30 Sep 2015

The perils of poor posture: it starts with sitting

Research suggests poor posture while working is causing many individuals to face serious long-term health problems, with severe stress and anxiety being the most common issues reported. Jim Thorp offers some advice.

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Compelling evidence has been gathered which indicates that anyone who sits for more than four hours consecutively for any period is at a greater risk of obesity, heart disease and even diabetes – a condition that, according to recent figures released by Diabetes UK, has risen by almost 60 per cent over the past decade.

Pain in the back brought on by bad posture affects around 70 per cent of the nation’s workforce and is now the second most prevalent complaint among employees visiting their firm’s human resources department. Not many will be aware that poor posture can also inflict knee pain, fallen arches and even cause poor bladder control.

Posture is the position from which movement begins and ends. By starting in the wrong place, you will perform a movement pattern that keeps the joints in the wrong place. To compensate, you may perform a faulty movement pattern to improve your position. Either way, you will cause your body harm over time.

Wear and tear on the joints, ligaments and tendons are a natural outcome of any movement. However, poor posture and incorrect movement patterns create uneven damage in areas where the body finds it hard to recover. As time passes, this will stimulate injury, inflammation, pain and weakness.

Thanks in part to physical labour playing a lesser role in our everyday lives, and a more sedentary lifestyle on the whole, back problems in particular will often encourage increased curving in the upper back, a forward head position, rounded shoulders and a flat lower back.

A variety of major international research studies have recently produced alarming evidence showing that regular prolonged sitting can lead to a reduced metabolic rate and hinders the enzymes responsible for burning fat, causing them to shut down. This can have a knock-on effect, producing other more significant health risks. Some of the most common include:

Back and neck pain and inflexible spines: Spines that remain stationary become inflexible and likely to incur damage in everyday activities. If the majority of your sitting occurs while at a desk at work, arching your neck over a keyboard or cradling a phone by tilting your head can strain the cervical vertebrae and lead to permanent disproportion.

Muscle degeneration: Tight back muscles and soft abdominals are an indication of prolonged sitting. This leads to bad posture which can exaggerate the spine’s natural arch.

High blood pressure: The force of blood pushing against the walls of the arteries as the heart pumps blood is the act of blood pressure. If this pressure rises and stays high over time, it can damage the body in various ways.

Obesity: Physical activity patterns are heavily associated with obesity, with evidence of less active lifestyles being a major factor of excessive weight gain.

Heart Disease: During a long sit, muscles burn less fat and blood flows more sluggishly, allowing fatty deposits to clog the heart more easily.

Diabetes: The pancreas produces insulin, a hormone that carries glucose to cells for energy. Cells in idle muscles don’t respond as readily to insulin so the pancreas produces unwarranted amounts, increasing the risk of diabetes.

Osteoporosis: Remaining still for long periods can cause bones to lose their density, leading to osteoporosis. Adopting weight bearing activities such as standing, walking and running can stimulate hip and lower body bones to grow thicker, denser and stronger.

Depression: When muscles are left dormant for long periods everything slows, including brain function. Moving muscles will encourage fresh blood and oxygen to be pumped through the brain which triggers the release of all sorts of brain and mood enhancing chemicals. Remember, whatever you’re feeling depends on how you are using your body. ‘Emotion comes from motion’ is a simple statement, but one that is certainly worth applying to everyday life.

Dementia: Diabetes, depression and blood pressure can be affected by a sedentary lifestyle, all of which are common risk factors linked to dementia.

While practicing a healthier lifestyle will help lessen your vulnerability to any of these issues, focussing on correcting your position when sitting is also crucial, though it may be challenging at first. Initially, improving your posture can feel awkward, as your body has become so familiar with the position in which it has been kept. However, retraining your body to sit and stand properly will help to improve your body awareness.

In the beginning a disciplined, conscious effort is required, but with practise good posture will become second nature and help your back, neck and spine in the long-term.

Slouching in a chair requires little effort from our muscles, so it may feel more comfortable than sitting upright. But as with slouched standing, this can put strain on muscles and soft tissues that are already sensitised.

Spending several hours a day working on a computer may cause you to unconsciously adopt poor postural habits, such as hunching over your keyboard. This could cause tightness in the chest and weakness in the upper back.

By hunching over a laptop or PC, your head will have a tendency to lean forward, resulting in poor posture. Using mobile devices can also encourage you to hang your head, causing a similar problem dubbed ‘text neck’.

Holding your phone handset between your ear and shoulder can also place strain on the muscles of the neck, upper back and shoulders, as they did not evolve to hold this position for any length of time. Over time, this posture is likely to create muscle imbalances between the left and right side of your neck. Getting into the habit of holding the phone with your hand or using a hands-free device can help prevent these issues.

Exercises to strengthen your core, buttock, neck and shoulder muscles are commonly recommended to help correct a flat back, but they can make the problem worse when done incorrectly. Corrective exercise focuses primarily on improving posture and movement patterns by strengthening long, weak muscles and lengthening short, tight muscles. This form of exercise helps to remove imbalances and creates a lasting change in the position of the skeleton.

There are small exercises that can be done at work or home to help improve posture. By incorporating the following suggestions in to your daily routine, you can expect to see and feel results quickly:

Stretch it out – get up every 20 minutes for a couple of minutes and stand, stretch or walk around the office. Standing each time you answer the phone is a small change that can help.

Sit up straight - set up your work station for good posture. Sit up with a strong, tall posture, but drop and relax your shoulders. It may take a while to perfect, but it is worth it.

Support your spine – build up strength in your back extensors, neck flexors, pelvic muscles and side muscles. Building endurance in the spine and trunk muscle groups is also essential in allowing us to stand for long periods without suffering back pain.

Lift your weight – incorporate weight-bearing exercises into your daily routine, like walking, stair climbing and even weight lifting. Walking regularly encourages better bone density in later life, so walk around the office to talk to colleagues instead of calling them.

Incorporating these changes across a business could not only create a greater sense of wellbeing among employees, but could also lead to reduced absenteeism and increased productivity.

Jim Thorp is the clinical head, programme director and lead therapist at JT Ethos, having previously served in the RAF Regiment and had a career as a professional rugby player with Sale. He has a degree in sport and exercise science, and specialises in postural correction and restoration of normal function to the whole body.

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