Dr Bret Wilson

Active Sitting


 Active Sitting – An Aid to the Sedentary Life Style
By Dr Bret

Dr Bret WilsonI sit a lot.  I am sitting at my computer writing this article.  I sat in my car driving to work this morning.  I sit at my desk at work.  I sit to eat, I sit to relax and watch television.  Did you ever stop to wonder that if we are sitting all day, why we feel so tired and stiff?  The answer is that sitting is hard work.  It is hard work to sustain any posture for a long period of time.  From a bio mechanical point of view, sitting is more stress than standing.  Poor posture while sitting increases the stress.  The good news is we can reduce the stress and feel better with a change to active sitting.

Active sitting is defined as sitting that keeps the postural muscles active (moving) while you sit.  It can be achieved through the choice of the chair or surface you sit on, the posture you have while sitting and the use of postural changes that help you to use the postural muscles in different ways.

Chair Choices 

Which of the following chairs is the most likely to allow you to sit actively?

1)      A bar stool with no padding or back.  2)  An office chair with a back and arms.  3)  An overstuffed recliner.

If you picked the overstuffed recliner you picked the worst of the three.  A big soft seat causes you to sink into the cushions, impeding movement of your muscles and supporting you in a sedentary position.  Your butt sinks into the chair, pulling your hips below your knees increasing the stress angle on your hamstrings and your low back.

The office chair that provides you with a back rest and arms may also be de-railing  your quest for active sitting.  Assuming that the chair fits you properly, as you scoot your hips back to “rest” your back against the chair, you have deactivated the postural muscles and are letting the chair do the work for them.  As you lean forward to the desk, reversing the normal curve in the low back, significant stress increases on the discs and ligaments of the low back, causing a reflex strain on the postural muscles.

The bar stool is the best choice for active sitting, provided you assume a neutral upright sitting posture.  On the stool you are relying solely on your postural muscles to hold you in position.  The hard surface of the stool pressing on your butt promotes movement of the postural muscles to reduce constant pressure.  This type of chair promotes active sitting.

The best surface to promote active sitting is one that is unstable and not supporting.  An exercise ball is the perfect chair to achieve the ultimate in active sitting.  The round shape requires full engagement of your postural and balance muscles to sit on the ball.  Simply sitting on the ball increases activity of postural and core muscles 40%.  Substitute an exercise ball for your desk or computer chair and you are well on your way to active sitting.  If the ball is impractical, a viable alternative is a vestibular or sitting disc.  It is a round shaped disc that inflates with air, similar to taking the top off of the exercise ball and placing it on a conventional chair.  This small unstable service keeps your postural muscles active and avoids low back pain and stiffness from sitting.

Proper Sitting Posture 

The proper posture while sitting maintains the normal curves and center of gravity.  The normal curve in the low back and neck is a slight forward arch and a mild backwards curve in the mid back.  There should be alignment of the center of the head, shoulder and hip from the side.  From the front there should be level hips and shoulders, no lean to either side.  Avoid twisting your neck or low back while seated, position your seat to look straight on to your work or the person you are talking to.  Your feet should be flat on the floor, thighs parallel to the floor.  To add to the stability of your posture, slightly pull your stomach in as if to pull your navel to your spine.  This activates the abdominal muscles and stiffens the spine giving the sitter a rigid foundation.  Squeeze the shoulder blades together slightly to avoid rounding your shoulders.  To lean forward or back, maintain the forward curve in the lower back.  Look down with your eyes more and bow your head less as this reverses the normal neck curve, increase stress on the muscles that hold up your head causing neck and shoulder muscle tension.  With practice these posture habits will replace the old ones of slouching and slumping in your chair.  You sit with greater comfort, less fatigue and be more productive.

Postural Breaks 

To avoid prolonged sustained postures and the pain and stiffness that are caused by them, modify your posture often to give yourself a break.  Give your self a reason to get out of your chair periodically by putting a reference or tool out of reach so that you get up out of the chair to use it.  Set up part of your work station that allows you to perform certain tasks standing.  Stand and walk when talking on the phone.  Get up and move around during the commercial breaks while watching television.  Make frequents stops while driving or riding in the car to break up prolonged postures.

Exercise that involves movement is a great way to activate postural muscles and reduce soreness and fatigue from sitting.    Park the car away from the building to get in some walking on the way.  Use the stairs more.  Take a walk at lunch or coffee break.  If your job requires you to sit for long periods of time, then choice movement for your leisure activities to balance out the sedentary work requirement.

Active Sitting 

Our body is built for movement, not to be sedentary for long periods.  Get up, get out and move to offset sedentary postures.  Choose better chairs.  Practice better sitting postures.  Use devices that aid active sitting.  Change your habits.  Active sitting will not be such a pain in the butt.  Improve your posture, reduce stress and fatigue and be more productive.

Bret Wilson, D.C.