RESEARCH HAS JUST today been published on how many office workers in the UK spend practically their entire working day sitting at their desks. Most are on their feet for less than half an hour a day, and over half even eat their lunch at their desks. While this is unlikely to be shocking or even mildly surprising news to anyone who has ever worked in an office, it is a huge concern where public health is concerned. A sedentary lifestyle increases the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and weight gain – the gist of the research conducted by the British Heart Foundation – but from a more immediate and functional point of view, it’s also awful for your posture and body mechanics.
Let’s face it, our bodies are not designed to commute to an office location, sit at a desk all day and then get back in the car to drive home, followed by an entire evening sitting in front of the TV. Whatever happened to our ancestor, the ‘Running Man’?
And it’s not just about the fact that we don’t move enough. With our hands constantly on a keyboard, mouse or steering wheel, the front of the body gets tight and shortened, shoulders rounded and the upper back overstretched and achey. The head is in a vulture-like forward position because we spend hours each day staring at a computer screen or worse still, down at a smartphone. In a sitting position the hamstrings get shortened, the hip flexors tight and the glutes weak, and unless your chair has good lumbar support or you use a saddle stool, the natural curve of the low back disappears and the core gets weak too. The result is a body that’s off balance and out of alignment, with daily aches and tension that we just accept as the norm. Here’s a scary thought for you: if evolution ever got as far as to optimize the human body for office work, what exactly would we look like?
As a massage therapist, I see a lot of chronic pain. There are weeks when it feels like all I’m treating is tight shoulders, achey backs and stiff necks (not to forget endless tight pecs that need releasing!). Tension headaches, pins and needles down the arms, low back pain, sciatica… all of these are commonly caused by sedentary work. They are all signs that our bodies aren’t happy – signs that all too many of us ignore for days, weeks or months. Even years.
So what can you do about it? “Do some exercise,” I hear you say. Cycle to work or walk to the station, go to the gym or for a walk at lunchtime, exercise or play sport after work – yes, these are all great ways to get fit. But I’m sorry to put a downer on all that good work – it’s not enough to exercise in your free time and then spend all day sitting. Research has shown that sitting still for extended periods of time negates some of the health benefits of exercise. We need to move. The good news is that you don’t need to rush out for a run – just build movement into your working day. Here’s how:
- Get up from your chair and shake off the tension once or twice every hour. Just stand up and move around a little.
- Interlace your fingers behind your back and stretch out your chest to counteract the forward posture.
- Squeeeeeze those shoulder blades together! Hold for ten seconds and repeat five times, a couple of times a day.
- Stop emailing and calling colleagues in other parts of the office – walk over to speak to them instead.
- Hold standing meetings for things that can be discussed in less than 15 minutes; chances are, the meetings will become a lot more efficient and productive too!
- Roll up a towel or blanket to use as lumbar support in the natural curve of your lower back. Keep one on your office chair and one in the car.
- Consider signing up for a weekly pilates class – brilliant for retraining your muscles and improving alignment and posture.
A little movement will go a long way if you repeat it often enough. Getting a regular massage will also be helpful. Most of my clients come every 3-6 weeks to stay on top of things, and they find it helps them to manage any aches and pains. However, for chronic pain caused by bad posture, any number of massages will generally only reduce the symptoms temporarily. What really makes a difference in the long run is the effort you put into looking after yourself on a daily basis. Take breaks, move, stretch. You’ll feel energized and more productive, and your body will thank you for it.