You've probably never thought of sitting as a skill. It's true, all that time you've been sitting with poor posture you've been training your body to do so. It's never too late to relearn how to sit properly.
Sitting as a skill
Anything that you do repeatedly and for long periods of time can be thought of as "practicing". Sitting seems so passive and often thought of as the opposite of "doing". Sitting is not just a passive activity, a lot is going on in your body while you sit. Sitting is a motor skill your body is "practicing" the entire time you are seated.
According to popular author Josh Kaufman, it takes only 20 hours of practice to become good at something. If you have a job where you sit for 40 hours a week, you are actually training yourself to become exceptionally good at sitting.
This only becomes a problem if you sit with bad posture. Which most of us do, by the way. It just seems easier to sit that way. Over the many hours of "practicing", your body becomes very skilled at sitting improperly, and after a while it will prefer that position over a proper sitting position. This is obviously a skill you don't want, and you must unlearn it.
The skill you don't need
Poor posture while sitting is a series of joint movements that results in a set muscle firing pattern. If this series of movements is practiced for 5 to 8 hours a day it essentially becomes a skill. Unfortunately, it’s not really a skill you want to be good at.
You know it's bad for you
Many of us have become masters at uninterrupted, prolonged sitting. We put in a good 40 hours a week at the office and a few hours of overtime at home in the evenings and weekends. Most of us are guilty of it, and we know that it's bad for us.
Studies have shown that prolonged sitting (2-7 hours a day) in general is bad for you. It causes your muscles to switch into a ‘dormant’ mode, resulting in increased blood sugar levels and decreased good cholesterol levels. This puts you at elevated risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and obesity.
Furthermore, sitting improperly has all the ingredients of what StandUpKids.org calls a perfect orthopedic storm. Neck, knee, lower back problems, carpal tunnel syndrome, hernias and pelvic floor, shoulder, hip dysfunction are amongst the many issues associated. In fact, back pain is the #1 cause of lost work days.
Practice and master sitting with a good posture
So what do we do about it?
Obviously, the answer is to not sit at all. Research has shown that sitting is bad for you, so many people have taken this as a cue to start using standing desks. However, new research on the benefits of standing desks is unclear, and standing may do little to solve the problem, like people thought it would. They just end up standing with poor posture instead of sitting. Back to square one.
So, the biggest factor in the health risks of sitting seem to be the inactivity. The best option, therefore, is to be alternating between sitting, standing, and moving. But since this blog is about sitting, I will describe how to re-train yourself to sit with good posture.
Start by examining your sitting posture, be aware and be conscious. Just realizing that the entire time you are sitting you are practicing that skill, will help you sit up just a bit taller. Like I said, improper sitting posture has developed fantastically as a passive skill. Do you cross your legs? Slump in your chair? Perch on the front of the chair? Feet swinging in the air? Or does the computer monitor require you to keep your neck rotated to the right/left? These are all some of the common faults that we see.
Here is what to do
1. Sit with good posture, duh!
I guess I can't write a blog post about how to sit with good posture if I don't tell you what good posture is. Most of this is standard ergonomics advice you can find on other sites, where I'm sure you can find more detailed descriptions. Before I get to how to achieve and maintain good sitting posture, here are the three most important elements of a good sitting form:
i. Maintain the natural lower back curve in your chair
If your chair doesn’t have a lumbar support, then you can get creative and use a rolled up towel or get a lumbar roll to put behind your lower back. This is especially useful for people that spend a lot of time driving. I get asked quite often ‘I’m going on a long trip this weekend, how should I sit in the car?’ Push the seat close enough to the steering wheel so your knees are bent, and use a lumbar roll to maintain the natural curve.
ii. Knees below hips, hands below elbows
Your knees should be at or below the height of your hips with your feet planted on the ground. Adjust the height of your chair or get a chair that would accommodate that. Your hands should rest just below your elbows in order to keep your shoulders relaxed. Typing/writing with your hands higher than elbow height would put strain on your shoulders.
iii. Adjust your monitor so its top 1/3 is at eye level
This is standard ergonomics advice, but it's very important. Your computer monitor/laptop screen should be high enough such that your gaze is level with the top 1/3 of the screen. If you have an adjustable monitor, then that’s easy. If not, then find a thick dusty book and put it to use. Your neck will thank you.
2. Push your butt into the back of the chair
Now onto how to actually achieve and maintain this good sitting posture. First, sit down by pushing your butt right to the back of the chair and keep it there. This is one of the most useful pieces of advice I've seen. It has allowed me to keep good posture in a chair for longer. Pushing your butt into the back of the chair provides full contact, which allows the muscles that keeps your back upright to relax. If your office chair has a lock that stops the chair from swinging back, then lock it. I know it’s fun to swing back and forth, but with the lock in place, it’s easier to press your butt and shoulders back.
3. Be mindful of your posture
Over time you will become mindful of when you are becoming hunched. It will become a habit to straighten back up or to take this as a cue to stand up and move about. This is another reason I like the push the butt into the back of the chair advice, because once you slide forward on the chair, your can train your brain to recognize this as "losing form". It provides a kind of a built-in reminder system.
4. Strengthen your core
Come on, you knew this was coming. I'm a physio so of course I'm going to tell you to strengthen everything... Most of the articles you'll come across on sitting properly focus on what good posture looks like. But you can’t keep that good form for a long time if your muscles fatigue quickly. You will end up back in the hunched position after just a few minutes. Strengthening your core will help you learn the skill of sitting with good posture much faster, because your muscles will gain endurance. Core strengthening doesn’t have to be a daily half-hour workout at the gym. It can be a 5 minute routine before bed, a few planks, or other core exercises as prescribed to you. When I forget to do my pre-bed core routine, I engage my abs while brushing my teeth, or in the shower, in the morning for as long as I can. Every bit helps!
5. Set a timer to stand up and move
Make sure to stand up, stretch and move regularly. It's a good idea to set a timer to remind yourself that it's time to get up. After a while this will also become a habit. Little things also help. Consider taking the long scenic route to the photocopier. You may also drop by a colleague’s office instead of sending them an email. One tactic my husband says he uses at work is that he drinks lots of water (he probably meant coffee...), and the frequent calls of nature serve as natural timers to move!
6. Finally – don’t be afraid to change your surroundings!
Ask for a new chair, table, cushion or lumbar roll. Also don’t worry if you look out of place with your perfect sitting form. Your colleagues might look at you weird for the first few days but that’s okay – you’re comfortable and you’re going to be more productive, and your boss will like that. Many companies have people specialized in ergonomics who can help you set up your work environment.
Habits are difficult to change, especially ones that we do for more than 40 hours a week. Start by practicing and being aware of good sitting posture for a few hours a day. Slowly work up to sitting for more and more hours with good posture. Just remember that after only 20 hours of practice you should be fairly good at sitting with good posture. With even more practice you will train your body to master proper sitting.
About the author
Mira Toth, MScPT is a physiotherapist at PhysioMira Physiotherapy in Waterloo, Ontario. She has a Masters of Science in Physical Therapy from the University of Alberta, and has been practicing physiotherapy since 2008.