be used to advantage, like having the computer screen at a height that allows the chin to be level, chairs with a rounded back to lean into and a seat that accommodates the contours of our rounded bottoms are not the solution to back strain. In contrast to the stuffed chairs that provide comfort when we’re relaxing, any chair that supports us when we’re sitting and working merely perpetuates the weaknesses that prevent us from keeping ourselves held up with our own muscle power.
If that draws a groan of futility, it isn’t as difficult as it seems. The hard part is finding the time to work on our “support” muscles so they’re at our beck and call when we need them. But if in the past we found the time to work at aerobics, why shouldn’t we have the time for the kind of work that helps us defy gravity to the end of our days?
For proper, supported sitting, body weight should be directly on the “sit bones,” with the back of the pelvis “straight,” or vertical. Keeping the pelvis in this position requires the abdominal muscles to be engaged so the back of the waist doesn’t drop forward, but remains flat. The pelvis can then connect with the upper back to form a solid unit that is properly aligned on the bone structure with no strain on muscles and other soft tissue.
This positioning is best accomplished with the body sitting forward in a chair that is cushioned enough to soften the pressure on the pelvic bones. And the thighs can then slope a little downward so the hip joints are not too angled.
With an armless chair that can be brought close to the worktable, you can sit up in this position with your lower arms resting on the table and your hands over the keys of the computer. You may need to make some adjustments to this to fit with the length of your own body, arms and legs, but the main thing is to keep the lower part of your body close to the desk, otherwise the tendency will be to relax the back and bring the head and shoulders forward.
To relieve the hunched-over strain of prolonged sitting, it’s recommended to periodically stand, walk around a little, or work with a raised desk. All of this is good advice, however, many people stand with a swayed back, so for them, use of the abdominal muscles along with a vertical pelvis are even more important in order to prevent, or minimize, lower back strain and fatigue. See my blog on that topic here.
With sitting, the supporting muscles can, and should, periodically be relieved with stretching and loosening movements, and these can easily be done in the chair whenever the back begins to tire. Many exercise sources, including my own “Office Workbook For Home and Office,” are available for this. Even just shifting your weight from side to side, rocking your pelvis forward and back, extending your legs and pushing your heels away, or circling your feet, will go a long way toward getting the blood flowing to your legs and preventing stagnation. So if you were told as a child to “sit still,” wipe that from your memory, because that’s exactly what you shouldn’t be doing when you’re at your computer.
The most important part of strain free sitting is for the abdominal muscles to hold the pelvis in a vertical position as the norm. This means first of all locating these muscles and then strengthening them. With a firm foundation as a base, your whole body will then have the support needed to stay comfortably in an upright position for extended periods of time, and your back attacks will be far fewer.
If you would like to know more about posture and the kind of exercises that make your body comfortable and “fit to sit” for long hours, the Somatic Stretch® online Postural Realignment Program can get you started.