Prior to becoming an LMT, I sat at a desk a lot. School work, driving, video games, and ultimately working as an online editor and writer had cemented my sedentary lifestyle.
There were countless hours of research and tasks at the computer and in the library, occupying my day and keeping me on my butt. After working, I would choose to pass my nightly free time still sitting on my butt, just sans responsibilities and avec much more fun.
Like many folks in a similar situation to myself, I didn’t think much about how these choices were affecting my body beyond some very distantly echoing refrains of “I should really get up some time soon,” and “this probably isn’t great for my body.”
With the reckoning of the pandemic now filling the pages of our history book, the number of people who sit for hours on end each day is at a record high – and knowing from experience how easy it is to get used to the seated life, I can only imagine how many of these new recruits haven’t even started considering how their new routine is affecting them physically and mentally.
Recently, I took a gig giving chair massage to the employees of a local office here in Birmingham. In the spirit of the greater massage community’s aim towards encouraging wellness among those around us, I wanted to have some useful knowledge to leave for anyone who was definitively interested in or at any pseudo-level of enthusiasm about their body’s comfort and longevity.
After some thinking, I decided that “What Happens to Your Body When You Sit at a Desk” would be a perfect headline since these individuals were largely desk workers.
Although I know for a fact that massage therapy is an amazing intervention for many of the aches and pains that come along with extensive sitting (at a desk or otherwise), I decided to let my massage speak for itself and instead filled the brochure handout with directly relevant facts to the header.
I nonchalantly sat down at my computer like the good old days and got to researching some credible sources to help supplement my existing knowledge. Let me just say: I was sincerely unprepared for my Google search results.
A sort of fear and sickness washed over me as I read, recalling all the days I spent sitting for 14+ hours—sometimes in a row.
The stakes are higher than I imagined, and I was shocked as I sat there in my WebMD sweats.
Thankfully, I did manage to de-sensationalize my thoughts after some time. Instead, I worked on accepting the fact that I can’t change the past and giving myself credit for the strides I’ve been making and continue to make for my health.
So, with the perspective that we can and do care and that no one’s perfect, let’s talk about the consequences of too much sitting.
The primary knowledge needed to contextualize this discussion is that 1) our bodies are built for walking and that 2) movement heals the body.
Neat how that works, huh?
It would be patronizing to explain the fact that sitting naturally clashes with these facts, but not so much when we dive into the “how.” For instance, we know that sitting can lead to back pain – but how exactly?
Staying seated actually affects how our spine and weight-bearing joints generally function and also interferes with joint and muscle tendon length.
Ex 1: Shortened hamstrings from sitting all day pull on your pelvis and create uncomfortable, lingering back pain.
Ex 2: Gravity compresses your discs, especially in the lumbar spine, which can lead to sciatic pain along with back pain.
Another common issue for the long-seated is poor posture. We may know this anecdotally, but what’s actually happening during the process from point A to B?
Slouching and hunching degrade the strength and functionality of our shoulders as the days pass; meanwhile, we don’t actively engage our back and core muscles while we’re seated for these long periods because we would hit a fatigue point and be unable to make those muscles fire when needed. So continues the cycle of slumpy, rounded posture.
Those who sit a lot may also experience hip pain, leg pain, and intense lower back pain that can even radiate up to the shoulders as a result of compression on the sacrum (very low triangle area of the back just above the tailbone).
My clients who experience sacrum issues are 100% comprised of desk workers, and they all come to me in agony with the same deep low back pain they often describe as feeling deep in their bodies.
Let’s talk about another couple of aspects related to sitting.
First, all the aforementioned puddling forward of the upper and middle body are naturally going to affect your breathing and digestion. You simply can’t take as much oxygen into your lungs while sitting, and the cramped space available for your abdominal components often triggers stomach issues.
As briefly mentioned earlier, sitting also leads to increased risk of diabetes because our muscles have a tougher time responding to insulin after bouts of extended sitting. Making this one even scarier is the fact that a single day of too much sitting has been shown to produce this affect.
Second, we have to address our mental health alongside our physical health.
Those who sit for more than six hours per day in any capacity have been shown to experience unhappiness and anxiety more often than those who don’t.
It’s easy for us to feel the natural high of hiking, taking a walk, riding a bike, or participating in a physical activity of any kind – especially when the weather is just right. Unfortunately, it seems just as easy for us not to prioritize these things despite how pleasant they make us feel.
Sitting begets sitting.
A sensitive, connective layer of tissues beneath your skin holds all of your muscles and insides together. All of it. From head to toe. Zero breaks in the structure; it’s keeping everything where it belongs.
This layering of tissues is collectively called “fascia,” and it really, really likes movement. While it’s meant to be incredibly pliable and slick, without movement, your fascia gunks up and crunches up.
The results of stuck fascia include acute and general pain as well as body stiffness, and it takes some heat and stretching—both acquired through movement—for fascia to return to its healthy, functional, comfortable state.
Ever been getting a massage and feel your therapist smooth out an area of crunchies or knots? Yep, that’s your fascia. (Which, by the way, is also the culprit in plantar fasciitis—another painful problem I commonly treat among my clients.)
Circling back around to my point, if you sit and sit and sit, you are quite literally like drying glue, and it is going to be that much harder to move around after the fact. You’re going to want to keep sitting.
Perhaps you’re someone who is quite active outside of your desk job or your weekly reward of guilt-free couch potatoing, yet you still have crunchies in your neck and shoulders when you get a massage. What’s up with that?
Same concept, different issue: when you assume a stressed position, like drawing your shoulders up tight to your ears when thinking about carpool lines or clenching your teeth while sleeping, you’re still impeding that movement and fluidity that is necessary for silky smooth, pain-free fascia.
Regardless of which column you land in (maybe a little column A and a little column B), your massage therapist is there to treat problem areas by implementing heat and movement, especially in the areas and ways you couldn’t treat yourself.
Of course, you can help maintain your own levels of comfort through stretching and exercising – but don’t let that latter one bum you out! All the research shows that even the most leisurely movement helps and matters. One walk per day around the neighborhood is sincerely worthwhile.
I just want to close out by saying that finding balance in today’s society is extremely hard, especially without working towards it.
While I obviously believe deeply in the benefits of massage, I would and do still strongly advocate that everyone work towards their health and pain relief in whatever ways are most available and preferred to them.
Take Epsom salt baths.
Have your next girlfriends’ hangout while walking around a pretty park.
Challenge your son to some one-on-one or Horse.
Stand up once every 30 minutes, even if you need to set a timer to prompt you.
Learn a few stretches you can do while working, brushing your teeth, or packing lunch.
Sincerely prioritize your sleep.
Whatever small step you can take is enough. You don’t have to set massive goals for yourself, and in fact, I think it’s far better that you don’t. Pick a small goal that is realistic and truly hold yourself to it; treat it like you would if it was someone else’s time you’re wasting by not following through.
You’re already doing something amazing by educating yourself, and that’s a colossal chunk of combating the sad and agonizing future none of us want but many of us sit around and wait for.
About the author: Muscle Memory Massage
I'm so excited to be here in Cahaba Heights, supporting our community with relaxation, stress relief, and pain mitigation. I lived in Cahaba Heights when I initially moved to Birmingham 4 years ago, and I felt at home for the first time in a long time. Everything from the pretty neighborhoods and beautiful flowers to Doodles and the friendly faces I came to know stuck with me. After learning a LOT in school and being sincerely surprised by the immense benefits provided by massage therapy, I knew there was no where else I'd rather bring my newfound knowledge and skills to than where my Birmingham adventures began. I love it here, and I hope you'll love me being here, as well!
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