Writer ∙ Author ∙ Journalist

Sitting Pretty

Elevate / October 2011

Whatever you do at work today, do not Google ‘sitting and death’.

You’ll find some very scary stats: Many recent studies are finding people who sit more have a higher death risk—independent of other risk factors like smoking, obesity and hypertension. The University of South Carolina found men who sit 23 or more hours a week are 64 per cent more likely to die from heart disease. A 2009 Canadian study from the Scientific Committee of Agencies for Nutrition Action found increased sitting time was associated with “higher all-cause death.” And, worse yet: researchers from the American Cancer Society found sitting for most of the day is independently associated with mortality, regardless of physical activity level after work. (So even if you’re a marathon runner, if you’ve got a desk job, those sitting hours are still going to hurt your health.)

Since you’re likely sitting right now, my apologies. Maybe you’re skimming this in a dentist’s waiting room, or maybe you’re hunched over your desk, where you, and the majority of office workers, sit all day at an uncomfortable desk. Or perhaps you’re headed home, reading magazines on the train—also sitting.

Unfortunately, our lifestyles make sitting inevitable, and some tension and back pain difficult to avoid, says Dr. Bryan Sher, B.Sc., D.C., a chiropractor at the Rosedale Wellness Centre in Toronto. “Humans are the only animals in the kingdom that get back problems the way we do,” says Dr. Sher. “But we’re also the only animals who sit all day.”

There’s a better defence then quitting your job and living off the land. Just slight changes in your posture and sitting habits can have massive effects on your alignment and spinal health, which in turn affect your whole body. “Posture is a reflection of the alignment of the spine, and the nervous system runs within the spine, and those nerves control the whole body,” says Dr. Sher. Poor posture, he adds, “can affect almost anything—not just muscles and tendons, but organ function and even respiration.”

The first step is simple: sit up straight, making sure you’re curving in at all the right spots. “There should be a curve that goes in on the lumbar spine (or lower back), support for the thoracic area (the upper back), and your neck should curve too,” says Dr. Sher.

Your chair is important, he adds, but no need to insist on top-of-the-line. “The main thing is support for the lumbar spine and maintaining the natural curve.” We’ve all seen co-workers perched atop stability balls, but new trends may have them leaning on a textured Acuball, standing at a height-adjustable workstation, and even walking at treadmill desks.

Most of us are stuck in regular chairs, however, and they’re just fine: “It could be a great chair, or an okay chair with a lumbar cushion, or even just rolling up a large towel and placing it behind your back,” he says. “Just be careful not to sit too far forward in your chair with your head jutting out.”

“The big issue isn’t just poor posture, it’s sustained poor posture. Even if you sit up ergonomically in a position that’s considered ideal, you don’t want to sit in that position all day,” says Dr. Sher. So while the boss might not like it, Dr. Sher suggests a posture break every 20 to 30 minutes. “Go to the water fountain, take a drink, talk to your neighbour. Anything.” You can also kick it up a notch and take a few flights of stairs, go for a walk at lunch—even 10 minutes will do—or sign up for a lunch hour class at a nearby health facility.

And don’t think you’re done at five pm, once the office doors are locked. “Good posture is important not just at work, but in every part of your day and life,” says Dr. Sher. Unfortunately, North American spinal care is completely reactive—meaning you don’t even think about it until you’re already in pain—and when healed, people generally stop treating it and get back to old habits.

A better plan, says Dr. Sher, is an ongoing spinal health program outside of the office. “We recommend exercise, chiropractic and massage therapy, as well as yoga and Pilates, to keep the spine flexible, strong and properly aligned.” A spinal adjustment takes just a few minutes and can be done during your morning or afternoon break—or you can always tap out early for an afternoon massage and claim it’s a wellness necessity. (It is!)