Stretch and fidget for your heart and back

Little movements support our musculoskeletal and cardiovascular health

A version of this article was originally published in the National Post on January 7, 2015.

We sit in the car or on the commuter train as we head to work. We sit at the office — at our computers, in the conference room. Then we go home and plop down on couches and sit for another several hours as we use our tablet computers or watch television.

The problem is, too much sitting is terrible for our health.

To investigate the effects of all this sitting on our overall lifespans, researchers from the Pennington Biomedical Research Center used a Canadian survey, the 1981 Canada Fitness Survey, which tracked the amount of time per day the 17,000 respondents spent sitting during work, school and housework. Then they followed the men and women for about 13 years.

The researchers discovered that the more time a person sits, per day, was associated with an increased the risk of dying from all causes, as well as the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. The really key finding in all this? Sitting was an independent risk factor separate from how active the study subjects were. No matter whether you jog, work out or get in a daily swim — if you spend large swathes of the day sitting, you’re elevating your risk of death, especially from cardiovascular disease.

It’s also really bad for our backs. My chiropractor friend, Dr. Andrew Miners, shakes his head at new and ever more expensive ergonomic chairs — in which, the implication goes, it’s OK to sit for six to 10 hours a day. “The people suffering from neck and low back pain, related to sitting, they get one of these fancy ergonomic chairs and they still have neck and low back pain,” Miners says. “The problem isn’t that they’re sitting in a bad chair; the problem is that they were sitting too darn long.”

So what can the average cubicle-bound person do? Consider these three approaches, especially taken together:

1. Move. Dr. Rob Myers is a cardiologist at Sunnybrook and an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s medical school. He worries that one healthy-sitting prescription — perching one’s behind on an exercise ball — is a recipe for poor productivity. “How can you get any work done sitting on an exercise ball?” he asks. Along similar lines, a University of Waterloo study led by back-pain specialist Dr. Stewart McGill found sitting on an exercise ball provided no back-pain benefits. So instead, Myers suggests taking brief standing breaks. During my trips to Silicon Valley I see a lot of desks that can elevate on command, allowing workers to stand and work when they wish. I pursue a similar strategy in longer meetings by standing when I feel my energy level flagging. Have a phone meeting? Stand up and talk. The idea is to move — every moment that you can.

2. Fidget! What once earned you reprimands in primary school is now what health professionals are recommending to extend your life. Miners says fidgeting can ward off lower back pain by changing where gravity strains your tissues. So go ahead and cross your legs, or lean forward if you’ve been leaning back in your chair. Rather than sitting still, sit dynamically by changing position every few minutes.

3. Stretch. “Sitting is a flex posture,” Miners says. “When you’re sitting at your computer, everything is bent or curled over. Your back is hunched, your neck is craned down, your fingers are even bent.” So to change things up, every so often, perform a motion that is the opposite of sitting — what Miners calls a standing extension relief. To demonstrate, Miners stands up tall as though he’s being pulled by a rope from the top of his head. He arches his back, breathes deeply to expand his thoracic cage, angles his head as high as his neck allows and extends out his arms as widely as possible.

I’ve incorporated into my life all of the above tips. The standing extension in particular leaves me feeling reinvigorated and more alert. The sad fact is that contemporary living requires long spells spent sitting. Happily, these tips allow us all to decrease the activity’s negative health effects.

Shaun Francis is also the executive chairman of Medcan and the chair of the True Patriot Love Foundation.

You may also be interested in: