Staying Healthy When You Sit All Day

UT Health Austin chiropractor Sylvia Deily, DC, Cert MDT, shares insight on how to stay healthy and active when sitting all day as you return to work or school.

Reviewed by: Sylvia Deily, DC, Cert MDT
Written by: Kaylee Fang

The backside of a woman wearing a forest green shirt is shown as she's sitting at a work desk and stretching. Her left arm reaches over her head and grabs her right elbow to stretch her triceps.

During the warmer summer months, you tend to live a more active lifestyle. It’s essential to maintain that healthy lifestyle as you become more sedentary returning to work or school.

How does sitting impact the body?

“The biggest harm of sitting is that we are no longer moving,” says Sylvia.

The development of inflammation, joint pain, and other major health conditions can result from prolonged sitting. Whether you’re sitting at a desk or in front of a screen, listen to your body as you begin to experience discomfort, soreness, or pain in specific areas of the body. Find the most supportive position where your neck, back, or other parts of the body feel comfortable and experiences little. Frequently changing sitting positions, shifting weight throughout your body, and moving your joints and muscles can go a long way.

Ideal sitting position

Ideal posture is focused on stacking the joints to use the least effort for the best alignment. Sitting resembles our posture when standing neutrally. Ideal sitting or posture can’t be sustained for a long period. Sitting should include a variety of postures and frequent changes.

Your height, the chair you’re using, and the activity you are performing all impact the ideal sitting position. A few ways to improve your posture are:

  • Keep feet flat or rest them on either the floor or a footrest
  • Position knees a bit lower than the hips by either perching on the chair, using a seat wedge, or tilting the seat pan on an adjustable chair
  • Sit on “sit bones” for neutral pelvis and low back position
  • When typing, forearms are parallel to the floor with relaxed shoulders

“If you’re sitting on the sit bones, also known as ischial tuberosities, that puts the pelvis in a neutral position. This supports the spine in being neutral and upright. The last part to pay attention to is our tendency to poke the chin forward, draw the chin back slightly (like when you are surprised) to align the head over relaxed shoulders,” recommends Sylvia.

How often should I get up and walk around?

It depends on the level of activity when sitting in the office or classroom. In general, getting up at least once an hour should be practiced. Simple ways of staying active can be retrieving copies from the printer, walking to the water fountain, or stretching at your desk.

Different methods to stay active

A quick, simple form of movement known as exercise snacks are great to implement into your daily routine.

“Short sessions of movements, such as 5 to 10 minutes frequently, can have the same effect as movement of 30 to 45 minutes once a day,” explains Sylvia.

From a weight training perspective, you can keep dumbbells by your desk. A simple routine to try exercise snacks throughout the day:

2 sets of 10 reps

  • Squats/Hip hinges
  • Lunges
  • Overhead press
  • Bent-over row

If at each work break in your day, you perform a set of exercises, by the end of the day you can complete your whole strength training workout.

Exercise snacks are a healthier alternative for a break than scrolling through your phone or eating a sugary snack. Setting a reminder of when to do these simple movements can be helpful. It might be easy to dismiss the alerts but consider the significant impact it has on physical and mental health. Short forms of movement can boost productivity levels and enhance your mood, especially if you can make them consistent.

Balance of sitting and standing

There might be challenges that limit the activity you can perform, such as meetings or working under a deadline. A standing desk can help introduce activity in your day.

“Standing for 5 to 10 minutes for each hour of sitting enables you to reduce the strain of sitting in one place for a long period, and introduce more movement,” suggests Sylvia.

When standing it is fine to shift weight from one leg to another, prop your foot up on a chair rail or footstool, just like when sitting a variety of postures in the key. But notice if you begin to tire and lean to rest your forearms on the desk, then it may be time to sit again. Finding the balance between sitting and standing can prevent strain and tension.

Recommended Stretches

Stretching or moving keeps the muscles flexible, strong, and healthy. A few stretches to try the next time you’re at work or school:

Chest and Shoulder

Place your arms behind you and intertwine your fingers together. When you feel a stretch across your chest, start raising your arms. For 15 to 30 seconds, hold this stretch before releasing. This stretch opens the chest and targets the pectoral muscles.

Neck

Stretching your neck might help if you experience frequent headaches or upper back tension. Grab the side of the chair with your right arm and tilt your head to the left. If you’d like a stronger stretch, your left hand can gently pull the head to stretch the side of the neck. Hold this stretch for 20-45 seconds and then repeat on the other side.

Spine

A spinal twist can help relax back muscles and reset posture. Place feet flat on the floor, sit upright on sit bones, and begin to rotate the upper body toward the right. Place your left hand on the outside of your right knee for leverage and place the right hand on either the armrest or seatback to help deepen the stretch. Twist as far as you feel comfortable, even a small rotation can have a significant impact. Stretch for 20 to 45 seconds, then switch to the opposite side.

Hamstring

Extend the right leg forward while keeping the left foot flat on the floor. Sit tall with your head in line with your spine, begin to fold forward reaching the right foot. Hold this stretch for 15 to 30 seconds, and then repeat on the other side. This stretch helps to relieve leg discomfort and keep your hamstrings loose.

In a fixed environment, strive to maintain activities where you feel productive and supported. Routines at home to help get you through the day can be adopted in the office or classroom.

“Listen to your body and build in those natural breaks. Feel that freedom of movement throughout the day,” encourages Sylvia.

About UT Health Austin

UT Health Austin is the clinical practice of the Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin. We collaborate with our colleagues at the Dell Medical School and The University of Texas at Austin to utilize the latest research, diagnostic, and treatment techniques, allowing us to provide patients with an unparalleled quality of care. Our experienced healthcare professionals deliver personalized, whole-person care of uncompromising quality and treat each patient as an individual with unique circumstances, priorities, and beliefs. Working directly with you, your care team creates an individualized care plan to help you reach the goals that matter most to you — in the care room and beyond. For more information, call us at 1-833-UT-CARES or request an appointment here.