Plan of Attack: The Desk Warrior

The benefits of the modern age are many: instant communication, advanced medicine, the ability to travel around the world with ease, a world wide web of information at our fingertips, and slow-moving lorises. Yea, the modern age is pretty great. Although I promote a Paleo-style diet here on the site, that by no way means I want to go back to living in the Paleolithic era. I think if cavemen could see us today, they’d think we have it pretty good (even if they wouldn’t know what to do with all of our crap.) Of course there are drawbacks as well. Our food quality has consistently gotten worse, our muscles are weaker than our ancestors, and we have a smaller brain capacity. (#allconnected?) Some of these may be commonly known. However, one casualty of all that positive-change not often mentioned is the power generator of the human body – the hips.

Assassin in Disguise

Chair in Corner Did you know that the average full-time worker spends 2/3 of their day sitting? You may be thinking, so what, that’s normal. But in the modern age, normal does NOT equal healthy, or even historically normal. Chairs haven’t been around forever. The first office chairs weren’t introduced until the mid-1800s for railroad workers, and even then it wasn’t until much later in the decades after WWII that we really became sedentary.  Why is that important? Because even though chairs have drastically effected our lifestyles, our bodies are the same as they were thousands, even tens of thousands, of years ago. We were born to MOVE, not SIT. Sitting forces our bodies into anatomically unsound positions. Hours on end spent in chairs is literally slowly crippling our bodies and our health. Your hamstrings shorten, your muscles in your glutes get glued together like a giant meat-cake, your hips lose their ability to straighten and therefore generate power, and your lumbar-spine is forced to support the weight of your slouching-body (you know we all do it). Heck, the entire field of ergonomics was invented to try to fix this stuff. And as if that weren’t bad enough, too much sitting has also been connected to an increased risk of heart disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and cancer. While that may be more of a reflection of a sedentary lifestyle than anything else, we can at least say this confidently: sitting pretty much sucks. But what’s to be done? How can we fight the fusing of our lower spine to our chairs in an age were sitting is not only the norm, but in many cases in unavoidable? What’s a fire-breathing desk warrior to do?

Fight the Chair-Monster

While there may be no perfect solution (except for maybe burning all of our chairs in a massive bonfire-of-mobility), here are 10 tips I use to try to fight the chair-monster everyday.

1.  Work some Desk Stretches into your everyday routine.

I’m a big fan of Kelly Starett (#stretcharmstrong) and his MobilityWOD blog. One thing that he always stresses is cultivating mobility everyday.  And one of the best ways I’ve found to do this is what I like to call the Desk Stretch.

Desk Stretch How-To:

Basically, you but your ankle up on the opposite knee, keep your back straight, and lean forward. You should feel the stretch in your hip capsule – NOT IN YOUR KNEE. If you feel any pain in your knee, support it with your hands and make sure that you are sitting-back so that the hip is what is being mobilized. I try to do this for anywhere from 1-2 minutes at a time, each leg, whenever I know that I’ve been sitting too long. And it’s magic. You can check out Kelly’s original post below to get a better idea of what I’m talking about.

2.  Stand up regularly

Who will notice (or even care) if you stand up once every 15-30 minutes and get yourself out of that position of flexion (hip closed off)? Shake out the kinks for a second and enjoy the fact that you are NOT in a chair. Even if the moment is fleeting.

3.  Learn to Sit Properly (pelvis/neck position)

Are you slouched over in your chair as you read this? Chances are that at least someone out there is. I fall victim to bad-posture just as much as the next guy, but I work on it every day.  The two keys to sitting properly are pelvic position and neck position. You want your pelvis to be in a neutral position (which means that your lumbar spine should have a slight S-curve to it.)

Maintaining a Proper Lumbar Curve

This doesn’t mean you should over-extend your back the other way, but for most of us, keeping the core tight will at best amount to a normally truncated spine. (This core-tight principle is the same thing we use for squatting.)  Also, if you have to crane your neck too far downwards to see your computer screen, you naturally force your pelvis/lumbar to cave in some. (#everythingsconnected) So place your computer screen in a good position and try to sit-up straight!

Bonus Sitting Tip:  Stay away from Exercise-Ball Chairs
FitBall Exercise Ball Chair

For me “exercise ball chairs” (pictured left) are a definite stay away.  While websites boast that these products with help strengthen your core while you work, the long-term effects are much less positive.  Exercise balls can be used to good effect for training, but forcing your muscles into prolonged contraction actually places your vertebral discs under a huge .

Over time, this could result in some serious back problems.

On top of the spinal implications, there is nothing stopping your from sitting as improperly (slouched, loss of lower lumbar curve) in an exercise-ball chair as in a normal chair. In fact, because you aren’t interacting with a stable surface, a loss of lumbar-curve could be even more harmful.  If a chair is a necessary evil at your work, I would stick with the normal, stable variety.  Or even better, get a stool.  (Tip #4)

4.  Standing workstation with a stool.

It worked for thousands of years, and it might just be the best solution we have in today’s workplace. A standing workstation can be easily implemented in most situations. The idea is to set your desk at a height that you would be comfortable working at. Then, get a tall stool that when sat upon produces about the same vantage point as standing. This makes it incredibly easy throughout the day to change positions and to get some quality standing time. Plus, standing actually helps you burn more calories throughout the day.  When I move back to America, this will be my no. 1 priority for my home office. (Note: to avoid getting ‘tired’ of standing, simply put a block/book/anything under your desk that you can raise one foot on. You can stand indefinitely in this position because it allows you to have a bit of healthy flexion.  Change stance as needed.  You ever wonder why they have those steps under bars? Or why the Captain stands that way?) If you can’t swing the standing desk, then how about just getting a  stool for work? Sitting on a stool forces us to maintain a good back position and not to slouch.   But unlike with the dreaded exercise-ball chairs, you are still on a stable surface.  Therefore, maintaining a proper lumbar curve throughout the day is easier, and safer.  Plus it works great if you want to turn your office into a makeshift bar for the weekend.  (I got that idea from the Captain.)

5.  Take a walk after lunch

Gets your metabolism going, and is a nice way to spend 10-20 minutes of your day.  Find a co-worker/friend and ask them to walk with you.  Alternatively, I like listening to a podcast (recommended) or book-on-tape on days I don’t have anyone to walk with.

6.  Walk “Fast and Furious”

This is a trick I picked up in Japan. My co-workers, no matter how busy they actually are, are almost constantly at a half-jog going around the office. What’s weird is that the closer you look at them, the more you notice they are actually going at most at walking speed. But looking like you’re busy is almost as important as actually being busy. People tend to bother them less. If it works for them, why not for you? When you need a break, just take a lap around the office, walking quickly with a serious look on your face. My guess is that no one will stop you.

7.  15 min. coffee break? Time to hammer the couch stretch.

If your co-workers get 15 minute breaks to grab some coffee, a snack, or smoke, why can’t you do something that’s actually healthy for you and do a stretch to open up the front of your hips. It’s called the ‘couch stretch’ by Kelly Starett (#round2). All you need is a wall or a chair (gasp), and about 8 minutes. This has helped reverse my time spent sitting more than anything else.

8.  Treadmill Desk

For those of you who are really adventurous, why not build your own treadmill desk?  Researchers at the Mayo Clinic found that integrating a treadmill into the workplace was not only easy, but burned a ton of calories besides. While burning calories is great, personally I’m a fan of this more because it’s supports NATURAL movement (#walking).

9.  Re-activation

You can easily and effectively re-activate your hip-flexors and glutes (those things taking the most punishment from your continued sitting-torture) with a a couple of exercises. Watch the video below for a demo.

10.  and most importantly…

BE ACTIVE OUTSIDE OF WORK! If the data that the average American watches more than 4 hours of TV per day is even CLOSE to true, it would seem we’re spending just as much time sitting outside of work as at work. Use your time outside of work to MOVE your body the way it’s meant to be moved. Try some functional movement workouts, build up the intensity over time, and unlock the athletic potential that’s inside each one of us! (see:  Free to Move)

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How much time do you spend sitting at work?  At home?  What are some ways that you fight the chair-monster? [For more information on the benefits of standing at work, including the calories you could be burning, join the movement at www.juststand.org.] [Special Thanks to reader Andrew for shooting this question to me over on facebook. If you have any questions you’d like answered or topics of interest, feel free to send them my way. Just send an email to: feedback@freefitguy.com]