If you spend most of your waking hours sitting, you’re definitely not alone.
According to a 2018 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, approximately one in four adults sit for more than eight hours per day.
All this sitting puts pressure on the discs in our neck and back, causing stiffness throughout our bodies, explained physical therapist Scott Pensivy of Fyzical, a physical therapy franchise with multiple locations across the United States.
“When you sit for long periods of time, there’s a decrease in blood flow to certain tissues,” Pensivy said. “Pressure then builds up in your discs, either in your neck or your Iower back. If you don’t have appropriate posture during these times, a “dysfunction,” or tissue irritation, is bound to emerge, or a “defragment,” where actual tissue damage occurs.”
But Pensivy warned that even perfect posture can’t save us from the known harms of sitting. In addition to physical discomfort and potential injury, the damage also includes an increased risk of mortality and heart disease. To save your body from the side effects of staying seated too long, take a five-minute break each day to do these 10 essential stretches.
1. Perk Up
When we sit for long periods of time (especially if we’re bent over a keyboard or a book) we tend to slouch, drawing our shoulders toward our knees, drooping our heads down and over toward the floor. To combat these unhealthy impulses, take a moment every hour to give your posture a tune up with the following tip from Pensivy:
Sit up with your head straight. Lift your chest upward while moving your shoulder blades down your back and toward each other, as if squeezing a tennis ball between them. Perform a light chin tuck, as if making a double chin. You may experience a mild stretch in the base of your neck. You may also have some muscle soreness around your shoulder blades and chest, but this should resolve itself in a few days. Hold this stretch for at least 30 seconds.
2. Lengthen Your Neck
You probably know from experience how tense your neck can get when you’ve been deskbound for too many hours in a row. To relieve some of this tension, Jake Watson, kinesiologist and exercise physiologist at the Canmore, Canada-based spa One Wellness, recommends a simple stretch that can be done without even getting up from your chair.
While seated, take your right hand, reach it over the top of your head, and place it on your left temple. While keeping your face pointed straight ahead in front of you, bend your head towards your right shoulder and use your right hand to gently push it down even further. Hold this position for 20 to 30 seconds. Repeat on the other side (drawing your head towards the left shoulder and using your left hand to assist).
3. Open Your Chest
Though we may not necessarily feel soreness in our chest from sitting all day, performing a few chest stretches can improve our posture and afford us a better opportunity to take a few deep breaths. Take Pensivy’s advice and do the following:
While standing and with your arms at your sides, interlock your fingers behind your back. Straighten your arms. Keeping your arms straight, slowly lift your clasped hands until you feel a stretch in your chest and shoulders. You can also rotate your elbows inwards and your palms to face away from you. Hold this pose for 10-15 seconds. Repeat twice.
Another option to stretch your chest is to stand in a doorway, and place your palms against that door frame, Watson said. Ensure your elbows are below your shoulders. Move your shoulder blades down your back and step slightly forward with one leg to create tension until you feel a stretch in your chest and shoulders. Hold this pose for 10-15 seconds. Repeat twice, switching the leg you step forward with during the second repetition.
4. Reach for the Stars
Give your spine and lat muscles (the large ones that run down either side of your back) a break by standing up and reaching your arms straight overhead, Pensivy advised. You can also do this stretch sitting. If you are able to get up and elongate your whole body, however, that’s a bonus.
Interlace your fingers and turn your palms upward to face the ceiling. Gently pull your straight arms to the right side, hold for 10 to 20 seconds, and then gently pull your straight arms to the left side, holding for the same amount of time.
Make sure your shoulders aren’t hunching up to your ears, and don’t forget to inhale and exhale fully as you perform this stretch. Repeat two to three times or until your co-workers start giving you the stink eye.
5. Lengthen Your Lower Back
One of the most adversely affected areas of the body in response to sitting too long is our lower backs. To give this region some release, Pensivy recommends placing your left foot on the floor while sitting and bringing your right ankle to lay atop your left thigh, making a figure four shape.
Make sure your right knee is bent at a 90-degree angle. Gently push down on your right upper thigh with your hands or elbow, then look over your left shoulder. Hold this position for 15 seconds and repeat on the other side (placing your right foot on the floor, your left ankle atop your right thigh, and gaze over your right shoulder). Perform this stretch two to three times on each side.
6. Engage Those Glutes — and Core
Just because you’re desk bound doesn’t mean you can’t work your muscles and get some decent blood flow going. And while stretching is a wonderful way to loosen bodily areas prone to tightness, engaging various muscle groups is also key to staving off excessive stiffness. Pensivy recommends performing this mini core workout while seated:
With your feet placed on the floor, squeeze your buttocks together and pull your belly button toward your spine. Hold here for ten seconds and release. Repeat this exercise five times, at least once during your workday.
7. Don’t Forget Your Forearms
Just think about how typing and mouse moving ad nauseum can stiffen these muscles. To give them a breather, Pensivy recommends these steps:
Extend your left arm straight in front of you. Then turn your palm upward and extend your left wrist so your left fingers are pointing toward the floor. Your palm should be parallel to the wall in front of you.
Then use your right hand to gently pull the fingers on your left hand toward your elbow (keeping your left arm straight). You should feel a stretch in the muscles running from your wrist to your interior elbow: the forearm flexor muscles.
An alternative way to stretch your forearm flexor muscles is to extend your left arm in front of you, flex your wrist so that the tips of your fingers point toward the ceiling, and, from this position, pull those left fingers toward the body with your right hand. You should feel the stretch in the same area. Hold either stretch for 10-15 seconds and repeat twice on each forearm (e.g., your left, then your right, your left, then your right).
To stretch the muscles on the other side of your forearm (your forearm extensors), extend your left arm in front of you. Turn your palm so the pinky side of your left hand is parallel to the floor. Then curl your knuckles towards the inside of your elbow, or towards your body. You may already feel a stretch in your extensor muscles here. Add to it by using your right hand to apply a slight amount of pressure or hold your left hand in that position. Hold this position for 10-15 seconds and repeat twice on each forearm.
8. …Or Those Ankles!
When we sit for extended periods of time, blood flow can also get cut off to our legs and feet. Wake up your bottom limbs by performing ankle rolls, Pensivy said.
You can do these stretches while sitting or standing. If seated, make light contact to the ground from your toes. Roll your ankles in a circular direction 5 times to the left, then 5 times to the right. You can also do this standing, performing the rolls on one ankle at a time by balancing your weight on one leg.
9. Unflex Those Hip Flexors
Sitting for most of the day, nearly every day of the week is bound to tighten up our hip flexors, the muscle groups responsible for helping us lift (or flex) each leg upward, toward the sky or toward our trunk. Give them some much needed elongation by performing the following stretch recommended by Leon Turetsky, NASM-certified personal trainer, corrective exercise specialist, and founder of Backintelligence.com.
Kneel on a soft surface (so as not to hurt your knees). Place your left foot on the floor and keep your right shin on the ground. Make sure your left knee is at a 90-degree angle. Hold a chair or wall for support if needed. Move your torso forward until you feel a stretch in your right hip flexor muscle. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds, then switch sides.
If this routine isn’t challenging enough, assume a low lunge: Place your left foot between your hands, your left knee at a 90-degree angle, and instead of placing your right knee and shin on the floor, straighten your right leg so only your toes are touching the floor.
Reach your arms up and overhead for an added challenge. Hold for 15 to 20 seconds. Repeat with your right foot forward and your left leg extended back behind you.
This move may not be accessible to you in your workplace. But if you have a space where you can lie on the floor — or you work around people who won’t judge you — Watson recommends this spinal twist to relieve lower back tension:
Lie on your back and bring your right knee towards your face, flexing that knee at 90 degrees. Take your left hand and draw the right knee over the midline of your body, towards the floor on the left side of your body. Be sure to keep both shoulders flat on the floor. Hold this for 15 to 30 seconds and repeat on the other side.
Stretch — Don’t Stress
With everything going on during a typical work day it can be tricky to remember to stretch. If you can’t fathom adding one more thing to your To Do List, try setting a timer to go off every hour or two to remind you. You don’t need to do every single stretch in succession, but the more you can do, the better you’ll likely feel. Some studies suggest that movements as miniscule as fidgeting are associated with a longer lifespan.
So don’t shy away from setting a trend in your workplace by stretching whenever you have a free minute. Every little bit of motion matters. Your body will thank you (and so might your coworkers, once they try this themselves).
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