How do I tackle the effects of too much sitting?

Jane mugshot for JQAAfter 30 years of sit­ting at an office desk, my chiro­practor tells me I have lost muscle length in my upper leg and this is res­ult­ing in my bad pos­ture. Are there any exer­cises I can do to help rem­edy this? Which activ­it­ies should I avoid?

It’s hard to believe, but our skel­et­ons really don’t like us sit­ting down all day long at a desk, hunched over a com­puter with scarcely a cof­fee break as an excuse to stand up. In later life the pay­back for this abuse is aches, pain and pos­tural prob­lems. Your loss of muscle length is almost cer­tainly revers­ible, if you stick to a dis­cip­lined daily stretch­ing routine. While a ther­ap­ist can give your muscles a short-​term fix to reduce tight­ness, it is only reg­u­lar, patient stretch­ing over sev­eral weeks or months that can cor­rect the imbal­ances you have spend 30 years build­ing up.

It is chicken and egg whether your tight muscles caused the bad pos­ture or vice versa, but cor­rect­ing your pos­ture now is the key to future well­being. It would be worth your time and money to get a proper pos­tural assess­ment done, to give you pre­cise cus­tom­ised advice about which muscles to stretch, which to strengthen, and how to re-​educate your­self into bet­ter pos­ture. One good option is to book a couple of one-​to-​one ses­sions with a physio­ther­ap­ist or Pilates spe­cial­ist.

Also check out your work-​station: desk height, key­board pos­i­tion, back sup­port and foot place­ment can all con­trib­ute to poor pos­ture. Is your eye­sight good enough to sit prop­erly without hunch­ing for­wards?

As for exer­cises, don’t delay – start stretch­ing. Here’s the first cru­cial stretch, for the front of your hip and thigh muscles. Stand beside a chair-​back or win­dow sill, one hand hold­ing on. Bend the leg farthest from the chair and care­fully take hold of your ankle with the hand on that side, eas­ing the bent leg behind until you are stand­ing straight like a stork on one leg, hold­ing on to the ankle of the bent leg behind you. Your knee should point down to the ground, close to the other one.

If you can’t hold your ankle like this, tuck two fin­gers into the back of your shoe or sock. Or loop a short scarf or towel around your ankle and hold on to the ends, then stand upright.

Once in pos­i­tion you’ll feel a strong pull right down the front of your thigh. Hold still, breath­ing stead­ily, for at least 30 seconds. Without releas­ing the stretch, gently push your front hip a tiny way for­wards and hold for another 30 sec. Carefully lower the leg, turn round and repeat on the other leg. Try to do this stretch a couple of times every day.

You’ll also need to stretch ham­strings and calf muscles every day. Ask your chiro­practor to show you these and pel­vic tilts to help loosen your lower back. As for activ­it­ies to avoid: the main one is sit­ting for long peri­ods. Seriously. It’s bad for your health.

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