Your chair is killing you. Here’s how to fix it

Are you sitting comfortably? Then you should probably get up and walk around a bit. Scare stories that draw a parallel between the ill effects of sitting and smoking may be overstating the case a little, but not by as much as you’d think. After all, while you can give up tobacco, it’s a lot tougher to renounce your workstation or find the e-cigarette equivalent of a chaise longue. Since most modern jobs involve hours of sitting down, the obvious questions are: what’s causing the damage? And what can you do about it?

Your chair is killing you. Here's how to fix it

One problem is what researchers call non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT).

The more you sit, the lower your NEAT, the fewer calories you burn: 1.36 calories per minute fewer, according to studies.

According to Dr James Levine, author of Get up!: Why Your Chair is Killing You and What You Can Do About It, low NEAT is linked to weight gain, diabetes, heart attacks and cancer, and standing up for even a few extra hours a day can make a difference.

Exercise can help with the calorie expenditure part, of course, but an hour or so a day isn’t enough. Why? Put simply, because sitting down puts your body on standby. When you do this for any length of time, your circulation becomes constricted, your metabolism slows and your connective tissues tighten.

“This causes your hip flexors – the muscles on the front of your thighs – and your hamstrings to contract or shorten,” says Dr John Tanner, a musculoskeletal expert and osteopath. “Your buttock muscles are also constantly stretched with your knees at a 90-degree angle, which leads to muscles and joints tightening so much that your body moves less freely, decreasing agility and making you more prone to injury.”

Sitting for extended periods has also been linked to increased waist size and risk of a host of cardiovascular diseases

All this results in placing stress on your lumbar spine, leading to lower-back pain that’s responsible for an estimated 4.5 million days off work in Britain each year.

Sitting for extended periods has also been linked to increased waist size and risk of a host of cardiovascular diseases, even among otherwise active individuals. The problem, it seems, is “uninterrupted sedentary time”.

And as if spending nine hours a day sitting in a chair weren’t bad enough, PC slouch is arguably even worse – whether you’re tapping numbers into Excel or playing Eve Online, working at a desk exacerbates the tendency to round your shoulders forward, squint and tense your facial muscles.

Movie-goers’ knee – the chronic joint pain that comes from prolonged contact between the femur and patella (whether it comes from sitting in a multiplex or at home) – is also a recognised medical problem, and even an hour of sitting down can make your back measurably tighter, as it tries to compensate for everything else.

So what’s the solution? Exercise alone, as mentioned earlier, won’t cut it. Yes, it helps with the NEAT part, reduces your chances of obesity-related problems and has protective effects against everything from osteoporosis to Alzheimer’s – but it won’t fix the mobility issues or long-term effects of sedentary times.

For those of you under the impression that swapping that chair out for an exercise ball will solve these issues, think again. Studies show that muscular activation is largely the same whether you’re sitting on a ball or a chair, and the greater contact area can actually lead to more soft-tissue compression and spinal shrinkage, as well as more stiffening in the upper back and neck.

Sitting for extended periods has also been linked to increased waist size and risk of a host of cardiovascular diseases

Studies of kneeling chairs, meanwhile, remain inconclusive; they tend to focus on postural comparisons rather than muscle activation, so it’s difficult to draw any firm conclusions. One key comparison suggested that the lower body “switches off” in kneeling chairs, which may make them worse than a well-designed office chair.

Of more benefit would be to stand up. At least one study suggests that computer users who stand up for an hour during their workday have less back pain. Standing up has also been linked to reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and can help regulate your body’s glucose supplies, which helps you use up energy from food more efficiently and can lower your risk of type 2 diabetes. There’s even e evidence standing can reduce the risk of developing certain types of cancers.

But there’s another issue to consider: how much work you actually get done. Standing up or even strolling around might be fine if your job isn’t all that cognitively challenging – or if you’re just “researching” on Reddit, for instance – but how does it work if you’re involved in intricate decision-making?

In general, research suggests little difference between sitting and standing. The exception comes in cases of more complicated multitasking, where sitting is apparently better. Walking is a different matter entirely: study participants invariably end up stopping when they need to work on complex tasks. In both cases, however, researchers noted that there’s a chance that performance would improve with time and experience.

A better option is to move around in between bouts of work. Those who regularly stand throughout the day report that it makes them feel more energetic, while research suggests that cognitive performance increases in those who make exercise part of their daily routine. This isn’t restricted to middle management – a slew of writers, from Ernest Hemingway to Vladimir Nabokov, did most of their work while standing. American novelist Philip Roth once claimed to walk half a mile for every page he wrote.

Those who regularly stand throughout the day report that it makes them feel more energetic

So, assuming you’re not a Pulitzer-prize-winning novelist, how can you get more standing into your life? Going straight from endless sitting to non-stop standing isn’t recommended – it will feel like torment, and isn’t likely to be good for your productivity. Small, incremental changes are key: just moving from your desk to the office kitchen a bit more at first, taking phone calls while standing up, or even instituting walking meetings can help.

Another solution is to invest in an adjustable-height desk; converts swear by them. Expensive versions come with an electric motor, while cheaper units offer adjustments via hand-crank. Most experts recommend starting out with a 1:1 sit/stand ratio, adjusted as you get used to the new experience – you can do it by task, or time.

To get started, refer to the short exercises above. None of them involve having to change into fitness clothing or getting sweaty. You may get a few odd looks, but show doubters this article and get them exercising too!

The anti-chair workout

Internal hip rotation – Cross one shin over the other thigh and try to pull that leg across your body, while leaving your other foot flat on the floor.

Seated hip flexion – Rest your right foot on your left thigh to make a seated figure-four. Next, keeping your back straight, bend forward at the hips, feeling the stretch in your hip.

Chair hip extension – Put your knee on the seat of your chair with your shin extended up the back. Lean gently back until you feel a stretch in your quad, and hold for 30 to 60 seconds.

The two minute posture fix

Batwing – Standing roughly 30cm from a wall, lean back against it, bracing yourself so that your body is straight. Now, keeping your thumbs in your armpits, push yourself away from the wall using your elbows, and hold for 10 to 15 seconds. Repeat a total of three times.

Chest stretch – Interlink your fingers behind your back and raise your arms, pushing your chest forward while keeping your back straight. Hold for 30 seconds.

S-reach – Try to link your arms together behind your back – one up, one down. If you can’t reach, use a small towel or something similar to hold the stretch. Do this for 30 seconds on each side.

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