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Image from page 177 of %22A treatise on orthopedic surgery%22 (1910)

Image from p. 177 of A Treatise on orthopedic surgery (1910)

I’m back in the classroom this semester teaching a brand new course! That means I’ll be standing in front of my students during class, but every hour of class time represents several hours of prep time, most of it done sitting in a chair. So, I’ve been thinking a lot about how much it hurts to sit in a chair for such long periods. 

Several years ago, a grad school friend and I were comparing notes about the extent to which our bodies had fallen apart while in our respective programs – and that was before either of us had had a baby. It’s counterintuitive to think that sitting around all day, flipping pages in books, and typing papers, or performing any intensive desk work, could be so hard on a body, but it’s true. This 2011 NPR story, Sitting All Day: Worse For You Than You Might Think, details some of the frightening health effects of being sedentary, but focuses on things like weight and diabetes.

Personally, I was experiencing more back pain, shoulder pain, neck pain and even pains in the…you guessed it! Part of the damage was probably due to aging – I turned 30 my first year of grad school. But I was convinced my line of work was largely responsible for how I felt. At the end of my first semester, I was mentally and physically wrecked. I literally could not tolerate sitting in a chair for more than five minutes and would rock back and forth or wiggle around trying to make my legs feel less like they were made of concrete. I wanted to be lying down or walking around all the time. Movement was the only thing that made me feel a little better. To this day, movement is the only thing that keeps me feeling human.

Disclaimer: Sitting through four three-hour seminars per week and doing the countless hours of desk work required to keep up was not my only problem. Seven years ago, I was about to discover that I have Joint Hypermobility Syndrome (double joints,) which for me had manifested itself in a whole host of minor afflictions that had been quietly conspiring against me for years and had finally formed a united front to destroy me – that might be an exaggeration – actually my body just wanted me to stop abusing it so much and was desperate to get my attention. A few of these afflictions included: collapsing arches (flat feet,) knock-knees, sway back, snapping scapula, hunched shoulders, and scoliosis. I already knew about the scoliosis since the screening they do in middle school, but I had no idea it may have been caused by my being a Gumby person. According to my physical therapist, my joints don’t stop where they should and that leads to way more than just cool party tricks and gross YouTube videos. Warning: If you are double jointed or think you may be, do not do any of the things the boy in this video does. Your body will hate you for it, trust me.

You might be thinking you don’t have to worry about this problem because you don’t have scoliosis and you feel fine right now. I had to re-learn how to use all of my major muscle groups and work to convince my body I love it and want to keep it forever, but hopefully you don’t have to go through all of that. Even if I have more urgent reasons to keep active than the average person might, I think everyone is or at some point will be susceptible to the discomforts of constant sitting. I know my husband occasionally gets a bit discombobulated from his office tasks. I got through grad school thanks to getting on a relatively obsessive exercise routine. No, I don’t hang out in the gym for hours on end, but I did figure out a system that works for me. Here are a few of the tricks that keep me going at peak performance:

  • I do my assigned battery of physical therapy exercises for my dysfunctional body parts 3x/week, no matter what. Tired, not feeling well, traveling, busy, no matter. I do the exercises. I learned the hard way what happens when I don’t. It involves pain, injury, regret, and sadness – oh, and lots of physical therapy. It took me several years to get it through my head that this was a must, but now that I’m on a roll, I don’t dare stop. This part doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone.
  • I go to Zumba two to three times per week and go out for a walk everyday, weather permitting. Zumba is a social & physical activity that I enjoy and I love getting outside a little each day whenever possible. Substitute whatever cardio you like best as needed, even if it’s CrossFit! CrossFit sounds awful to me, but apparently it is quite a fitness phenomenon
  • Pilates and/or Yoga help strengthen core muscles, which are really important for good posture and not feeling decrepit in general. 
  • As recommended in the NPR article linked above, I get up often to move around, stretch, take a short break. For me, getting up about every half hour to do a few stretches is the best, but that’s not always practical. Every hour is the minimum. For me, I feel when I have gone over the limit pretty quickly, but setting a timer can help if you tend to forget or put it off. 
  • Sometimes I stand or walk around as the work permits. I have been known to prop my book up on a shelf and sway my hips to and fro, or to pace around my office reading. My dream is a convertible sitting/standing desk, but they are super expensive, so I improvise. I could build one using this informative how-to video if I was really motivated and had the time.
  • My laptop is positioned on an 8-inch platform on my desk so I look straight ahead at it and I have an external keyboard. I sit back in my chair and resist the urge to crane my neck forward – the screen moves to me, not vice versa. 
  • Most of the time, I work at home, where I control my environment: the desk and chair height, where my computer screen sits, how often I can take breaks and do bizarre stretches.
  • Balance is my friend, and yours. I carry the minimum amount of things I need in a backpack which I wear on both shoulders. I never sit with my legs crossed. I avoid any motion or position that causes strain of any kind.

What are your tricks for staying active in spite of being in a sedentary line of work?