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