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How to Survive Desk Life

BY Matthew Pearce

We know that spending long hours sitting at a desk is bad for our health—here are some new ways to maintain mobility through the most arduous work days.

For many of us in the western world, to sit is to be human. We drive to work, we sit on planes and trains, and we spend 40 hours or more per week hunched over keyboards. Then, at the end of a long day of sitting, we often relax by slumping into a sofa and watching Netflix. Sitting is the human condition!

So what’s the problem with taking a load off once in a while? You’ve had a long week at work, you’ve just stomped your long weekend run or ride, and you need to give your legs a break, right? Of course! But too much time spent in a chair, particularly in the kind of hunched-over position many of us assume after a while, can lead to a number of problems.

Back pain, sore knees, and immobile joints — as well as tight, shortened muscle fibers — are all common among people who spend too much time sitting. Worse, after just 20 minutes of sitting, our insulin resistance drops, which puts us at greater risk of Type 2 diabetes.

Desk life can be even harder on athletes than those leading sedentary lives because our bodies are kept slumped and inactive before being pitched into vigorous or sustained exercise. It’s like starting a car that’s been left sitting for a month and then gunning it around a race track — a breakdown is imminent. Here are a few ways you can offset the apparently unbearable physical burden of sitting around doing nothing.

Assume the Natural Human Sitting Position

What is the natural human sitting position? The squat. Studies have shown that in societies where people eat, work, and commune in a squat position, they are less likely to encounter many of the inactivity-related health issues that people in the developed world can encounter. If sitting into a deep squat has you shaking due to fatigue, then you could be in trouble further down the line.

Try to spend five minutes a day initially (broken up into smaller time slots) in a natural squat position. It might seem silly but it will go a long way to opening up your hips, increasing range of motion in your ankles, and stretching those muscle fibers that tighten up and constrict during a day of sitting in a chair.  If you can do more than five minutes — go for it! The more time you’re able to comfortably spend squatting, the better off you’ll be in the long term.

Practice Movement

Static stretching isn’t necessarily the best way to improve your mobility and ease off the stiffness caused by inactivity or poor movement patterns. Instead, try active mobility routines like this shin box flow (below), which will improve your range of movement through your hips, glutes, knees, and lower back. The shin box will not only help countereffect the effects of sitting, but can help you move better during training as well!

If you’re having particular discomfort in the lumbar region of your back, then the open book and open book reach stretch are great ways to increase range of motion in that area. (Pics to be included)

Hang Out More

That doesn’t just mean hanging out with your friends. In this case, we mean actually hanging from something like a bar or doorway, which can help alleviate the spinal compression — the process by which spinal disks are compressed by the added weight of a poorly supported torso — that occurs when you sit down for too long during the day.

Three to five minutes spent hanging daily will go a long way toward helping offset the issue of spinal compression caused by too much sitting down. And if it feels good, you don’t have to stop there — movement guru Ido Portal recommends that some people should be aiming to hang for up to 30 minutes a day!

Consider Your Workplace

This is not a call to take stock of the state of your career (although that’s something we should all do from time to time). What I’m saying is that it’s worth taking a look at where you work and how you sit each day. If you’re cramped into a corner, maybe a standing desk is an option for you. If you work from home, then perhaps you could consider working at your kitchen table as an alternative to slumping over your coffee table.

Also, try alternating between sitting at a desk or table with sitting on the floor. That can mean sitting in this cross-legged position (pictured) or kneeling at a low table — you can even try a “half lotus” position if you’re flexible. It might feel more awkward than sitting at a table at first, but these positions are far more beneficial for your hips and knees and you’ll naturally sit in a more upright position, which is way better for your back as well!

Take Breaks

If sitting for long periods while working is unavoidable for you, then see if you can give your body (and your mind) an occasional break. Every 40 minutes, stand up for a couple of minutes and walk around. If you’re able to drop into a deep squat and then hang from a bar for a minute during that time (I know, this is not common in most offices) then that’s the gold standard right there!

Follow these guidelines and you’ll be able to survive desk life with less damage to your body — and train with better balance, strength, and mobility.

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About Matthew Pearce

Matt Pearce is a writer and strength and conditioning coach from Northumberland in northeast England. He co-founded and co-runs his own gym, Real Fitness Strength and Conditioning, and his main focus is helping endurance athletes implement strength work into their training. Out of the gym, he’s an avid ‘fell runner’ (that’s a northern English term for mountain runner) and ultramarathoner competing at everything from half marathon to 100 miler distance. If you ever see a lone guy out in the Cheviots Hills running with a pack of dogs, then that’ll probably be him.

Find Matt on Instagram at @mattjpearce

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