Please Stand Up...
To all you real Slim Shady's out there...please stand up! Okay, fine, I don't actually know what a Slim Shady is or how you become a real one. But my intentions are good so would you please, right now, wherever you are, stand up. Don't be shy, no one is looking. You know what, I'll stand up too. Phew! That feels better, doesn't it?
You're standing right now (hopefully) because I can't just blog about how sitting is killing you knowing that you're probably sitting down to read about how sitting is killing you. It's true! Sitting is softly, slowly, but surely, killing you. I will elaborate.
But first, a short history of chairs: Chairs were historically constructed as a symbol of status in various civilizations from the ancient Egyptians to the Greeks and Romans. Lounging on such thrones was a privilege awarded to kings, queens and other high figures, while the peons and children were relegated to benches and stools. As the 19th century rolled around, and industry was revolutionized, the chair was equally manufactured and distributed to all common households in the Western world. Thus, our culture was rendered largely immobile.
The luxury of languor has come with a great price. Today, chairs are less a privilege than a necessity, as we are no longer able to stand or squat or kneel or recline on the floor as our hunter-gatherer ancestors once did. From the moment we are made to sit in strollers and bite-size pre-k chairs our bodies begin to adapt. As we spend most of our adolescence trapped in the chair-desk combo, our bodies are developing while we're sitting down. Take those developed adolescents and put them in roll-y office chairs for forty years and we've got bodies that aren't comfortable unless seated. Biomechanist and self-proclaimed alignment nerd, Katy Bowman, describes this chair-sitting custom as a body cast. As in, when a body part is placed in the confinement of a molded structure after an injury, the muscles atrophy. They not only atrophy, they change length to adapt to the structure of the cast. Cast...aka chair. Feeling kind of gypped? Me too!
Let's geek out for a sec so we can see exactly what's happening to our anatomy when we spend most of our waking lives sitting down. Our bodies are designed to be in motion - when we're moving, our muscles are contracting helping to circulate our blood and lymph, activate our nerve pathways, stimulate bone growth, and mobilize digestion (just to name a few). When we're sitting, these systems slow to a crawl or halt altogether. Check out the figure on the right. Chairs put us at a 90° angle. When our body is in this box, our spines cannot adequately support us so they slowly curve forward creating a C-shape. A C-shaped cast, if you will. Look familiar? Looks like a typical elderly person...or a youth person playing on a smartphone...or me typing at my computer right now. WHOOPS. Now, if I scoot forward to perch on the edge of my bar stool (haha, you think I'm in a bar writing an alignment blog...don't judge me), my hips sit higher than my knees and my spine comes back into it's natural curves. Why do my hips need to be higher than my knees? So glad you asked.
As you can see from the skeletons above, any angle smaller than 180° creates the C-shape in our bodies, shortening the muscles (and fascia) in the front of the body and over-lengthening the muscles (and fascia) in the back of the body. This means you've got unbalanced lines of tension on both sides and, often, pain. If you sit for many hours of the day, which most of us do, this means that the length and tension of your muscles (and fascia) is determined by that 90° cast. Let's get specific for a second: The Psoas. Maybe you've heard of it. It deserves its own post and will receive it at a later date. But for now you should know that it connects from your lumbar intervertebral discs, over the front of your hip joint, and around to the back of your femur. (See the Psoas Group on the left.) You can imagine what happens to this muscle when you sit all day...actually you don't have to. Take a look at our skeleton progression one more time and keep your eyes open for the Psoas. You can see how, when the skeleton is sitting the Posas is shortened due to the 90° angle of the legs and the C-shape of the spine. When the skeleton is perched more on the edge of a surface, the Psoas is lengthened. When the skeleton is standing in alignment, the Psoas can exist at its proper length (and proper tension). However, unlike that aligned skeleton, most of our bodies have adapted to the seated position so that even when we stand up we've still got the action of curling forward as if in a chair. Don't believe me? Go people-watch on a busy street. You'll notice how many people walk with their head and spine rounding forward. It's because they're trying to get where they want to go as fast as possible and they think that leading with their head will help them do that. It's also because they've always sat in chairs and their Psoas group has shortened. They, we.
So, what do we do? Well...a lot of things. But first, we move. Get up out of your chair as much as humanly possible. Take your business meeting on a walk; buy an audiobook and listen to your favorite novel while walking in the woods; on your lunch break go climb around on some monkey bars, like the monkey you are. And if you absolutely must sit, do it better. If you're working on your computer, don't let yourself sink into the screen - prop it up so that the monitor is as high as your face and your spine can fully extend while you're working. If you're doing work for long periods of time, change your body position often: try standing for a while, then perch on the edge of your seat, or sit on an exercise ball, etc. The literal death of us will be sitting in the same position all day at work and then all night at home until our bodies are permanently molded that way for the remaining years of our existence on this Earth. Like my alignment mentor, Michaelle Edwards, says, "Nobody ages backwards." We're all slowly, but surely, curling forward towards our end. So fight it. Do not sink quietly into that good...er, bad chair.
I know all this sounds like a bit of a bummer, but don't dismay; there's hope for humanity, yet. My whole purpose with the alignment work I do, is to get our bodies out of perpetual chair mode and into balance so that we have the ability to move freely and dynamically, without pain. It is possible! Want to learn more? Stay tuned to my blogs by subscribing, book a session with me (I travel and my rates are reasonable and it's really fun), come to one of our upcoming workshops, and read up on these other alignment nerds that have taught me much:
Katy Bowman, biomechanist, founder of Restorative Exercise, & KatySays Blogger - Thinking outside the (classroom) chair.
Michaelle Edwards, founder of YogAlign & ReAlign - Good posture with YogAlign!
Ah-HA! Did you sit back down? I knew it. I have eyes in the back of my blog...