Physiological Effects of Prolonged Sitting
by Andrew Bayliss-White
Sitting is an almost unavoidable action, whether it be long car trips, watching TV, or desk work. Sitting entails spending prolonged periods of time in a hip flexed, kyphotic type position that our body is not designed to be in. Our body is highly adaptable and quickly takes these shapes in everyday life and everyday movement, these poor positions can be the start of a life filled with chronic pain and illness.
Some of the baseline physical issues that can come from prolonged time sitting include neck pain, stiff shoulders, kyphotic thoracic spine, lordotic lumbar spine causing low back pain, hindered breathing rhythm and muscle degeneration and inability to activate certain muscles. These bad positions can ultimately lead to heart disease, respiratory condition and weight gain. These are just a few of the conditions that can be caused by prolonged sitting.
The glutes and the abdominal muscles are key muscles in the stabilisation of the spine and these muscles not being able to switch on can lead to the spine being in an unstable position. Sitting on a chair with hips flexed at 90 degrees automatically reduces the glutes ability to stabilise the pelvis and put it into a good position, they basically switch off. Spending prolonged periods of time in this position can lead to a chronic inability to activate the glutes in order to stabilise when performing day to day activities such as bending over, walking or running. Inactive glutes can lead to a various number of muscle imbalances and cause a number of chronic conditions that are seen in the gym on a day to day basis.
The body is very adaptive and can be easily moulded into positions that it spend the most time in. For most people it would be the hip flexed and unstable spine posture that sitting entails. Staying for prolonged periods of time in the hip flexed position can cause the hip flexors to tighten and become adapted to the 90 degrees of flexion that it spend the most time in. This (paired with the inactive glute) pulls the pelvis out of position and causes one of the most commonly seen misalignments, the anterior pelvic tilt.
Sitting for long periods of time, particularly in a relaxed state such as watching the TV or at the computer can also lead to the switching off of the stabilisers of the upper back and shoulders. This causes an unnatural rounding of the shoulders and causes a kyphosis (rounding) of the thoracic spine. This position of the upper back can exaggerate the spinal faults that could be present in the lower back, all up leading to all kinds of lower and upper back pain, shoulder pain, neck pain, hip pain and the list goes on.
This is not to say that sitting down on a chair will cause all these problems immediately and that we should never sit, it is an unavoidable action in today’s world. However we should be mindful of the amount of time we sit for and be aware of keeping good posture while in these positions. If sitting for over 30-60 minutes. It is advisable (where possible) to stand and stretch, walk away from the chair – anything to stop sitting for just a minute or two. If you are already feeling negative effects of prolonged sitting, you could even include some self-maintenance exercises such as foam rolling or trigger point release to help free up tight areas. These small changes can assist the body in motion and reduce the negative effects of prolonged sitting.
Keep your eyes out for our next blog post for an exercise program that can start to reverse the effect of prolonged sitting.
Could you benefit from a postural assessment and exercises to help improve posture, or to strengthen your glutes, posterior muscles, or core? Andrew and our other qualified trainers are available for personal training at the Fitness Keeper studio. Contact us to get started.
Tremblay, M., Colley, R., Saunders, T., Healy, G. and Owen, N. (2010). Physiological and health implications of a sedentary lifestyle. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 35(6), pp.725-740.
Hamilton, M., Hamilton, D. and Zderic, T. (2007). Role of Low Energy Expenditure and Sitting in Obesity, Metabolic Syndrome, Type 2 Diabetes, and Cardiovascular Disease. Diabetes, 56(11), pp.2655-2667.