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It’s another day of self-isolating, which means it’s potentially another day of sitting indoors restlessly taking yet another Zoom meeting.
Prolonged sitting is an unavoidable reality for many. And with lots of us spending more time inside, as the pandemic continues, it’s inevitable that we’re spending even more time being sedentary.
The irony is that we’re staying home to protect our health, but all that added sitting is putting our health at risk in other ways.
In addition to being a risk factor for many life-threatening cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, excessive sitting can lead to depression, chronic pain and increased risk of physical injury, according to research. That’s why it’s important for us to become aware of our sitting habits and do what we can to counteract them.
The poor posture problem
Poor posture is the most recognized, tangible problem associated with too much sitting. Many of us know, all too well, how our sitting posture contributes to neck and back pain while limiting our ability to move our shoulders and spine.
Simple, passive stretches, like standing and raising your arms overhead, can provide immediate relief of tension and help break up long bouts of sitting, but they don’t create long-term posture changes. Only exercises that address the muscular dysfunction from poor sitting posture will strengthen weakened muscles and inhibit overactive ones to truly counteract the impact of too much sitting.
The two most common posture issues associated with sitting are Upper-Crossed Syndrome and Lower-Crossed Syndrome. Upper-Crossed Syndrome is characterized by slumping shoulders due to a dysfunctional combination of over- and underactive muscles in your chest, neck and shoulders.
Lower-Crossed Syndrome, which usually goes hand in hand with its upper-body counterpart, creates issues of tension and weakness in your core, back and hips.
To provide both instant relief and restore muscle function, the five exercises below include a combination of instant-gratification, feel-good stretches with posture-correcting exercises.
No more aches and pains
Practice the first three stretching and mobilizing exercises throughout your day to break up long bouts of sitting. Ideally, try to get up from sitting at least once per hour to stretch. Do the last two strengthening and mobilizing exercises daily to make lasting, positive changes to your overall posture. Many of my professional athlete clients do them as part of their daily warm-ups.
You’ll notice that specific breathing instructions are included with all the exercises. That’s because your diaphragm, your primary muscle of respiration, attaches to both your rib cage and your spine. Consequently, how you breathe has a significant impact on the overall position of your ribcage and spine, which, in turn, creates your body posture.
Important note: Consult your physician before starting any new exercise program. Use caution and stop if you feel any pain, weakness or lightheadedness.
Supported warrior one with hip flexor release
This move stretches out tight hip flexors and compressed side waist muscles from too much sitting.
Place your left hand lightly on top of a chair or desk, and move your right foot back so that your left leg is in a short lunge position. Drop your back heel and point your toes out slightly. Bend your front knee to align above your ankle, keeping your back leg straight.
Inhale as you lift your right arm up and over your head. Exhale as you side bend to the left, feeling your left lower ribs rotate inward. Avoid arching your lower back. Press the front of your right hip forward to release your right hip flexors.
Hold for three long, deep breaths. Repeat on the other side.
One-arm doorframe stretch
This stretch provides relief of tension in your chest muscles and the front of your shoulders that come from slumping in a seated position.
Standing and facing an open doorway, place a forearm on the doorframe with your elbow bent to 90 degrees at shoulder height. Your upper arm should be parallel with the floor. Rotate your body away from your arm until you feel a stretch in the front of your chest. Hold for three long, deep breaths, keeping your back neutral and lower ribs down. Repeat on the other side.
As a variation, if you have a narrow enough doorway, you can stretch both sides at once by placing both forearms on either side of the doorframe. Instead of rotating your body, step one foot through the doorway until you feel a stretch.
Supported windmill twist
This exercise relieves the upper-body rigidity caused by a static sitting posture. The twisting motion, coordinated with your breathing, promotes mobility of your rib cage and thoracic spine while opening up the chest, side waist muscles and low back.
Standing and facing a desk or counter, sit back slightly into a shallow squat position, then hinge from your hips to bend over and place your left forearm down on the desk or countertop.
Keeping your knees bent with your hips and low-back neutral, inhale as you reach your right arm forward and rotate from your shoulder, mid-back and rib cage to twist open to the right, reaching your hand upward.
Hold for three breaths, using your respiration to facilitate the twist. Focus your inhalations on the open side of your rib cage (the side you’re turning to) and exhalations on the opposite side, where you can use side waist muscles to internally rotate your ribs and enable further rotation of your rib cage and mid back.
Unwind and practice the rotation to the left from the same starting position with your right forearm down.
Wall Angels, also known as scapula (shoulder blade) wall slides work to strengthen your back muscles to counteract the overactive muscles in the front of your body that pull you into a slouched position while seated.
Stand with your back against a wall, keeping your feet hip distance about 6 to 8 inches from the wall. Bend your knees slightly to use some leverage from your legs and core to help push your entire back into the wall with your lower back as flat as possible. Rest the back of your head against the wall, directing your gaze forward.
Raise your arms up to shoulder height, bending your elbows to 90 degrees with your shoulders, elbows and backs of your hands against the wall. Inhale as you slide your hands and elbows up the wall until you start to feel like it’s difficult to maintain the touch points of your back, head, shoulders, elbows and hands against the wall. Exhale as you slide your arms back to 90 degrees.
Repeat this motion through five long, deep breaths. With every exhale, concentrate on moving your lower ribs in, back and down while also pulling the base of your shoulder blades down.
Even though this exercise may feel difficult and awkward to hold, making you think you aren’t accomplishing much, you should find that when you move away from the wall you’ll notice an increased freedom of shoulder movement, reduced thorax stiffness and increased rib mobility.
This positional breathing exercise strengthens your diaphragm, core and glutes while releasing your hip flexors to establish an optimal rib cage and pelvis position for better overall posture.
This is the starting position all of my athletes use to train their breathing and set their posture.
Begin on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor, hip distance apart. Place a foam yoga block, foam roller or rolled towel between your legs to engage your inner thighs and avoid your hips externally rotating and knees splaying out. Place your hands on your lower ribs so you can feel them moving in and out horizontally with each phase of your breath.
You want to avoid upward movement of your rib cage while breathing, and you shouldn’t feel any stress or tension in your jaw, neck or shoulders.
Exhale fully, drawing your lower ribs in toward each other, feeling your core turn on and your ribcage move downward. At the end of that exhale, without breathing in yet, tuck your tailbone, flattening your low back and lifting your hips approximately 3 or 4 inches off the floor.
Avoid arching your low back. Maintaining the bridge posture, inhale, trying to expand your ribs out to the sides.
Hold this position using the strength of your core and glutes, taking five long, deep breaths, focused on horizontal rib movement. Repeat for a total of two sets of five breaths.
Adding these five simple exercises to your daily routine will help improve your posture, reduce neck pain and backaches and boost your overall health and wellness.
Dana Santas, known as the “Mobility Maker,” is a certified strength and conditioning specialist and mind-body coach in professional sports, and is the author of the book “Practical Solutions for Back Pain Relief.”