Sitting Positions: What You Should Know To Improve Your Posture?

Have you ever thought about how we can increase physical activity during prolonged sitting hours and reduce lower back pain during sitting at the office? Simply, stand up from the sitting position, according to Dr. Arto Pesola, director of the Active Life Lab of South-Eastern Finland University and co-founder of Fibion.

Key takeaways:
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    There are considerable health benefits from just standing up from the chair.
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    Regular movements of the spine are essential for keeping a healthy spine.
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    After long periods of sitting, take a micro-break and have a short walk.
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    Breaking up sitting can potentially be beneficial for concentration and cognition.

Dr. Arto Pesola was encouraged to educate people on prolonged sitting because he saw that static sitting rises many problems related to health. “Everything started from the project, where was measured people's everyday activity and sitting habits. We found that people's muscles are inactive for most of the day, 70% during the whole day, and 90% during the office,” Dr. Pesola said.

I got very interested in this topic because it provided a new perspective on physical activity promotion: you do not need to necessarily exercise or be an athlete, but you would get considerable health benefits just by standing up from the chair. This was very different from the physical activity recommendations, which recommended 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous activity per week. Most people don't exercise, and I got fascinated by the possibilities this new approach toward everyday activity would provide,” said the co-founder of Fibion.

Most common sitting postures

According to the literature, there is no ideal sitting posture. Regular movements of the spine are essential for keeping a healthy spine, increasing intervertebral disc nutrition, changing pressure on the lumbar discs and reducing back pain.

Here are the most popular sitting postures that people choose on a daily basis:

Cross-legged

Cross-legged

Ankles crossed

HN-man-sit-Ankles-crossed

One knee crossed over the other

One knee crossed over the other

Are these sitting postures good?

No, sitting with crossed legs is not recommended. In all cases, it impacts the lumbar spine, pelvis, hip joints, and gluteus muscles. For example, cross-legged and one knee crossed over another posture increase pelvic obliquity and posterior pelvic angle during these sitting positions. One knee crossed over another position weakens and adds more compression on the glutes and piriformis muscles as well as increases rotation of the pelvis and the lumbar spine, which might influence the health of the hip joint and lower back.

If cross-legged positions are dominant during your working day, it may induce lower back pain due to rotation of the pelvis and lumbar spine. These positions cause one side of the back to have more tension in the muscles and the imbalance of trunk muscles negatively affects our spine.

To restore the natural rhythm of the pelvis and lumbar spine, you can try using a foam roller:

  • Lay down on a foam roller and feel every vertebra of the spine along the roller.
  • Try to keep a balance on it. It might be hard at first, but it will improve over time.
  • Slightly roll to one side and to the other, keeping your arms and feet on the ground.
  • Return to the previous position and perform side-to-side and anterior-posterior pelvis movements.

Other sitting postures

If you sit for a long period with crossed legs, the first step after that is to stand up, place weight bearing on both feet and perform a spine twist to both sides and go for a walk, even if it is a short walk. Additionally, there are quite a few other sitting postures that you should keep an eye on.

For example, the study showed that sitting with lumbar support we have a relatively low reduction in lumbar lordosis and this is a good point because we create less pressure on intervertebral discs. However, the largest reduction of lumbar lordosis was seen when sitting in the cross-legged position, and in a forward-leaning position with arms support. In a meantime, these positions can evoke lower back pain due to higher compression into intervertebral discs.

Furthermore, when sitting on the couch or a chair without lumbar support, it is better to use lumbar support to avoid tension and pain in the lower back. Light-intensity activity during micro-breaks is always a good idea.

Finally, leaning back beyond the vertical position in sitting is common among computer workers. This position can reduce the pressure in intervertebral discs and reduce hip flexion by maintaining proper lumbar curvature. However, in this position, the head shifts in front, and the head's center of gravity is over this part of the spine.

leaning back beyond the vertical position in sitting

It weakens neck muscles because they do not work in this position, moreover, cervical vertebrae are away from their natural position, back muscles stretch and more loads are applied to the front edges of the discs. It is better to avoid this position. If you have done it, perform the exercises for deep neck muscles. One of these is the chin tuck exercise: gently glide your chin straight back (it is a small movement) and hold for a few seconds, then repeat.

What to do if you have a sedentary job?

The longer people are sitting, the longer recovery time is needed. It is better to sit for shorter periods with more frequent breaks, instead of two or more hours of prolonged sitting. After two hours of prolonged sitting, back pain can appear, because some of the muscles have fatigue and more tension, so it is difficult for the musculoskeletal system to recover in a short break.

"It would be most important to change posture, like by breaking up prolonged sitting regularly. Even a two-minute walk every 30 or 60 minutes, especially after lunch or dinner, can make wonders for glucose regulation. From a physiological and cognitive perspective, a short frequent break is more effective than a less frequent long break."

Dr. Pesola

Prolonged sitting negatively affects brain functions, early cognitive decline, and dementia risk. “There is some evidence that breaking up sitting can potentially be beneficial for concentration and different aspects of cognition; the mechanisms (like increased brain blood flow and improved glycemic control) support this, but there is less experimental evidence on this, or the sample sizes and effect sizes are small. Still, people generally perceive breaks to provide more energy and improve musculoskeletal sensations, so even without strong evidence, this case is very plausible,” Dr. Pesola said.

More dynamic chairs are implemented in the workplace to increase small movements of the spine. These chairs can move due to this reason more trunk muscles are activated because in a static sitting position muscles become inactive. Especially those which are responsible for spine stabilization. Reduced spine stabilization increase back pain. Moreover, there are not only active chairs but also active seats that can be placed on a regular chair. This is a cheaper and not much worse option. But these chairs and seats also have pros and cons from the scientific point of view.

There is some research on active chairs, but the evidence is less convincing: it seems people can be even more active in 'normal' or static chairs because they are so uncomfortable, making you change your posture and activate your muscle regularly. From the ergonomic perspective, the active chairs can be better though, but getting high-quality evidence from these is difficult,” said Dr. Pesola.

Tips to relieve back pain

There are many tools that can help to relieve back pain from bad sitting postures. However, it's essential that you'd perform them on a daily basis to see the positive effects. Here are some practical tips to follow:

  • Regular and frequent walks during short breaks. Walking is a natural and continuous movement where every muscle and other system works.
  • Include rotation of the spine. It is a small part of walking motion, so it must be included when it is impossible to go for a walk.
  • Try chin tuck exercise. Helps to restore the balance of the muscles in cervical spine and engage deep neck muscles.
  • Sit with lumbar spine support. Sitting with lumbar support creates less pressure on intervertebral discs.
  • Try a foam roller. It challenges your trunk muscles, increases proprioception, and restores symmetry. It is the perfect tool to perform exercises after work at home.
  • Do the cat exercise. It is important to do the so-called cat exercises not only focusing on the chest but starting from the pelvis and moving along the spine to the head.

Sitting for a shorter period and more frequent active micro-breaks by standing up from the chair have considerable health benefits. It is can be beneficial for concentration, cognition, glucose regulation, and the musculoskeletal system.

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