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What to do to counter the danger of sitting for hours

Backaches are the most common outcome of spending hours at a desk. Here’s how to prevent it while continuing to work

Sitting hunched with shoulders bent in front of our computers is a closed posture that can lead to reduced breathing and lung capacity. (Unsplash/Social Uncut)

By Deepa Natarajan Lobo

LAST PUBLISHED 03.01.2024  |  08:00 AM IST

The convenience of technology and a desk job comes with its own perils. Of these, sitting continuously for far too many hours (mostly in wrong positions) is too important to ignore. It is a known fact that we need to prioritise physical activities in order to stay fit, but a sizeable population works at a screen with little to no time for exercise. 

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As per a study by Harvard Health, sitting for 11 or more hours a day can increase the risk of premature death by 12%. Mayo Clinic says sitting for more than 8 hours a day without any physical activity poses as high a risk of death as obesity and smoking. However, it’s not the number of hours we sit per day but how active we are outside of those hours that counts, believes Rishabh Malhotra, founder of the Bengaluru-based fitness start-up, Tagda Raho.

Contrary to popular belief, a 2020 study led by University of South California and published in the journal PNAS, showed that hunter-gatherer tribes sat for as many hours as we do today, shares Malhotra. What has changed is what we do when we sit for these long hours. “Instead of stretching, we begin our mornings by reaching for our phones and laptops, and that’s where the problem begins," he notes. As Malhotra explains, our posture is wrong when we are looking at our phone or laptop screens. Our shoulders are bent and the closed posture leads to reduced breathing and lung capacity. We sit in offices with controlled temperatures that numb our feeling of thirst, reducing our need to drink adequate water. All these factors end up contributing to pains and ailments.  

“Over time, if we don’t use certain muscles as much as they should be used, atrophy (wastage of muscles) takes place. We should focus on incorporating more movement into the hours when we are not sitting, much like our ancestors who moved around looking for food or building homes did," says Malhotra. Having noticed posture-related issues among his clients, Malhotra’s advice is to engage in some light stretches in the morning after waking up.

The right chair 
Posture-related injuries could also be the result of the chair you sit in. Shravanthi Venkatesh learnt this the hard way. A psychotherapist based in Bengaluru, Venkatesh was diagnosed with muscle spasm and a pinched nerve in the shoulder all because she was spending the day in the wrong chair.  “My work involves sitting in one place and listening to clients in sessions that can last between 60 and 90 minutes. On one day, I had six sessions back-to-back and it was also the first time I was using a chair that was slightly higher than the table," she recalls.

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As the sessions went on, Venkatesh started experiencing cramps in her shoulder yet powered through. Just a day of wrong posture was enough to do a lot of damage.  

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“Multiple parts of my back were affected and I was bedridden for four days. In fact, I had to be rushed to the emergency one morning as I just couldn’t get out of bed," she recollects. Muscle relaxants, physiotherapy sessions and medication helped Venkatesh recover, and now she makes sure to take time out in between sessions to get some sun, drink water and do a few stretches and squats. Her advice is to choose your chair wisely depending on your profile of work.

 “Don’t get fooled by the look of a luxurious chair. Something simple may be more effective for your posture," she says, adding, “if you experience any cramps or pains, it’s best to attend to them immediately as they may intensify with time and you may need a surgical intervention later."

Stay active, stand straight
Human beings are built to move and stand straight, says Gauravi Vinay, a clinical nutritionist and fitness enthusiast in Bengaluru. “From the digestive system to cardiovascular system, all our organs function effectively when we stand upright and move regularly," she says.

Being sedentary for long hours not only increases the risk of insulin resistance and diabetes, it could also lead to weakening of leg, glute and other muscles that support standing, Vinay says. All of this can cause weakness and increase the chances of falls and injuries.

 “Sitting for too long or lying in the same position can make your neck and shoulder muscles stiff and interfere with smooth mobility. Another common issue that can crop up with long hours of sitting is varicose veins, which in some cases could even lead to further problems such as clots," Vinay says. 

In a nutshell, take frequent breaks from long hours of sitting and engage in some light physical activity like simple stretches or a quick walk. As Malhotra says many back problems can be solved by just rectifying posture, and providing movement to the muscles. “In addition to simple stretches, ensure that you get the right strength training and move constantly to improve your resistance. With each of us having our own requirements, it’s best to consult a health expert," he says. 

Deepa Natarajan Lobo is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru.

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