Are You Fit to Sit?

With the way technology has evolved over the past few decades, we have all the tools to access information at a click of a button. The trusty desktop was designed to save time and increase productivity in the workplace. Now, we spend more time sitting behind a desk than ever before. Have you ever wondered what all your hours spent sitting is doing to your spine? Most desk bound workers do not realise that all the long hours put into sitting at the desk are slowly but surely putting their spines at risk of premature deterioration, wear and tear and even a lifetime of pain.

Now, the chances are that most of you knew this already, having experienced some sort of back pain or discomfort from sitting for prolong periods. The research is now conclusive that occupational sitting can damage the spine in a variety of ways. As we sit and bend our hips to 90 degrees, the spine is pulled out of its natural position, the curve in our lower back (lumbar spine) is flattened and we are required to tilt our pelvis backwards to accommodate this sitting posture. The flattening of the lumbar curve puts enormous strain on the muscles, ligaments and discs of the lumbar spine. As the lower back muscles extend up into the mid back and neck, it is not uncommon to experience pain and discomfort in these regions too.

For the past 2 decades, Stuart McGill, PhD. (Waterloo University, Ontario, Canada) has been regarded as the world’s leading researcher and scientist on low back biomechanics and low back pain prevention. In his laboratory, he carries out experiments, some on freshly prepared pig spine (closest to human spine, without being human spine!) in an attempt to reproduce the damaging movements and forces that humans place on their own spines. From his studies, McGill concludes that the spine is at its strongest in its natural position, when the S-shaped alignment of the entire spine has been maintained, in the standing position for example. This S-shaped curve allows us to hold the weight of our head over our centre of gravity, keeping us in a stable position.

Other significant findings from McGill’s studies show, that all it takes is as little as 6000 bends from the spine, carrying no more than the weight of our upper body, to cause the gel in the centre of our discs to bulge, herniate or even rupture its thick fibrous case. In his opinion the ‘easiest way’ to induce a disc herniation was from repeated flexion of the spine, the exact same mechanics of sitting.

So it’s not all gloom and doom if you sit for long hours for a living. There is some good to take out of McGill’s pig spine experiments. He advises that degree of damage to the spine caused by sitting can be offset through rest and exercise.

Again, this may come as old news. But what type of exercise?

So as you may now gather, repeated crunches and back extensions while carrying a weight are not the best exercises for low back pain as they pretty much exemplify the repeated flexion of the lumbar spine which we want to avoid. McGill’s advice is that we should be doing exercises that allow us to preserve the S-shape of the spine during exercise (e.g. cable woodchops, plank, side-plank and bridges etc.)

As this article is not intended to be used as exercise or training education material, rather spine health education, I would advise you to speak to your trainer for clear demonstrations on specific back exercises.

From my perspective, the amount of time we spend in front of the computer sitting is critical. The more time we spend sitting, the more likely our spines will adapt to this environment, and we will begin to adopt characteristics of the typical ‘slouching’ desk worker. The most logical solution would be to avoid sitting for more than a few hours at a time. But before you go hand in your resignation, you may want to consider the following advice from McGill.

‘ There is no better use of your workout time than to begin training your back smarter, and to do so while it is still healthy.’

Tips for the Occupational Sitter

  1. Try to take stretch breaks every other hour. Get up and go to the bathroom and get movement in your whole spine and body!
  2. Get your workstation ergonomics checked out by your OH&S officer. You probably spend more hours in front of a computer than you do sleeping!
  3. Rest. Get a good night sleep to allow the cells and tissues of the body to repair and function at 100%.
  4. Exercise. Get 3-4 sessions of exercise a week into your weekly routine. Avoid repetitive flexion of the spine. Try to preserve the S-shaped curve during core exercises.
  5. If you are getting any pain or discomfort in your back, that does not go away with rest, exercise or pain medications, maybe its time to visit your health professional.