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Is too much sitting causing your pain?

Updated: Aug 15

I don't know about you, but I've noticed I sit for more extended periods than ever.

And while sitting can be super comfortable, prolonged periods of sitting are doing more harm to your body than you might realize. Despite what you might have heard, sitting is not the new smoking--it won't kill you, but it can have unintended adverse side effects on your movement patterns and ability to move your body pain-free.

Weakened muscles, joint pain, compressed organs, trouble breathing, and fascial adhesions are some ways sitting compromises your body.

Joint pain is probably the most obvious sign you've been sitting too much. Sitting for extended periods causes your tendons to stiffen and puts extra pressure on the bursa sacs that cushion and protect from bone-on-bone contact, causing inflammation and pain. Prolonged sitting can also cause stress to ligaments in areas like your coccyx (tailbone). The excess pressure causes the ligaments to stretch and move the bones apart while simultaneously trying to keep them from separating--like a rubber band trying to stretch without breaking. This stretch results in something called ligament laxity. When they try to come back together, the ligaments have less ability to support your boney structures. Like a car that needs a front-end alignment, the steering wheel feels loose, and the car pulls more to one side or the other.

Weakened muscles - have you ever heard the term "flat butt"? It's exactly as it sounds. Your gluteal muscles become weak from the constant compression of sitting in your chair and, as a result, look flat and flabby. More importantly, they lose their ability to do their job regarding proper movement. They get so used to not having to work that the other muscles--usually your lower back and hamstrings, have to pick up the slack, and you can end up with muscle strain as a result. However, the glutes aren't the only muscles suffering too much sitting. Your hip flexors (primarily your tensor fascia lata) become chronically shortened from being in a consistently flexed position. Being in this constantly flexed and shortened position causes them to become overactive from having to fire or "be on" all the time. Then when we go to walk, we're asking muscles that are already cranky and irritable to do extra work, resulting in pain in the form of trigger points. This pain can range from back pain and hip pain to pain in the quadriceps and even knee pain. Other muscles that become weakened from too much sitting--the adductors (inner thighs), psoas and rectus abdominis (abdominal muscles), gastrocnemius (calves) and soleus, and even your pelvic floor muscles.

Compressed organs: Have you ever thought about what too much sitting does to your organs--especially your digestive system? Our digestive system is much more functional when standing because our 25 feet of small intestines have more room. When we sit, our abdomen becomes compressed, our digestion slows, and we end up with symptoms such as bloating, heartburn, and constipation.

Difficulty breathing: Too much sitting causes a weakening of the diaphragm, the muscle that helps our lungs fill with air. A weak diaphragm can lead to shortness of breath when we exercise or even climb a set of stairs; it causes a reduction in our blood-oxygen levels, leading to lethargy and sleep problems. We also tend to slouch when we sit and round our shoulders forward. Hunching forward causes our chests to tighten, which inhibits our ability to fully expand our lungs to capacity and sometimes causes chest and rib pain.

Fascial Adhesions: When we don't move enough, our fascia can lose its flexibility. It tightens and becomes plasticized, as anyone with plantar fasciitis can tell you. This is why plantar and Achilles tendonitis is the worst when you take your first steps out of bed or after long periods of sitting.

I know this sounds terrible, but I have some good news. There are ways for you to mitigate the effects of sitting and help your body move better.

Setting a timer or an alert on your phone or Fitbit - My Fitbit vibrates when I sit for more than 60 minutes. You can set it for any interval you want, 20 minutes, 30 minutes, but I suggest no more than 60 minutes. It's a gentle reminder to get up and move. I have also trained myself to get up and get a glass of water from the kitchen when that alert vibrates. Win-win.

Take a daily stretch break or two - build a stretch break into your day, maybe at lunch and again when you've finished work for the day. Perhaps you're working on a big project; reward yourself with a stretch break when you've completed a big piece of the project. My favorite stretch when I've been sitting too long? Side bends. Stand up, feet shoulder-width apart. Raise your right arm over your head, slowly lean to the left, and reach your right hand over as you stretch. Stretching is also great for the chest, rib cage, and mid-back tension.

Do chair yoga: There are tons of videos on YouTube. One of my favorites is fellow massage therapist and yoga instructor Annalisa Derryberry, a colleague of mine from Florida. She has a fantastic YouTube channel of 10-minute yoga routines, and they're great. I particularly like this seated sun salutation routine.

Make a date with your foam roller: We all know what a fan I am of foam rolling. Foam rolling is the next best thing to having a live-in massage therapist. It feels good, and focusing on 1-2 key areas can make a big difference if you're short on time.

Book a massage: Massage can help address joint pain and muscle tension and temporarily increase range of motion which can help you move better. You can use massage to address a slow digestive system, chest tightness, and even fascial adhesions around the diaphragm. You can book your appointment online or call the office at (603) 370-9193.

One last piece of advice, for lasting results, you need a combination of movement and strength. If muscle weakness or joint pain is your primary concern, I suggest booking a consultation for some corrective exercises. You can book that online as well.

Ok, now that you're done reading this blog post, get up and move your body!

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