The Five Sitting Mistakes That Fit People Make

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Articles, Lifestyle

I’m in post-Ironman recovery mode (full audio race report here), so today’s article is a bit more brief than usual. But as I (ironically) sit around recovering, I’ve recently been reviewing a new program called “The Sitting Solution” (you can listen to my podcast with the creators of that program here), and it got me thinking about sitting mistakes…

…sitting mistakes that I see many fit people making.

In other words, even if you’re an exercise enthusiast who avoids sitting for long periods of time in chairs, it doesn’t mean that the risks of sitting aren’t hitting you in other places.

So without further ado, here are 5 sitting mistakes that even fit people make (and by the way, even though I’m “sitting around” all day today recovering from Ironman, I’m constantly shifting from sitting at the counter, to lying on my stomach on the living room floor, to getting into a lunge position at the kitchen table, etc. So yes – you can even “sit all day” without actually sitting all day):

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Mistake #1. Sitting At The Gym (e.g. the use of weight machines like Nautilus)

As I point out in my Fox Magazine article on free weights vs. weight machines, when you use free weights such as dumbbells, kettlebells or barbells, you can move through a greater range-of-motion. Many weight machines simply don’t “feel right” to your body, no matter how you adjust the seat or handles. With free weights, you have complete freedom of rotation so that something like an overhead shoulder press can feel much more natural and comfortable with free weights compared to weight machines.

Of course, the other problem with weight machines is that most of them involve sitting. And in this position, your head protrudes forward, your spine rounds into a C-shape, your shoulders round and internally rotate, your hips and knees flex and your ankles are flexed. In this poor sitting posture (even when you’re exercising) certain muscles get tight, certain muscles get elongated and weak, and certain joints get restricted.

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Doesn’t it simply seem counterintuitive that you’d sit all day in your office, in a car, on a subway, at breakfast or lunch, and then get to the gym only to sit some more?

Even if you avoid sitting at weight machines, you may still find yourself tempted to sit as you recovery between sets with free weights – perhaps to stare off into space, stare a gym TV or thumb through a magazine. I’d advise you to instead engage in activities such as foam rolling, dynamic stretching, bird-dogs and other active recovery methods, or to even superset your exercises so that you recover one muscle group as you work another.

Zero sitting required at the gym, period.

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Mistake #2. Sitting On A Bike

This topic is particularly important for the cyclist who likely spends hours behind a desk and gets their exercise on a bike. Both chronic sitting and cycling are often performed in an exaggerated flexed position. As a coach, I’ve frequently worked with the cycling population and have noticed they often complain of neck and upper back pain. The pain often begins as an ache or sore muscle, but if left unaddressed can quickly turn into something more serious such as a pinched nerve, loss of range of motion, or a bulging or herniated disc, which can then result in surgery.

It’s incredibly important for a cyclist to become aware of the positions they are putting themselves into at work and on the bike. And it is equally important to incorporate the appropriate mobility and stability exercises throughout the day to offset the joint and muscular adaptation that occurs from frequent flexed positions. Even if the seat height, handlebars and size of the bike are optimal for an athlete, the spine will still be in a flexed position.

So if you sit on a bike, at least do it the right way, and offset some of that biomechanical damage a bike can do by engaging your thoracic spine when you’re off the bike with exercises such as seated cable rows and foam rolling on the low back with the arms overhead.

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Mistake #3. Exercising Hard After Sitting All Day

In her new book “Move Your DNA“, biomechanist Katy Bowman has some very interesting thoughts about what happens when joints and vessels stay restricted, compressed and bent all day, and then get subjected to high amounts of blood flow via exercise.

“Artherosclerotic plaques occur preferentially at sites of complex geometry, most often in the abdominal aorta, iliacs, coronaries, femorals, popliteals, carotids and cerebrals.” Why? Complex geometries create complex flow fields (places where blood doesn’t flow smoothy, but whirls around). Eddies in the blood place “non-aligned” (their word, not mine!) loads on arterial-wall cells, causing them to change genetic expression. Cells in these areas change from plaque-resisting to plaque-promoting. (Quote from: Cardiovascular Solid Mechanics: Cells, Tissues, and Organs.)

Basically what this means is that by sitting all day, then exercising, you could cause turbulent flow in areas of arterial stiffness that increase cardiovascular risk. It’s like trying to force water through a kinked hose.

So if you’re serious about your heart and cardiovascular health (and not being one of those healthy folks who has a heart attack during your post-work run), you should think all day about whether or not you’re kinking your hoses.

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Mistake #4. Sitting On Giant Exercise Balls

My friend Marc Perry at BuiltLean.com has an excellent observation on the common office practice of simply sitting on an exercise ball:

“With a few exceptions, the research overwhelmingly shows that a chair is a better option than a ball, at least when you’re at work.

A 2006 paper published in Human Factors examined differences between sitting on a stability ball and in an office chair in terms of trunk muscle activation and lumbar spine posture.1 The authors found that, though there was a small increase in the activation of certain trunk muscles, sitting on a ball resulted in significant discomfort. So, their recommendation is to avoid using a ball for this purpose.

Another study looked at similar variables and found an increase in “spinal shrinkage” in people who sit on an exercise ball,2 which certainly doesn’t sound desirable.

Yet another research paper concluded that “prolonged sitting on a dynamic, unstable seat surface does not significantly affect the magnitudes of muscle activation, spine posture, spine loads or overall spine stability.” The authors also found higher levels of discomfort in the stability ball users, which may be a result of soft tissue compression against the ball.3

I found 1 paper that supports the use of stability balls for decreasing pain. In a case report published in the Journal of the Canadian Chiropractic Association, 2 low back pain sufferers reported improvement in symptoms after changing from a chair to a ball.4

Sitting on a ball versus a chair may increase passive caloric expenditure. A study from SUNY Buffalo showed a 4.1 calorie per hour increase in energy expenditure from sitting on a ball versus a chair.5 This translates to an extra 32 calories over an 8-hour work day.

So, is sitting on an exercise ball at work a bad idea? Yes.”

My advice instead of an exercise ball? Simply get a good chair that allows you to be in a variety of positions throughout the day, such as the adjustable height chair at RebelDesk. Use code “BEN” to get $40 off the Rebel Crank-Up desk or code “GREENFIELD” to get $20 off the Rebel Chair.

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Mistake #5. Sitting On The Toilet

Of course, fit people poop too, right?

As I point out in my article on “Why You Should Squat To Poop“, your body is meant to be in a squatting position to properly eliminate stuff from your colon. You can control to some extent your need to defecate by contracting or releasing the sphincter on your backside.

But that sphincter muscle can’t maintain proper pooping function on it’s own.

Instead, your body relies on a bend between the rectum, where the feces is stored- and the anus- where the feces comes out.

When you’re sitting, the angle is “kinked”, which puts upward pressure on the rectum and keeps your poop inside. Not only does this create straining and constipation, but it also inhibits complete elimination – which means that you can literally have old feces just hanging around in your lower digestive tract.

Turns out that kinking is definitely the case, even in fit people – who often complain of constipation and low back pain due to their toilet sitting biomechanics.

The remedy for this mistake is simple: use a Squatty Potty. No joke.

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Summary

Over time, even the fittest person will eventually adapt to poor sitting positions and often experience pain, despite superior levels of fitness.  This acute pain can turn to chronic pain. Then it hurts to move, and so you stop moving and continue to be stagnant. This creates a vicious cycle of stagnation that increases your risk for pain, chronic disease and loss of function.

So you can eventually sit yourself into un-fitness, chronic pain that annoys you during every workout, or both.

What do you think? Do you make any of these sitting mistakes, or see others doing the same? Are you ready to ditch your giant exercise ball, get a proper bike fit, squat to poop, avoid weight machines and take frequent stretch breaks at work?

Leave your comments below, and be sure to click here to grab The Sitting Solution, and to see a shocking video and even more details and solutions on the truth about sitting.

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10 thoughts on “The Five Sitting Mistakes That Fit People Make

  1. Mike_Sireci says:

    You have collected here some of the biggest mistakes. Most of the people have injuries because they don’t know how to do these things properly. I know, I learned the hard way over the years. Great article!

    All the best!!

  2. Yorkosteo says:

    Ben,
    Love your work, but sitting is good for us. It just needs to be on the floor. Like animals we rested for hours if not days (possibly months during winter). Sitting in various positions on the floor is the other side of the excersie/rest coin. In my opinion we shouldn't be standing or walking all day. We need to learn how to sit unsupported. Then we are ready to move. Just observe a dog, it Sleeps all day on the floor then springs up and sprints and runs for hours. Then returns to resting on the floor for the majority of the day. We need to learn how to truly rest our body and mind, not how to keep moving.

  3. kbatc66 says:

    Hey Ben, I read mistake #3 and wondered if the same issue could occur for people who exercise shortly after they wake up in the morning. I know you've mentioned morning exercise in past podcasts, but I just had a recent experience with a 28-year-old friend of mine. We ran a road race together and about an hour after, she had a stroke resulting from a clot that formed following an internal carotid artery dissection. Thankfully, she is expected to make a full recovery.

    We've discussed that doing the run was probably both good and bad for her: good because she was keeping the blood flowing to her brain through other arteries (and she had the stroke when she was with people who could help her), but bad because the run probably caused the clot to dislodge and cause the stroke (but it was probably going to happen sooner or later). Obviously this event is a rarity, but what would you advise for those of us who typically run in the morning to decrease our risk of cardiovascular issues? Lying down is not as compromising of a position as sitting, but a person is not moving much and blood is not circulating at a high rate like it is when we are awake and active.

    Thanks,
    KB

    1. Well, KB. You’re not necessarily “kinked” while sleeping unless you’re *really* curled up into a ball, but nonetheless – look at animals. When they wake up, they stretch, yawn, and take their time before doing any formal running around. I’d start by using that as a clue.

  4. cookecc says:

    Bummer, I've been sitting on a ball for years. For me, I feel less pain, and generally feel better than sitting on a chair. I wonder if body dynamics matter. I'm skinny with a super bony butt- maybe a ball is better for this body type? I don't want to sit in a chair!

  5. Vahlstedt says:

    Hey Ben!

    I’m following your tri-ripped program and am now in phase 1.

    In this program you have added a strength workout called “Machine Muscle”, which makes use of sitting machine exercises as described in this article.

    Do you still recommend this workout?

    Thanks,

    Carl

    1. Only if you maintain excellent form, meaning sit up straight, pull shoulders back, engage core, don't slouch, etc.

  6. Mark Begemann says:

    What about rowing machines? I try to keep my back straight and core engaged throughout but roll my shoulders forward just a bit to get a longer stroke when initiating engagement (although the act of engagement is really initiated with the legs.)

    1. Those aren't too bad IF you don't slouch and IF you are doing them at high intensity and not slouched "long slow distance" rows. Great question, btw.

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