“Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” – Evolutionary Biologist, Theodosius Dobzhansky
Humans have evolved to move, period!! Unlike our primate cousins, humans require high levels of physical activity to be healthy and to age well. For most of human history our ancestors’ upright, bipedal bodies were well adapted to move throughout their environment in a variety of ways that are unparalleled in any other land animal species. We are not the fastest, or strongest, or most graceful species, but we can walk and run long distances, and our unique anatomy allows us to throw, jump, climb, swim, and carry heavy objects with endurance and efficiency. We are the Swiss army knife of the animal kingdom, which along with our big brains explains why our species has survived and prospered for thousands of years.
Unfortunately, our recent sedentary culture (or dysevolution) has transformed our environment and bodies in ways that are detrimental to our health. Whether you’re a child or an adult, physical idleness has become the norm today. The irresistible comforts and distractions of modern life and technologies have undermined our instinctual drive for movement, play and social interaction. Sadly, most children and adults are confined to sitting long hours indoors, either at school or at work, or at home during leisure time watching TV or being captivated by digital devices. For many, the pandemic has only exacerbated our sedentary ways.
A Day in a Life of a Sedentary Person
We begin our day rising from our cushy, elevated bed and stagger to a toilet that is again elevated. Breakfast is usually eaten sitting in a chair or in our car while commuting to work; work is generally completed in the same fashion, sitting and staring at our computer screens. If we decide to head to the gym after work, we often do more sitting on exercise machines or stationary bikes. After sitting all day, we return home to sit for dinner, followed by more sitting in front of the television on a couch in roughly the same position that we have existed in throughout our day. Consequently, most people fail to appropriately load their joints or put their musculoskeletal system through a full range of dynamic movement, compromising their health and quality of life as they age.
Your posture and gait are reflexive, unconscious events that your body adapts to over your lifetime. Every hour you’re sitting and every step you take reinforces your posture or gait pattern. For example, if you’re sitting slouched in front of your computer at work for extended hours, then come home and slouch into your cushy couch, your body and joints will eventually adapt to the positions you spend the most time in. It’s no wonder that non-specific low back pain is the leading cause of disability and healthcare costs in the US. As a person ages, curvature of the upper spine, called kyphosis, increases noticeably largely due to years of sedentary behavior. “Two common conditions involving bone and muscle weakness – osteoporosis and sarcopenia – are top causes of age-related kyphosis”. A common scene at the retirement community where I work is elderly people stooped over their walkers while moving with a slow, shuffling gait.
Why Prolonged Sitting is Bad for You
Returning to our Stone Age Bodies
Getting stooped posture (or hip and knee replacements for that matter), should not be an inevitable part of aging. Having better postural awareness and avoiding prolonged sitting is a good place to start. Since your posture is a reflexive, unconscious position, viewing your profile in a mirror can be helpful in assessing your posture. This is why I start all of my classes in “mountain pose” where your ears, shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles should all be in alignment. When your body is in proper alignment, “stress is minimized on the tissues, muscles can produce force efficiently, breathing and circulation of bodily fluids are optimal.” In other words, the body can function and perform at its best when your joints are aligned; plus, you’re less likely to get injured.
Regularly performing targeted exercises to strengthen the muscles around the spine can also help prevent excessive back rounding, as well as chronic back pain (see the McGill Big 3 core stability exercises below). Having a movement practice such as Yoga, Pilates or our Functional Fitness classes that incorporates resistance training will also help retrain postural muscles. However, since our bipedal bodies are well designed for walking, a regular, brisk walk with reciprocal arm swinging might be the best thing you can do in maintaining the health of your spine.
The bottom line is we have to get up out of our chairs and make better use of our unique Homo sapiens body – by moving more of our body parts, more often and with more variability throughout our day just as our ancestors once did. By doing so you’ll not only avoid health problems related to a sedentary lifestyle, but you’ll also feel more energized, less stressed and more productive, and your mood will improve to better cope with the inevitable frustrations of daily life.
Coach Steve’s Tips to Improve Posture and to Reduce and Prevent Back Pain
Postural Awareness: If your work requires you to be at a desk all day, remember “your next position is your best position”. In other words, don’t remain stuck in your chair with a flexed spine for extended hours. Try to maintain the natural curve (neutral spine) in your back when sitting, and get up from your chair as much as possible. Having less cushion in your chair seat and lumbar support could also be helpful.
Movement: Move throughout your day with as much variability as possible, adding in resistance training and short brisk walks whenever you can. The McGill Big 3 (the curl up, side plank, and bird dog) are three core stability exercises to practice regularly to reduce back pain and improve posture. To learn how to perform these exercises, please click on the link below.
Self-care: Proper sleep, nutrition and hydration are also critical to a healthy back! And, since we spend on average 6 to 8 hours lying in our beds, a firm but supportive mattress and pillow (not cushy) could be helpful.