I am frequently asked how often people should exercise. The question I would prefer people to ask is how much should they move. Our society has become increasingly sedentary, with both work life and home life being based around a seated position, more often than not a similar position in a chair or sofa repeated from one venue to the next. Recent research is showing that taking exercise a few times a week, whatever the style, is not enough to counteract the ill-effects of the hours and hours of sitting that have become our norm. Our cells nourish themselves through movement, so to stay healthy we need to be far more active than is currently normal. However that activity doesn’t have to be a ‘workout’, it can simply be regularly changing the shape in which we hold our bodies. It’s easy to forget about moving around while caught up in the busy workday, so it can be helpful to tie movement and changing positions into events that happen regularly during the day:
Commuting to work: replace all or a section of your commute with walking.
If taking the tube, walk up the escalator. Stand up in the tube or on the bus – if you are pretty stable, practice standing without holding on to challenge your balance and make your commute a workout.
At your desk: invest in a sitting/standing workstation and alternate between positions.
If that isn’t possible kick your shoes off and explore how many different seated positions you can find on your chair (cross-legged, one leg tucked under with the other on the floor, kneeling…) and then change position frequently. It can be useful to tie this in to a reminder – for example every time you send or receive an email stand up, look away from your computer screen to rest your eyes, then sit back down in a different position.
On the phone: never sit down to make a phone call. Walk around while you talk. An added bonus – If it’s an ‘important’ call you will automatically sound more authoritative if you are standing up.
Bathroom breaks: if possible use a loo on a different floor of your home or building so you walk up and down the stairs each time
Mealtimes: experiment with changing your mealtime venue. Set your placemats on your coffee table and kneel, Japanese-style, to eat your meal. Take more picnics, even indoor ones. Sit on a blanket, with a few extra cushions for the stiffer members of the family!
Reading/watching TV: stand up and stretch every time there is an ad break or you come to the end of a chapter. When you sit down again, choose a different position from the one you were in before. Best option – sit on the floor. You won’t be comfortable staying still in the same position for very long, which will make you move around without thinking about it.
Schedule a daily walk. Escape your TV and laptop screens and increase your daily dose of fresh air. Build up to a minimum of 30 minutes daily and try to add one longer walk per week.
Free your feet: as a bonus extra to all of the changes above, ensure you are looking after your feet. Thanks to a lifetime of wearing rigid shoes with heels and narrow toe boxes, our feet are frequently the most immobile and un-innervated parts of our bodies. So slip your shoes off whenever you can – let your feet breathe and move! For walking, start to transition into minimal shoes: vibram five fingers and vivobarefoot are good choices. However your foot needs to adapt to getting less support from your shoe, so start with short amounts of time walking in your minimal shoes and build up gradually. Try to walk on natural ground rather than manmade surfaces as much as possible.
For a fuller analysis of the foot have a look at the Foot section of this blog.
In my last post, Sitting – the New Smoking?, I talked about how to sit well. As I pointed out, the very best thing is to change position as often as you can. Our bodies are not designed to be stationary they way modern life leads us to be. Standing up, moving around, changing your sitting position, these are all really important for keeping the body mobile and healthy. Look back at that post for ideas on how to make changing your position part of your daily routine.
Another good idea is to give your spine some movement in all planes of motion, so a little routine that you can practise in your chair may be helpful. If you are on a train or in a plane you will need to sit towards the front edge of your seat, as the seats are usually in a bucket shape that makes sitting up well virtually impossible. And if you are unsure how to sit well in the first place, look back at Sitting – the New Smoking? for a full explanation.
I have filmed this clip as a little routine to perform all at once, but you could break the exercises up and just do them randomly over the course of your day or your journey – the more frequently the better!
Sitting: the new smoking?
Sitting in a chair – especially the way most of us sit in a chair or on the sofa – is really not very good for the body. Most of us roll back off our sitting bones and collapse through our spines, poking our heads forwards towards our computer or tv screen…
This posture is bad for our bodies in so many ways. It reduces the space for our internal organs, affecting our breathing, digestion and blood flow. It compromises our spines by squeezing our intervertebral discs, creating the microtrauma that can lead to disc degeneration and bulging or herniated discs. It reduces the distance between the sacrum and pubic symphysis, leading to a shortening and weakening of the tissues of the pelvic floor (I’ll be doing a more comprehensive post on the pelvic floor soon, but think incontinence, prolapse, erectile dysfunction….). The forward head posture can lead to neck and shoulder ache since your poor muscles and connective tissues are having to hang on to a head that is being pulled on relentlessly by gravity and is not supported by the spine that should be underneath it. The forward head posture also compromises the space for the vertebral arteries that are encased within the neck vertebrae (bit of a design flaw?). This can lead to reduced blood flow to the head, headaches, eye strain… No wonder people are saying that sitting is the new smoking.
But, you say, I have to sit! My work environment, my travel arrangements, my home furniture design – modern life is geared around sitting. What do I do? Unless you are one of the lucky people who can rearrange their lifestyle, you need to make the best of a bad lot in two ways. The first way is: don’t sit still for so long. Come up with some ideas for how you can create habits that encourage a change of position or some movement at regular intervals. For example:
Every time you talk on the phone, stand up. Or, if you have a cord-free phone, walk around.
Every time you press send on an email, check your posture. Or better yet, stand up, swing your upper body around from side to side a few times, then sit back down in a good sitting posture.
When you are travelling (and by the way, most car, train and airplane seats are designed with a bucket shape that forces you to slump – it’s usually impossible to sit well in them) set the timer on your watch or phone to beep every 15 minutes, and get up and move around.
The second way to improve things is to sit with a better posture. Esther Gokhale, author or 8 Steps to a Pain Free Back, teaches ‘stretch-sitting’ and sells a back support that helps keep good spinal alignment while leaning back in a chair (I haven’t tried it myself so can’t give a fully informed opinion on it, but it seems to makes sense). But even better than sitting with such a support is to sit well without one. Mary Bond, author of The New Rules of Posture, taught me how to sit well, and it all starts with the pelvis. Firstly, make sure that your pelvis is higher than your knees. If your chair is a bit low, stack a block or some firm cushions on it. Then find your sitting bones….
After a lifetime of slumping, your back muscles may lack the endurance to hold you up in this position for extended periods of time. Take a break from sitting well as often as you need to – see Giving Your Spine a Break When Sitting for ideas.