Every newscast on the current health of the American public seems to report the same thing: We are becoming increasingly sedentary due to an overall decrease in physical activity and a rise in jobs that require little activity, such as office work. The problem is: We sit too long! Not to say that sitting is detrimental to our health; however, the effects of prolonged sitting adversely affect our spinal health, decrease overall postural strength, and promote unnecessary weight gain.
Stand up for your spine
The axial skeleton comprises the skull, spinal column, sacrum, coccyx (tail bone), and pelvis; while the appendicular skeleton comprises the upper and lower extremities. When we stand, with proper postural support, we allow the entire axial skeleton or torso to “float” over the legs, decreasing the amount of compression on the spine from gravity.
On the contrary, when we sit, the amount of pressure and compression on the spine increases; as the sitting bones (ischial tuberosities) become the main base of support, offering little distribution of the compressive forces placed on the spinal column.
The main shock absorbers for the spine are the intervertebral discs, which consist of a gel-like material called the nucleus pulposus (similar to the consistency of toothpaste) encased by a thick cartilaginous membrane, or layer. The discs are crucial to spinal health, as they absorb and evenly distribute compressive forces and shock throughout the spine. The discs take the greatest “beating” while sitting.
Time for a change
Most people who work at a desk, or are in school, sit for up to eight hours a day, if not more, with very few breaks. The average office worker should get up and move or walk for at least two minutes every 20-30 minutes. If this seems unrealistic, a maximum sitting time of no more than one hour may be more reasonable. With time, the body will gradually mold into any shape in which it’s continuously placed. The repetitive sitting shape creates imbalances in the body, resulting in neck, back, and shoulder pain, digestive and circulatory issues, and spinal pathologies. Some common imbalances include:
- Tight calves (gastrocnemius, soleus)
- Tight hip flexors (psoas, rectus femoris)
- Weakened abdominals
- Overstretched spinal erector musculature (erector spinae group)
- Tight shoulders and mid back (trapezius, rhomboids, latissimus dorsi)
- Tight pectorals
- Tightness in the anterior musculature of the neck (scalenes, longus capitus, longus colli)
These five yoga poses can be practiced at your desk to relieve back pain and avoid imbalances. Before attempting any of the following yogic approaches, please note:
- You should not feel anything sharp, shooting, or burning during these exercises. If any of these sensations occur, back off or discontinue altogether.
- The intensity of each stretch should be light to medium. Feel free to back off at any time, or modify as necessary for comfort.
1. Chair Roll Out (modified Child’s pose)
If you have a rolling chair, you can use it to your benefit to relieve low back pain. Sit toward the edge of your chair with a wide stance in your legs. Ground your hands down onto your desk, shoulder-distance apart. Using your feet, begin to slowly roll or scoot your chair back and gently lean forward through your outstretched arms until you feel a mild stretch. You should feel a light stretch in your lower and upper back, shoulders, and sides. Hold for at least five slow, deep breaths.
- Releases tight muscles in the lower and mid back
- Opens ribcage and pectorals
- Releases hamstrings
2. Chair Side-to-Side (modified Side Child’s pose)
Similar to the exercise above, sit with a wide stance in your legs and place your hands on the desk, shoulder-distance apart. Then scoot your chair back enough to lean the body forward. Slowly begin to walk your hands over to the right and gently lean in until you feel this stretch along your left side. Hold for at least five slow, deep breaths. On an inhale, release the posture, slowly walk the hands over to the left, and gently lean in for the stretch—you will feel this on your right side. Make sure to keep your wrists in line with your shoulders to avoid compression in the front of the shoulder joint.
- Releases tight spinal side flexors
- Opens ribcage and shoulders
3. Chair Twist
Begin by sitting toward the edge of your chair. Place your right hand behind you, on the outer edge of the seat, for support. Place your left hand on your right knee. Inhale and sit up tall. As you exhale, gently begin to draw your torso to the right, taking your gaze over your shoulder. Hold for five deep, slow breaths. Inhale as you return to a neutral position. Repeat on the opposite side.
- Improves spinal flexibility
- Nourishes and hydrates abdominal and spinal tissues
- Detoxifies abdominal organs
4. Chair Cobra pose
Place your hands and forearms on your desk, shoulder-distance apart, allowing the elbows to rest off the edge of the desk. As you inhale, press your forearms and hands firmly into the desk, allowing your heart center and chin to lift upward. Hold for five deep breaths. To deepen, gently draw the shoulder blades together to open the chest further. Release on your final exhale.
- Opens the chest, stretching the pectorals and breathing accessory musculature
- Allows for deeper, fuller breath
- Decompresses and lengthens the throat and anterior neck musculature
5. Chair Tree pose
Stand behind your chair and place your hands on the backrest for support. Set your gaze on an object in front of you. Draw your awareness down to your feet and gently begin to transfer your weight onto your right foot. Imagine pressing through the floor, as you lift up tall in the torso, and feel your right hip firming and drawing in. Place the sole of your left foot at the ankle, calf, or mid-inner thigh. Never place your foot directly on the knee joint. Feel free to leave the hands on the chair, or draw them to prayer or another mudra of your choice. Hold for five deep, slow breaths. Release on an exhale and repeat on the opposite side.
- Activates and balances both sides of the brain and body
- Improves mental focus
- Activates and strengthens the core
- Increases energy levels
Life will always be busy. Jobs are increasingly demanding, time is limited, and no one can afford to lose mobility or function. However, practicing just a few simple, mindful movements with focused breath each day can greatly benefit your body. Protect your spine to protect your body.