Don’t Just Sit There (Part 1)

The phrase move it or lose it has been around for years and for good for reason.  The concept is contingent upon the process of adaptability or plasticity.  Without moving or utilizing certain processes within our bodies, over time we lose it.  On the flip side, when we utilize certain muscles or nervous system connections known as pathways, we have the ability to strengthen them.

This concept can be simply understood by looking at what happens when you work out or don’t work out a muscle.  If you are constantly doing curls, naturally your bicep will grow as it is your body’s way of adapting to the increased demand.  However, if you don’t use your bicep, another muscle, or various pathways in your brain, the muscle or process will become weakened or atrophied and could quite possibly go away completely.  This is your body’s clever way of adapting.  In our miraculous design, the body is designed to be as efficient as possible. Lack of an activity provides feedback that we don’t need to devote any energy or memory to this process; thus not moving it or using it, leads to losing it.

While the topic of utilizing different, diverse neurological pathways leading to plasticity is a main concept behind Functional Neurology and adjunct therapies like Lumosity, what we are talking about today is literally making sure you move as much as possible.  In particular, we are speaking of trying to avoid long periods of uninterrupted sitting as much as possible.

Mounting research has implicated extended periods of uninterrupted sitting as a major determent to your health.  We are not just talking about a culprit behind back pain, neck pain and headache.  We are not just referring to it being a contributing factor to various diseases or conditions like osteoarthritis, diabetes, and obesity.  The eye opener here should be the fact that research has shown that regardless of your fitness level, individuals who spend their days logging long hours of uninterrupted sitting actually have SHORTER LIFE SPANS.

I don’t know about you but that’s all I need to hear to perk up and pay attention.  Being someone who has always been active and involved in some level of daily fitness or sport activity, it is quite alarming (yet logical) to hear that even if you do get a good workout in multiple times per week, if you’re logging long hours at a desk without moving, you may just meet your maker sooner than expected.

I say logical because when you think about it, it does make sense that what we do the majority of our day (sitting) would have more of an impact that what we do a fraction of the day (a workout).  Studies out of NASA on the determents of microgravity situations that the astronauts find themselves in when they travel to space found the most comparable Earth situation to be sitting.

From a biomechanical perspective, there are a variety of reasons this position is bad news.  Your anterior muscles become shorted.  There are muscles in your lower half that connect to your spine and anchor to your pelvis or hip.  From prolonged, uninterrupted sitting these muscles eventually begin to shorten due to the flexed forward position.  Now when you stand up these muscles can pull down on your lumbar spine, creating the sensation of back pain and the misconception that standing up is the problem.  While standing up does actually cause the individual discomfort, it is actually due to the prolonged sitting and subsequent shortened muscles that the dysfunction and manifestation of pain as a symptom occurs.  This is a prime example of what we talked about in the previous post of going beyond addressing the pain or symptom and fixing the breakdown that led to this symptom in the first place.

If we move up the spine and throw in the fact that prolonged sitting is usually taking place at a desk or car, we begin to flex forward in the upper portion of your body as well.  This shortens the muscles of your anterior shoulder and chest and gives you that hunched forward, kyphotic thoracic spine, and anterior head carriage.  The muscles on the posterior side now become over worked as they must fight even harder to hold you upright.  This leads to that mysterious shoulder and neck pain that you experience after a long day at work.

Lengthening, overworking and weakening the posterior side muscles from uninterrupted sitting and poor posture leads to the breakdown in function that we touched on in last week’s post that so often leads to back pain and other dysfunction.  It is these posterior chain muscles (think low back muscles, glutes, hamstrings, calves, etc.) that are designed to keep us upright and moving smoothly, efficiently and pain free through space.  When the front side muscles become shortened and the back side muscles become lengthened and weakened we begin to not only assume poor posture but a faulty movement pattern that predisposes us to other injuries at proximal and distal locations throughout the body.

Actual sitting is also the worst position for your lower back.  This makes sense too if you think about it.  When we stand, our body weight is distributed through our spine and pelvis to the lower extremity where we have numerous muscles designed to assist in this matter.  When we sit we have removed everything from the upper portion of the pelvis down as far as support goes.   Now our low backs must support the entire weight of the upper half of our body.  This load is heavily placed upon the discs in between the individual vertebrae of our spine leaving them dehydrated and compressed. It is a major reason behind the widespread and seemingly “normal” degenerative disc disease and osteoarthritis seen in our heavily seated culture, but not in others.

Another pitfall of the effects of prolonged sitting is that due to the flexed forward, anterior posture assumed, you actually close down the space available for your organs to function correctly.   Full chest expansion (and thus filling capacity of the lungs) is impeded and you are no longer able to take in as much oxygen.  This leads to widespread systemic consequence because as we know, virtually all function within the body requires oxygen.  Organs within the abdomen can become compressed and deprived of optimal blood flow leading to dysfunction within the liver, digestive tract, reproductive organs, etc.

Hopefully all of these reasons are enough to spark some interest in learning what you can proactively do to make sure you are not included in the “normal” range of society.  It is currently estimated that some 80% of the population will, at some time or another, suffer chronic low back pain.  This widespread prevalence does not exist in other countries that are not sitting all day, every day.  This should tell us something.   I don’t know about you, but if “normal” is having an 80% chance of low back pain, I want no part of it.  I also don’t want any part of the other issues sited in the previous paragraphs.

Stay tuned for our next post which will illuminate some simple steps you can begin to implement as far as breaking up the sitting and doing what you can to avoid these seemingly “normal” issues.

Have a great weekend.

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