Interval Sitting, Micro-Breaks, and the Myth of the Perfect Posture

Enter name and email for free blog updates

Perfect PostureThe other week I got a chance to attend a neat little workshop held by my good friend David Wu from Student of Movement.

The workshop was called Destroy Desk Posture.

Sexy topic, I know.

But it’s a topic of incredible proportions. A topic essential for those of us who put in major time with our butts neatly tucked away in our comfy chairs. Whether you work a desk job, spend hours writing research papers, or spend endless days in front of a mountain of textbooks, sitting affects you. Big time.

The implications prolonged sitting has on our posture, our movement, and our health in general is akin to many of the deadly diseases we fear so mightily. It can and will kill us if we choose to ignore its powerful effects.

The Destroy Desk Posture workshop was full of strategies on how to combat these negative effects. David went over some powerful corrective exercises, assessment techniques, and little tips and tricks on how to negate the degradation.

And it just so happened that on the day of the workshop our city got hit with a pretty big snowstorm causing most of the people who signed up to back out.

Except me.

I was a lone soldier standing (I got good winter tires!) and I got a chance to pick David’s brain one posture-improving tip at a time.

Here’s what I learned…

For those of us who work desk jobs or just generally spend most of our hours in a seated position, our body is literally a 24 hour ticking time bomb. At any moment, it is capable of imploding.

Everything you do throughout the day either speeds up the time bomb, or slows it down.

Shockingly, we spend anywhere from 9.3 hours to 15.5 hours a day sitting. That means we spend anywhere from 40%-65% of the day with our heads forward, necks craned, shoulders slouched forward, posterior chain deactivated, and lower and upper back flexed and rounded.

Yes, that is as bad as it sounds. The cumulative trauma from sitting does nothing but speed up that ticking time bomb.

If we’re lucky (and smart), we go to the gym every now and then to try and reverse some of these negative effects.

Those of who know what we’re doing will spend some time stretching and loosening up the hip flexors, hamstrings, lower back, and chest muscles (areas that get short and tight from excessive sitting). Those of us who are on top of our game will focus on strengthening our posterior chain, primarily the muscles in the upper back that hold and stabilize the shoulders.

This stuff helps. Big time!

Unfortunately, however, many of us spend our limited time in the gym either trotting on a treadmill or doing a gajillion and one sets on the bench press.

These types of exercises have their place (somewhere), but they don’t necessarily help reverse that ticking time bomb. In fact, they actually speed it up.

It’s easy to see the imbalances in play here.

The little bit of exercise – and only if done right – has a hard time combating the full-day’s effects of sitting.

So what can we do?

Well, that’s where this workshop comes into play. The following strategies come in very handy when it comes to fighting the debilitating effects of prolonged sitting.

Interval Sitting

We’ve all heard of interval training: sprint for 30 seconds; jog for 60 seconds; alternate for a total of 5 minutes.

Simple and super effective.

So why don’t we do the same thing when we sit?

Well, this is exactly what I’m suggesting: alternate between periods of sitting and periods of movement throughout the day.

The best ratio to use is a 5:1 ratio.

Sit and work for 50 minutes, then get up and move around for 10 minutes. Alternate like this throughout the entire day. If you work a typical eight hour shift, you’ll end up with 400 minutes (6.5ish hours) of work (i.e. sitting) and 80 minutes (1.3ish hours) of movement.

Now I know some of you may be thinking: there’s no way my boss will let me spend over an hour of my day walking around doing nothing.

My defense against this knee-jerk reaction is two-fold:

1) Regardless of what you may think, your focus is limited. We are only able to focus for short periods at a time before our mind starts to wander and our productivity begins to taper off. Taking 10 minutes every hour to get away from your computer and relax will allow you to come back fresh and ready to go. It’s no suprise big companies like Google allow their employees to take naps throughout the day.

2) Your boss likely isn’t aware of the effects sitting has on employees. Ask your boss to go to the HR department and check how many sick days, insurance claims for physio/chiropractic services, and other pain-related absences employees racked up in the past year. I can almost gaurantee a jaw drop and a swift face palm. You can’t be productive if you’re always sick or in pain. I’ve seen employers make complete changes to the way they approach ergonomics after going through this simple exercise.

At the end of the day, it’s your health you’re dealing with. If it’s important to you, you will find a way.

One of the more difficult parts about setting up your intervals is awareness.

Sometimes we get so caught up in our work that we forget to get up and move.

Here are some simple solutions for that:

If you work at a computer, you can use simple (and free) reminder tools such as WorkRave, Breaker, and EyeLeo (for Windows), or TimeOut and Coffee Break (for Macs). These tools will allow you to set up reminders for yourself to get up and move. Some more (free) options are listed here.

As an example, I always have Breaker running on my computer to keep me on top of things.

Breaker

If you don’t have the ability to install these programs on your computer, you can use Microsoft Office to create reminders (in the calendar) or the Task Scheduler (Control Panel > Administrative Tools > Task Scheduler) to set up simple, timely reminders.

If you’re not at a computer (or don’t have the options listed above), use your smartphone to remind you. Apps like Taking a Break can help you set reminders to get up and move.

UPDATE: Another cool and very simple web app you can use to keep track of your interval sitting is called EggTimer. It’s very easy to set up and you can just leave it running in your browser. [Thanks to Dejan Antic from No Brainer Muscle for commenting about this.]

Now that we have everything set up, you might be wandering what exactly you’re supposed to be doing during those 10 minutes.

Let me show you…

Movement and Micro-Breaks

You need to move.

Moving helps negate the deactivation that sitting imposes on your posterior chain. It forces blood to flow in those areas again, giving them life and neural love.

Walk around the office. Go grab some water. Go to the bathroom. Park far away from the office. Set up walking meetings instead of conference room meetings.

Eventually, you’ll want to make your way to a quiet (and not-so-embarassing) place where you can perform a mini micro-break. I do this at my desk sometimes, but most often I will make my way to the single-room bathroom and lock myself up so I’m free to contort my body as I please.

A micro-break is designed to re-energize your body. To breathe some life back into it.

It’s composed of a series of stretching and tension-releasing exercises.

[Note: I was planning to include a video here to show you exactly how to perform each of the following exercises, but I ended up hyper-extending my toe after an unfortunate equipment malfunction and I’m currently unable to stand. I’ll have the video up here for you guys as soon as I’m back on my feet! In the meantime, I’ll provide verbal instructions].

Exercise 1 – Back Bends

This simple exercise combats the constant flexion your lower back goes through while sitting. It helps push the nucleus of those small intervetebral discs back into their normal (centre of the disc) position. Stand tall and place your hands behind your back. Slowly bend backwards placing your lower back in extension (but not excessive hyperextension). Hold that position for a few seconds. Come back to the starting position and repeat the movement 10-15 times. The beginning of this video does a good job of explaining it.

Exercise 2 – Reach for the Sky

This simple exercise helps elongate and decompress the spine. Simply reach up with both hands (one at a time) to the sky as if you’re climbing an imaginary rope. Alternate like this for 30-50 repetitions to give your back a nice stretch. David shows you how to do it in the first seven seconds of this video.

Exercise 3 – Bodyweight Squats

Perform 10-15 slow bodyweight squats to bring some life back to your legs and particularly your posterior chain. Make sure you are executing the squats properly – head and chest up, weight on your heels, keep everything tight, go deep allowing your hips to go below the level of your knees (if possible).

Exercise 4 – External Rotations and Quick Breaths

This simple exercise requires you to stand tall with your arms by your side. Take a deep breath in and externally rotate your thumbs and retract your shoulders back allowing your chest to stick out. Hold this position for a second and then let out 2-3 quick, powerful breaths (as if you’re trying to blow out some candles). This will force your core, which goes dormant when you sit, to engage. David does a super quick demonstration in the last seven seconds of this video.

Exercise 5 – Shake it out

This is my favorite micro-break exercise as it helps shake out all the tension and stress that’s built up in the body from sitting. Let yourself be loose and start shaking out one body part at a time. Start with your hands, move up to the elbows and then shoulders. Let your thoracic (upper) spine rotate freely. Shake out the tension from your face. Use your hands to shake out the leg muscles. Just shake everything out like you’re trying to get yourself clean. David shows how to do it here.

These five exercises don’t have to be done in any particular order. Feel free to use them during your 10 minute micro-breaks.

No Such Thing as Perfect Posture

We’re often told that the perfect sitting posture is one where your spine is in neutral position, your shoulders are back and retracted, your head is up high and chin is tucked in (ensuring your neck isn’t craned out), your chest is up and out (ensuring proper thoracic expansion).

And, yes, this is damn good posture. Way better than the one explained earlier.

But the problem isn’t in the specific posture itself.

The problem is trying to maintain the same posture over an extended period of time.

Even the best posture places stress on certain areas of the body and when these stresses are imposed on specific muscle groups over an extended period of time, those areas get tight. They shorten. And imbalances start creeping in.

The best posture is one that constantly changes. 

Read that again.

The best posture is one that constantly changes and shifts the stress from one muscle group to the next.

Over the course of the 50 minutes you spend sitting down, you should be shifting your sitting position every 10 minutes or so. The stress is going to be placed somewhere so you might as well ensure that it is being shifted around the body so it doesn’t do as much damage to one specific area.

Sit with your back up and straight for a bit. Move over to one butt cheek. Then the other. Get down on your knees for a while (you know what I mean lol). Move to a swiss ball. Get back on only one knee. Then the other. Keep switching things up constantly.

By constantly changing your posture and shifting the stress to a variety of muscle groups, you can help slow down that ticking time bomb.

Summary

If you work a desk job or you’re a student locked up in your dorm room burried in a mountain of books, understand that this metaphorical time bomb is ticking and it can literally implode any minute.

Trust me when I tell you that the implosion is not pleasant as I speak from personal experience. The rehabilitation process is never-ending.

Sitting can and will kill you if you choose not to do whatever is necessary to combat its negative effects.

The simple tips I’ve outlined here are not difficult to implement, but they can save you. They can save your body.

Now I have a question for you:

How are YOU negating the negative effects of sitting? Share your answers in the comment section below.

Like what you read? Share it!
Get Free Updates!

Comments

  1. Neil Gribben says:

    Great thread and I would like to add that as someone who has struggled with various episodes of lower back issues over the years any sort of advice is welcomed. I’m 44 have worked in an office all my adult life and if I have to stand for more than 4 or 5 hours at a time I suffer with aching in my lower back and legs. It is on the whole something I’ve just accepted and grown to begrudginly tolerate.

    So what do I do…
    I run twice a day for a total of 5 – 6 miles a day as part of my commute.
    I have a martial arts based training regime that involves lots of full chain movement and is very focused on posture and movement.
    I have now incorporated a kettlebell set into my work outs, typically twice a week, thanks for the inspiration and guidance, Srdjan.
    I try to get out and walk for most of my lunch hour (although not always)
    I am a habitual subconscious fidgetter, I can rarely stay still for any period of time and I always feel as if I’m shifting my position (sounds like this is now a good thing).
    I do try to get up and move at least once or more an hour – although I doubt it’s for 10 minutes at a time, half of that if I’m honest.
    I do a yoga based training session on average once a week, if you do nothing else peeps, this is the one thing you need to get into – it will do something to undo the damage. if you can manage more than one class or repeat the exercises at home for free then even better

    What don’t I do…
    I have no structure to my breaks so I may end up sitting for 4 hours at a time with no real regimen of managing when I’m not hunched forward at my seat.
    My posture is apalling, I either tend to be hunched forward trying to touch my screen with my forehead or slowly slipping backwards like an invertebrate, lolloping in my chair peering over my glasses at the screen.

    It feels like a continual battle and one where gains are small but oh so welcome.

    • Thanks for your in-depth comment Neil. You bring up a lot of good points. Lower back pain (or pain in general) is never something you should accept. It’s imperative that you keep fighting to reverse those effects or they will do you in. Always think positively.

      You seem like you’re doing everything right. All the things you mentioned are excellent means of slowing down that ticking time bomb. What’s important for people to remember is that we’re battling the imbalance. It’s very hard to reverse 8 hours of sitting with one hour of training. So this is why all these things are important to incorporate into a daily routine. Yoga is definitely at the top of that list.

      Neil, I would add some corrective exercises and SMR techniques to loosen up the hamstrings, hip flixors, lower back, and pec minors. Thera canes, foam rollers and lacrosse/tennis balls come very handy for this. Then focus on strengthening the upper back. Doing so will help pull the scapula back, reversing poor posture.

      As for structure, I’ve found it’s best to put things on paper. Write down the things you want to do throughout the day and schedule them into your calendar/task scheduler. Have reminders pop up and actually do the exercises.

  2. Kiran Kumar S D says:

    Very informative piece of article. Luckily for me I keep alternating between construction site & office as m being an architect. I generally get nice breaks between sitting & walking. But during my days at office I do try to take little breaks between working hours (honestly not 10 mins though). Also I try to walk while I am on my mobile phone talking. 15 mins walk post lunch with my colleagues. Sometimes my standing time run to 3-4 hours stretch, So I hope this is helping me out.
    I would definitely share this piece of imp. info with my friends.

    • You’re very fortunate to have the opportunity to mix up walking and sitting as part of your job. While you’re sitting, I would definitely still recommend getting up every now and then and doing a few micro-break exercises, even if it’s just for a few minutes.

      And thanks for sharing!

  3. Great article, Srdjan! As a soccer player who is also in school, those long hours studying during the day can really kill my body when it comes time to practice at night. What I usually do when studying is 20 minutes sitting down and reading, alternated with 20 minutes of standing up and reading. But is standing in place speeding up that ticking time bomb as well? I am definitely going to implement these strategies during the day. Thanks!

  4. Awesome stuff! I am a deskbound guy but I find that I move my chair around all the time so I don’t tend to be locked on one position, not great but at least movement. Also I work out in the gym at work at lunch or play street hockey so I know that this helps me out a lot.

    It is true though that I have all sorts of upper back problems and now that you have mentioned this is a tough part I think that I will need to be more aware of strengthening all of my back instead of just worrying about my core so much.

    The thing about walking around as well is that I bet that stretching would be a great thing to do as long as you can do it while walking without looking too much like a dork.

    I was under the impression that I knew quite a bit about deskbound and exercise but apparently not. The other thing I was thinking about is getting a stability ball and using that at my desk. What is the current thinking on those?

    • Bill, having a strong core will definitely help you out, but it isn’t the only thing that matters. Strengthening your upper (thoracic) back and improving your mobility in that area will bring the shoulders back to their natural position (only once the tightness from the pec minor is gone). Everything else you’re doing sounds great!

      Doing some stretches is great, just make sure you’re not over-stretching the muscles in a cold (not warmed-up) state. If you’re going to stretch, focus on the hip flexors, glutes, hamstrings, and lower back.

      Stability balls are good to have, but even sitting on the ball the entire day will result in stress being placed in one location. Use the stability ball as part of your shifting routine and always keep that posture changing.

      • Srdjan, my shoulders are curved inward because of my bad posture. How do you loosen up tight pec minors? This might help me out alot also! Thanks.

        • Hey Jenn, good question. I use tools like the lacrosse ball (or tennis ball if you can’t handle the pain), thera cane, or even just my hands to regularly massage my pec minors. Standing while facing the wall with a lacrosse ball pinched at the pec minor is probably my favorite one (see how to do it here). What you want to do is feel for tender spots and just try to apply pressure on that spot until the pain dissipates.

          It’s also important to work on thoracic (upper) back mobility and to strengthen the upper back with pulling movements. These will help bring the shoulders back into place (but only if the pec minors are loose enough).

  5. This is great! And it just makes common sense. I find myself changing up my sitting position all day long simply because it feels better! I rarely sit in my chair in a traditional manner. I sit cross-legged, half on/half off, kneeling, etc. But I’m still sitting so I plan on incorporating these mini-breaks. Thanks a bunch for sharing this info!!

  6. Great article. I definitely fall into the category of desk sitter. Not a great one, at that. Like Kiran, I’m an architect as well, and I’m glad I have out-of-office days on site, but those don’t come on a regular schedule and I can go 2 weeks straight or more of being in the office. I get sucked into my tasks and deadlines that I forget how long I actually sat. The mornings are not as bad as the afternoons, as the hour from arrival to lunchtime is shorter than lunchtime to departure.

    I find that I drink water a lot during the day. This does two things: hydrates my brain (better than coffee!! try it!!), and makes me get up to go to the washroom. Bonus.

    Lately, I’ve actually tried these moves in the washroom: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QTGBFlB1fEI&list=PL4642942220CC1682&index=26

    I’m trying to work out my arms! This is a perfect 5 min break. But your moves target certain areas that need attention as well, so I’m going to keep those in mind next time I’m in a washroom stall. =P I hope my coworkers aren’t reading this.

    • Like I mentioned to Kiran, it’s great that you get a chance to get out of the office. Take advantage of that as much as you can.

      Water is actually great for posture, whereas coffee stimulates the nervous system and can actually speed up that time bomb by creating certain muscle groups to get tense (remember that it’s a stimulant). The going to the bathroom thing is definitely a bonus!

      Those exercises look great. Keep that up. And don’t worry about your co-workers. They’ll eventually start doing the exercises with you :)

  7. Srdjan,

    I think people should be aware of how much harm a lot of sitting can cause. As a cubicle worker myself, I try to stand up and walk around 2-3 times before lunch, during lunch for a longer period where I’m usually working out or running errands, and again 2-3 times after lunch. In total, including lunch I probably hit the 80 minute target you mentioned.

    I wasn’t always this way, though. I used to sit for 3-4 hours straight and now I definitely feel the difference when I’m forced to do that (like during a long car ride or seminar, for example). This is a great post because if people are aware of the danger, then they can make tiny changes in their daily routine which do not require much effort in order to dramatically improve their long-term health.

    Alykhan

    • I definitely feel the difference too Alykhan. Sitting for longer periods now irritates me big time and I’m nearly FORCED to get up.

      I think it’s important that people are aware of the dangers of prolonged sitting, especially considering the fact that our society is shifting to an environment that requires it. They say sitting is the new smoking.

  8. Thanks for another great post! Are you very familiar with standing desks? After articles such as yours regarding the dangers of sitting, I have converted my desk to a standing one. However, I find my legs, particularly my feet, getting extremely fatigued. I’ve tried a cushioned matt, being barefoot, wearing extremely supportive shoes–all of it. I’m wondering if standing all day is as detrimental, though in different ways, to our bodies and was wondering what your thoughts were on that. Thanks for all you do!

    • Hey Lisa. I’ve never used a standing desk myself, but I have heard of them. Here’s what I think: no matter whether you stand or sit, there’s no denying gravity. Your spine will still be under compression.

      Standing also places a lot of pressure on your feet, especially if you are overweight. However, I would still choose standing over sitting because standing doesn’t place your spine in flexion or deactivate your posterior chain.

      The best thing you can do is shift between the two. If you already have a standing desk, get a high chair and mix up periods of sitting with periods of standing. And see how you feel!

  9. This is such useful advice for anyone in a desk-bound situation. And thanks for the heads-up for the timer devices – my trainer told me about these but I didn’t know they were freely available. I’ve already installed TimeOut.

  10. Zdravo Srdjane,

    That’s a great post, thanks for taking the time to write it.

    I also believe that anyone who sits a lot at work should do these activation exercises to combat the bad effects of prolonged sitting.

    Here’s how I do it on my workplace…

    I’ve set my homepage (home and work pc) to be http://e.ggtimer.com/50minutes (really cool web app). As soon as the alarm goes off, I stand up and head out to the toilet, where I’ll do 20-50 air squats.

    It takes me less than a minute to do them and sometimes I even add some other exercises to the mix, if I’ve been sitting for more than 50 minutes.

    Egg Timer + Air Squats FTW … highly recommend, especially if you’re strapped for time.

    • Cao Dejane!

      Thanks for sharing that awesome web app. I’m going to make an update to the post and include it in there so everyone knows about it. I do my fair share of air squats throughout the day too (see here).

Speak Your Mind

*