There is frequently discussion on media platforms about the long-term health risks of work-related stress. There is a related, but distinct, risk that is not as comprehensively considered: sitting. Sedentary lifestyles are the trademark pattern of contemporary capitalist society. We are increasingly seeking out ways to minimise movement and effort. Our jobs are becoming more desk-bound. However, extended periods of sitting at the office – a central component in a sedate lifestyle – has been linked to potentially fatal and very serious illnesses of accumulation, such as: obesity; diabetes; hypertension; dementia and early ageing.
Moreover, unbroken extended periods of sitting do not automatically result in high levels of productivity or creativity. Simply put, high productivity and creativity is not about the amount of time you sit there in front of your computer, but the quality of time. This is not some bogus self-help affirmation. Look at leading multinational corporations and recent developments in industrial psychology. The most innovative corporate offices are simultaneously becoming spaces of experimentation and play with outdoor activities and exercise facilities. A refreshed and energised mind is far more valuable as a productive unit than a tired, cramped and bored one. Perhaps your boss is still catching up to this way of thinking, but it is increasingly being introduced in varying sectors.
Persons working in the health and wellness industry, such as myself, consistently see people with severe pain, discomfort, and injury that is directly related to sitting. Lower back, hip, and hamstring discomfort and tightness is common. Even more prevalent is chronic back, shoulder and neck pain. This is more often than not as a direct result of desk-bound computer work. I have come across people in their twenties, thirties and forties who are debilitated with severe posture and alignment complications in their spines that are directly caused by unbroken hours of sitting at a desk with poor posture. This is an indication of premature ageing. Yogis believe that the key to health and longevity is a supple, youthful spine.
There are simple and relatively quick ways in which you can begin to prevent injury and illness caused by a sedentary lifestyle. Here is a 10 minute series of stretches and two breathing exercises that you can do at your desk at any time to enable a fresh, oxygenated mind and rejuvenated body. I recommend doing this routine twice over the average working day. Of course, in order to most effectively tackle the health risks listed above, you should couple this with 30 minutes to one hour of exercise daily, such as yoga, walking, Thai chi, gardening, or swimming.
Start by sitting correctly. Bring your feet together. Place your hands lightly on your thighs. Make sure that your ankles are directly under your knees. Start to push your tail bone – the base of the spine – into the chair. As you do that, tuck the pelvic floor under and roll it forward and up, sucking your belly button into the spine. This is a core lock. Now your lower back is protected. Then, in your minds’ eye, concentrate on each vertebra in your spine, one after the other, leading up the back. Feel each vertebra lengthen and realign. Once you have done that, feel as though there is a piece of string tied to the top of your head lifting you up towards the ceiling. Feel the length and strength of your spine. Relax shoulders and let them shift down away from the ears. Open the chest and lift the solar plexus area. This is where the diaphragm is situated – the key to effective breathing.
Now close your eyes and breathe in as though your lungs were a pitcher of water and you were filling the pitcher up from the bottom right up to the top, to full capacity. Count to 4 as you do this. Take a little pause for one count. Then exhale as though you are emptying the lungs from the top of the pitcher of water right down to the bottom. Count to 4 as you do this. Repeat 10 times.
Then bring your right hand up in front of your face. Place your middle and index finger on your forehead between your eyebrows. Exhale. Close your left nostril with your ring finger and breathe in for 4 counts only through the right nostril. Then close the right nostril with your thumb and breathe out only through the left nostril. Count to 4. Close the left nostril with your ring finger, and repeat the process. Do 5 breath cycles using the right hand. Repeat 5 breath cycles using the left hand, breathing in through the left, and out through the right nostril. Such fantastic cross-brain cortex stimulation!
Now to stretch: Place your hands on your knees and round your back as you exhale. Pull back on your knees and look in at your belly button. Then inhale and arch your back, rolling the shoulders down, pushing the elbows down and out, opening the chest. Look up. Repeat 5 breath cycles.
Interlock your fingers and push your palms away from you. Straighten the spine. Make space between your shoulders and ears, lengthening the neck. Straighten your elbows and push the heel of the hands away from you, making a rectangular shape with your arms. Hold for 5 deep breaths.
Reach up with your hands clasped and draw the shoulders down away from the ears again. Push the heel of the hand away from you. Rotate your inner arms back and broaden your chest. Look forward. Hold for 3 breaths with core lock in place – making sure your lower back does not arch. Then for 2 full deep breaths allow your lower back to arch and look up at your hands in a gentle back bend.
Stretch your neck by placing your right hand on the left hand side of your head above your ear. As your exhale pull your head towards the right and reach out away from your body with your left hand. Stretch right into your finger tips and feel the tingling, burning sensations up and down your neck and arm on the left side. Hold for 5 breaths. Repeat on right side for 5 breaths.
Wrap your left arm around the right, positioned in front of you at a right angle. Bring your palms to touch. If this is not possible, make contact with the back of your hands, push them against each other. Lift your elbows and push them away from your chest. Roll your shoulders down. Take 5 deep breaths and then rotate the arms around for another 5 breaths.
Lift your right leg to place your ankle on top of your left knee. Engage your right big toe to protect your knee ligaments for this stretch. Place your left hand on your right ankle and your right hand on your right knee. Push down on your leg and lengthen your spine. Then push your coccyx away from you as your reach forward with your chin and bend over your right leg. Let the elbows push outwards away from you. Hold for 5 breaths.
Then lift your right knee and hug it to your chest, pushing your tail-bone into the chair and drawing your elbows close in to the body, downwards and slightly backwards to open the chest and bring your shoulder blades together. Hold for 5 breaths.
Then repeat both postures on the left side.
Stand up with your feet hip width apart and come onto your toes. Reach up above you but keep your shoulders down away from your ears. Interlock your thumbs and open your hands. Resist your hands and arms away from each other. Stretch! You will need to keep your balance for this so focus your gaze on something still and follow your breath. 5 counts.
Keeping your arms above you and return your heels to the floor. Grab hold of your right wrist with your left hand. Slip your right foot behind your left. Inhale and as you exhale pull your right arm to the left and look up to the ceiling on the inside on the right upper arm. Feel the stretch up your right torso and into the right hip. Hold for 5 breaths and then repeat on left side.
Step out with your left foot to separate your feet by about a metre. Then shift your feet outwards slightly. Pull your pelvic floor under and tuck it up into your lower belly. Suck the belly button into your spine; straighten out and protect your lower back. Open your chest and lift the solar plexus region. Place your arms out on either side, elbows at a right angle, but in-line with shoulders. Spread your hands. Be strong. Look up. Hold for 5 breaths.
Lastly, bring your feet to hip width apart again. Place your hands in the small of your back and draw your elbows together behind you, massaging our shoulder blades and opening the throat and chest area as you arch the back slightly and look up. Then start to tilt forwards from the hips, keeping your elbows raised away from you to ensure your upper back stays flat. Do this slowly with an exhalation and push your chest towards the floor. Then release your hands and bring them to clasp each elbow. Completely relax your head. Let gravity do the work. Bring your weight forward onto the balls of your feet. Push your hips up towards the ceiling. Relax. Stay here for 10 breaths or as long as you need.
Carefully roll back up to a standing posture. Rejuvenated!