Sitting is the new smoking. You’ve heard that, right? And it’s true.
In our society today, we SIT more than ever before. Many of us have jobs that require us to sit at a desk 8-10+ hours a day. We sit in our cars or on public transportation getting to and from work. We sit on our lunch break. When we get home, we sit some more – at dinner, and then often we collapse on the couch in front of the television before turning it off and heading immediately to bed. Heck, I’m sitting right now as I write this.
Sitting, naturally, uses less energy than standing or moving around. Research has linked excessive sitting with a number of health concerns, including increased weight, namely around the midsection, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, and high blood sugar, all of which can be experienced independently or as a cluster of conditions known as metabolic syndrome. This syndrome can lead to diabetes and heart disease. Prolonged and excessive sitting over the course of a long time has also been seemingly linked with increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancers. In addition, weakened muscles, de-conditioning, swelling of legs and feet, and blood clots can all result from too much time in a chair.
And there is more. Not only do we sit TOO MUCH, we also sit POORLY. We often sit with a tucked pelvis, a rounded back, hunched shoulders, and our neck and head thrust forward. This position leads to and perpetuates poor posture, which can cause neck, shoulder, and back pain, headaches and migraines, loss of core muscle strength, and spinal disc disease.
A healthy spine is beautifully designed. Its 33 bones protect your spinal cord, all your nerves, and provide a pillar of support for your entire body. There are 24 moveable vertebrae, running from the base of your skull all the way down your back, that move just enough in just the right ways to give us the range of motion we need, while also maintaining enough integrity to keep us standing upright and keep our skull and, of course, our brain, perfectly balanced in its place.
These 24 vertebrae are not simply stacked on top of one another. In between each one is a spinal disc – think of a little enclosed package of jelly. These protect the vertebrae from rubbing bone-on-bone (ouch); provide shock absorption so that when we walk/jump/run etc, we’re not crunching our bones together; help the vertebrae to move around each other in just the way they should; lubricate the joints; and generally keep our bones intact and keep us free to move in our bodies without debilitating back pain.
Here is an image of a healthy spine. As you can see, it does have natural curves. These curves are very important, helping protect our internal organs and also provide shock absorption so that these vertebrae and their discs can remain intact and strong.
However beautifully designed, this spine cannot do everything alone. It is shored up by our intricate and multi-layered muscle system – the muscles that run up and down the spine, that weave in and out of the vertebrae, our back muscles, the muscles between our ribs, the muscles in our shoulders, our entire core musculature, even the muscles in our pelvis and hips – all of these are crucial to help the spine stay healthy and do its very important job. In fact, truly, the toe bone is connected to the spine bone. Even the placement of our feet matters when it comes to spinal health (more on that later).
So what does all this have to do with sitting? Here’s what.
When we sit poorly, hunched and rounded with our head jutting forward, we eliminate the muscles from the equation. We let them off the hook, and instead we allow ourselves to round forward and subject ourselves to gravity. This immensely increases the strain on our spine, creates UNHEALTHY spinal curvature, places uneven pressure on the vertebral discs, and lengthens out and weakens some muscles, while shortening and tightening others. If you look at someone sitting this way, it will often look like their spine is in the shape of a “C,” or I have even heard it called the shape of a cashew nut. Over time, this can cause the “jelly” of the discs to be unevenly distributed, and even eventually begin to leak out of its package. Heard of a slipped or herniated disc? Bingo. Bone is now on bone. And from here, we’re talking debilitating back pain, decreased physical ability, and commonly, we are led to surgical intervention.
Did you know we can also CREATE scoliosis? (A misalignment caused by side-bending of the spine.) We can be born with this, yes, and that is a separate topic. But we can also develop it due to imbalanced postural habits. We truly ARE the embodiment of our choices.
The average weight of an adult human head is 12 pounds. When balanced correctly in our skull, the bones and muscles of the spine are perfectly able to support this weight. But what happens when we sit with a rounded back and our neck thrust forward? This weight can increase up to five times, leading to a 60 pound load literally hanging off our spine and the tiny bones and muscles of our neck.
And when we do this all day in our chair, our bodies and muscles get conditioned to this position. Even when we stand up, we maintain this habitual rounding, hunching, forward-facing posture which means that we are now putting ourselves at risk even when moving around.
So what am I saying? To stop sitting at all costs?
Of course not. Sitting is necessary. We can’t all quit our jobs or buy office treadmills or walk everywhere or sell our couches and vow never to sit again. So then what do we do?
- Stand when you can, of course. If standing on public transportation is an option, take it. If you have a tall desk at work, try standing for at least part of the day. If you can stand and socialize while at a party, do so. Every little bit helps.
- Take breaks from extended periods of sitting. Every 30 minutes, stand up, stretch, and walk around if possible. Get the muscles working and the blood flowing.
- Change your sitting position. Muscles remain unchallenged and these poor postural habits get even more deeply ingrained when in one position for too long. Shift and move to avoid this.
- Sit on an exercise ball whenever possible. These are excellent tools for guiding us into good posture and keeping our muscles working in the ways that they should to keep our body aligned. A great alternative to the couch while watching TV.
- Sit in the middle of the floor if you can – another option that helps increase muscle involvement in our back and core. We no longer have the chair to rely on and so must hold ourselves up on our own.
- And, importantly, when seated in a chair, it comes down to sitting in a healthy way.
What was unhealthy sitting? A tucked pelvis, a rounded back, hunched shoulders, little to no muscle involvement, and our neck and head thrust forward.
So, it follows that HEALTHY sitting involves: a balanced pelvis, a long spine, engaged core muscles, shoulder blades down the back, and a skull that is balanced over our shoulders.
- A balanced pelvis: I heard this analogy recently on National Public Radio – imagine you’re a dog. You wouldn’t sit ON your tail, you would press it back behind you. This is akin to what we call a forward tilt of the pelvis. A good trick to do this is to elevate the hips. While sitting on the floor, place a block, a firm cushion or blanket, or a book under your sit bones. It is important to have this support placed far back enough that it is not under your thighs – imagine that you are sitting at the edge of the support and you feel your sit bones almost teetering off of it. When in a chair, a blanket may work. OR, try sitting at the edge of your seat, as opposed to all the way in the back. This offers the same effect of tilting the pelvis forward, not permitting us to roll back and tuck it under.
- A long spine: Elevating the hips creates a chain effect that naturally elongates the spine. From this forward tilt, the low back is better able to maintain its natural curve. Our mid-back can move in, and we have moved towards that natural curved alignment of the spine that is most beneficial. From here, lift the crown of your head toward the sky and you’ll feel the available length of your spine.
- Engaged core muscles: This is also helped by the lifting of the hips. Try sitting back in your chair and leaning against the support. Feel yourself slump back and abandon any muscular effort? Now sit forward so your sit bones are at the very edge of the chair again, and lift the crown of the head toward the sky as we just did. You probably felt the low back muscles and side waist muscles gently engage. You can further explore this by drawing your navel gently in to the spine. Now, your core is part of the sitting party.
- Shoulders down the back: From this tall sitting posture, inhale and roll the shoulders up toward the ears. Exhale, and softly draw the shoulder blades down the back, almost as if you are placing them into pockets on your shirt. There shouldn’t be any hard contraction of the muscles in the back – this is not a sustainable way to sit. Simply an awareness that the shoulders are moving down and back, as opposed to rounding forward. This will open up your chest and spread your collarbones a bit wider. Inhale again here and feel the available breathing space. Exhale and soften the shoulders down one more time.
- A balanced skull: Maintaining everything we have done so far, we now focus on our neck. Just to play, jut your chin forward and down, as if you were texting someone. Feel the strain on your neck? Now, move the chin up so it is parallel with the floor, and then draw the tops of the ears back so you imagine them stacking directly on top of your shoulders. Lift the crown of your head again. Do you notice how much lighter this feels?
- Another note on sitting: Crossing our legs is not healthy! I fall into it all the time, as habits are hard to break. But if we’re looking for long term health and wellness, this is an important one. Crossing our legs unbalances the pelvis, which unbalances the spine, which can create all those unpleasant things we just talked about. Keep both feet planted evenly on the floor, or place something under your feet if you can’t reach the floor.
You’ll notice that this way of sitting requires more effort. This is why it is so easy to slip back into old habits and find ourselves slumping again. It takes some re-conditioning. If you will be sitting for a while, it can be helpful to set a gentle reminder on your phone for every 30 minutes or so – to get up and stretch if possible, and then re-evaluate your seated posture again and adjust yourself as necessary back into healthy alignment. Over time, this method will feel more accessible and you won’t have to remind yourself as often.
I know that these adjustments may feel small and silly, especially if we haven’t directly experienced any ill effects of poor posture yet. BUT, as a very wise teacher once told me, all these habits that we carry in our body WILL come out to haunt us at one time or another – especially as we age. I would rather do a little work up front than have to deal with added issues later on.
Most importantly, be soft with yourself. As I mentioned before, old ways of being are hard to leave behind. I constantly have to remind myself to re-adjust and am always working to improve my posture. We have created these movement patterns over the course of our entire lives – we cannot expect to undo them instantly. Awareness is the first step to change, and every single step we take after that one is one step further than we were before. They call it “yoga practice” for a reason.
If it helps, remember this: YOU ARE EXPANSIVE. YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL. You deserve to be to take up as much space as you can in this world. Sit tall. From here, you can better see around you, and also let yourself be seen. Let your heart shine and your light be brilliant.
“When we lose lightness, our bodies shrink. The moment the body shrinks, the brain becomes heavy and dull, and you see nothing. The doors of perception are closed. You should immediately lift the intelligence of the chest and open the mind. The corners of the chest are pillars: They should always be firm. Slouching acts like a narcotic to the body. When our parents tell us not to slouch, it is because they instinctively understand that collapsing our chest caves in the very Self. It is because your mind shrinks that your soul shrinks. It is the spine’s job to keep the mind alert. To do this, the spine has to keep the brain in position. The spine must never be slack but must reach up to the Self. Otherwise, the divine light within you dims.” (B.K.S. Iyengar, “Light on Life.”)