We begin our indoctrination into society by sitting. Remember kindergarten? One of the first things we learned how to do is sit, crossed legged, in a circle with the rest of the class. Then, you sit in a class room from grade school to college only to wind up sitting in front of a computer screen for long periods of time at work. Basically, by the time your an adult you have accepted that sitting for long periods of time is just a part of life. My degree is in finance and, before I became a trainer, I worked in corporate America as an analyst for five years. I sat at my desk for hours at a time and I know the toll prolonged sitting can take on your body in regards to posture and muscular imbalances. Most of my clients are successful professionals that work in an office and I spend half of my time trying to restore their posture and counteract the effects of sitting for long periods of time. So, if you work in an office you’ll want to keep reading because I am going to explain some simple mobility exercises you can do on your own that will improve your posture in a short period of time.
First, I’m going to discuss your lower half, including legs and hips, and the havoc sitting can wreak on your posture. I’ll give a brief rundown of your psoas muscle group which is often referred to as the group of muscles that are your hip flexors. The psoas muscle connects to the top part of your femur bone to your lumbar region of the spine. When you sit, your hips are in a flexed position which causes the psoas to be in a contracted or shortened state. Over time, your psoas will actually begin to shorten in order to adjust to the sitting position. Isn’t the human body amazing? It has the ability to adapt to external forces and is very adept to making it more efficient at a particular motion or in this case a static position. This shortening of the psoas can cause an anterior or forward shifting of your pelvis as the shortened psoas muscles don’t release to their completely rested state. This anterior shift can cause numerous postural and muscloskeletal imbalances within your body. Another muscle group that becomes shortened and remains flexed while sitting are your hamstrings; the group of muscles located on the back of your thighs. It’s the same principle: when you sit your hamstrings are in a contracted/flexed position and over time your body will begin to adapt by shortening them. This shortening of the hamstrings will cause the opposite effect of the psoas. In this case, your hamstrings will cause a posterior or backwards shifting of the pelvis. This can lead to poor posture and lower back pain just to name a couple issues.
Now we move on to your upper body and the havoc prolonged sitting will have on it. The most common type of upper body desk posture is called kyphosis…also known as a “hunchback”. This is basically a forward/anterior rounding of the shoulders and and rounding out of the upper back or thoracic region of the spine. This condition will shorten the pectoral or chest muscles and will cause the muscles in the upper back to lengthen. If you are looking at this type of posture from the side you will notice a c shape in the upper torso. The chest can become concave depending on the severity on the upper back or Thoracic region and will develop a hump again depending on the severity.
Now that you know what prolonged sitting can due to your posture…let me tell you how to make it better. Every body is unique in terms of what types postural deviations they have. Correcting desk posture can be done by performing some simple myofascial release techniques by using tools such as a lacrosse ball, medicine ball and a foam roller or PVC pipe to get deeper into the muscle. Here are three simple ways to help correct desk posture. Warning: some of you may feel a little pain while doing them but that’s alright…these exercises work.
Hamstring Stretch: Standing or sit with your legs straight and reach out as far as you can to touch your toes. Do this for 3 sets with 1 minute holds. For a more intense version of this stretch, perform it on a platform like a bench or wall high enough so that your legs don’t touch the ground. For a more targeted approach, get a bench or chair that has a hard surface and take your lacrosse ball and place it under your hamstrings and sit on it. Once you find that trigger point, stay on it and bend and straighten (flex and extend) your leg for 15 reps and repeat 3 to 4 times each time finding a different trigger point on your hamstring. I recommend starting off by your butt and work towards your knee on each leg.
Lay face down and place the lacrosse ball on your pelvic region where the psoas is. Make sure you’re not on your hip bone and find those trigger points. Once you find it, hold it for about a minute. The pain can be intense depending on your sensitivity. If a lacrosse ball is too much you can start off with a tennis ball. I recommend doing this exercise three to four times on each side.
In regards to correcting kyphosis in the upper body, there are two basic things you can do. First, you want to get your chest muscles to lengthen as kyphosis puts them in a generally contracted state. A good stretch for this is place yourself in a corner of the room with both feet and with your nose in the corner. Next, place your hands on each wall with your elbows bent at 90 degrees and your arms are shoulder height. Hold for a minute and repeat three times.
Now let’s get those upper back muscles to shorten since there are in a state of general elongation. Lie on your back and have your foam roller or PVC pipe ready. Place it across your mid to upper back with you arms across your chest. Roll your mid to upper back along the device and when you find a tender spot…hold the position for a minute. Repeat three to four times. You can also perform this on your back with a lacrosse ball but I’m going to warn you the pain can be intense.
These exercises may not apply to everyone but they are some basic things you can do help correct damage to your posture from prolonged sitting. I have helped improve the posture of many of my clients with these exercises and also by just making them aware of how they’re sitting during the work day. They’re now catching themselves hunched over at their desk and have retrained themselves to sit straight. Give these exercises a try and let me know how it turns out.