How to Counter the Effects of Sitting All Day Long
Written by: the Editors of goop
Updated: November 14, 2022
Reviewed by: Tudor Marinescu, M.D. Ph.D
Sedentary behavior, typically in the context of sitting for extended periods of time, has emerged over the past decade as a focus for research on health and longevity. Various studies have linked too much of it to depression, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and some cancers–causing concern for those of us who work long hours in front of a computer.
For holistic family physician and osteopathic practitioner Tudor Marinescu, M.D., Ph.D., there’s a duality to the issue of too much sitting, both of which are modern and problematic: There’s how we sit and how long we sit–which can build up tension and compensatory functional and structural changes in the body, ultimately showing up as discomfort or illness. And then there’s the general lack of movement in modern life. “Ancestrally, our bodies are made to always be in motion–they are not meant to be static,” he says.
Marinescu designed his osteopathic philosophy and practice to restore the proper function and structure of the body with treatments that are highly individualized. Rather than focusing on his patients’ symptoms, he treats the entire body and seeks out the root issues. “In the physical realm, most disorders are a combination of three causes: inadequate nutrition, accumulation of toxicity, and trauma or compression. Trauma is the result of overuse or sudden injuries, such as falls, car accidents, stress, et cetera,” he says. Osteopathy removes the trauma and compressions out of the body, thereby bringing an ease into the tissues and restoring normal function of the embryological midlines and all organs and bodily systems.
Here, Marinescu shares his insight on how too much sitting and poor posture can create compression and stagnation, and therefore negatively impact our bodies–both in the short term and long term–and offers his advice on how to counteract it during the day. (Plus–goop’s picks for the antidote to the traditional chair.)
A Q&A with Tudor Marinescu, M.D. Ph.D.
Are the effects of sitting overhyped, or is too much really bad for our health?
I want to first say that every individual is a unique being–our anatomy, physiology, personality and physical and spiritual genetic heritage is different from anyone else’s. You cannot make a blank statement and say something like “if you sit over three hours it’s bad for you.” It’s really hard to research on this topic because there are so many variables. Everyone is an individual, so things have to be adapted. But absolutely, sitting on a chair, or on the couch, for a long time can be very detrimental.
What happens when we sit?
Having been in this field for all these years I’ve met many masters who have been carrying the wisdom of their predecessors, and most everybody says one of the worst inventions for mankind is chairs. Most of the time, the way we sit in these chairs locks the three parts that make up the hips: the iliac bones, the ischial (sitz) bones, and the pubis. This locking can cause stagnation of the pelvic diaphragm and furthermore locks the sacrum between the two iliac bones. Prolonged compression in the bony pelvis will affect all the organs and tissues of the pelvis causing impairment to the flow of the essences of life (this includes blood and lymph), nerves, and energetic meridians, as well as organ motion and function. Life is motion. The only difference between a living body and a fresh corpse is a lack of motion in the latter.
It is also common to slouch when sitting, which affects the abdominal diaphragm. To breathe properly, the abdominal diaphragm and the pelvic diaphragm should be in sync, but when we sit, all the pressure from gravity blocks this from happening. Many times, when we sit for a long time, we don’t properly engage that pelvic diaphragm in breathing. On top of that, if we slouch, we bring the entire weight of our shoulders and our rib cage up on the belly, locking our abdominal diaphragm. This causes most people to breathe shallow, only in the rib cage (this is called thoracic breathing).
“Having been in this field for all these years I’ve met many masters who have been carrying the wisdom of their predecessors, and most everybody says one of the worst inventions for mankind is chairs.”
Breathing is a very important mechanism not only for optimal oxygenation of the body, but also to properly massage the abdominal and pelvic organs (think of seaweed and plankton being moved by the tides) and ensure optimal venous and lymphatic drainage (flushing out toxins). By blocking both the diaphragms through the act of sitting or bending forward and therefore blocking the ability of the abdominal diaphragm and the pelvic diaphragm to be in sync, you’re preventing an effective return of venous blood (fresh oxygenated blood) to the cells and lymphatic drainage. This can prevent the body from clearing the exhaust of the cells, resulting in toxic build-up and eventual sickness. An analogy would be not taking the trash out for many days and it keeps accumulating in and around the house, becoming highly toxic.
How do the ways in which we hold ourselves with poor posture, in front of a computer, eventually wreak havoc?
Sitting in front of a computer adds another issue: forward head posture, which is when we bend our head forward. This causes more pressure on our spine because the head is not being properly and evenly distributed over the circumference of the vertebrae and the whole spine. For an average adult, the head weighs about ten to twelve pounds and should sit straight on the cervical spine. For every inch you lean your head forward, the pressure added to the cervical spine is about ten pounds. So, if you move forward about three or four inches, this adds about thirty to forty more pounds to the spine–quadruple the weight that is meant to sit on the cervical spine. When the head sits properly straight on the spine, the ligaments hold the spine vertebrates together, allowing the muscles to be relaxed. But as the head moves forward and adds more weight and pressure, the ligaments initially stretch but over time they lose their tension and the muscles have to kick in, ultimately doing the job the ligaments are meant to do.
“If we slouch, we bring the entire weight of our shoulders and our rib cage up on the belly, locking our abdominal diaphragm.”
Neck spasms can ensue and this can result in a visual bump at the base of the neck and eventually degeneration of the spine. Forward head posture can also lead to a decrease in the motion of the cervical spine, which various studies, including research by neurobiologist and Noble laureate Roger Sperry, have illustrated can lead to a decrease in endorphin production, lowering our threshold for pain.
Is it problematic to sit cross-legged?
If you’re sitting crossed-legged, or with one foot underneath your pelvis, this can also rotate and tilt the pelvis and spine, causing compensatory changes throughout the musculoskeletal and organ systems. It’s okay to do this for two or three minutes once in a while, but if you do it daily, it forms a habit and your body will compensate and develop more chronic compensatory changes. If you maintain certain poor habits, such as bad posture or sitting crossed-legged, your body will eventually adapt to the habit and your muscles will start to shorten.
Are these common issues you see in your patients?
Every single patient I see has at least one of these issues. This is the disease of modernity. I also see a lot of children who, at age one or two, are already playing on a phone, bending, slouching, or twisting to look at the screen. When I grew up kids used to play, and now so many kids are hunched in front of a TV or device, bending forward and causing all sorts of abnormal curving and twisting in their spines with potentially chronic and sometimes irreversible changes in their normal growth and development. Unfortunately, with many of the implements of modernity, we are creating a whole slew of new diseases that could be so simply addressed by avoiding them in the first place.
Can you talk about instances where sitting is common practice, say in an office setting or at a job that requires a sedentary position: What are some healthy improvisations we can make?
I tell my patients for every fifty minutes of sitting, take ten minutes to stretch or move. Get off your chair, give your eyes a break from the computer, drink a glass of water, and do some light walking or stretching. It’s also beneficial to go stand by a window and gaze outside for a few minutes to give the eye muscles a break.
Are there ways to offset the hours spent sitting?
If you do the fifty minutes on, ten minutes off, what you’re doing is preventing that stagnation to accumulate in the body. If you don’t do anything for six hours and then you get up, you’ll be sore, but if you break it up every hour, it can be very invigorating.
How effective are standing desks–or alternative work set-ups?
A standing desk is beneficial, as it allows for better posture and more movement and helps to prevent any stagnation. It can be hard to stand for six to eight hours straight a day, so I often recommend that my patients create a set-up that allows them to change between standing and sitting, which ensures for even more motion during the day.
“For every inch you lean your head forward, the pressure added to the cervical spine is about ten pounds.”
A very good option for a chair is the Swopper, which has a similar principle of the big yoga balls that you can sit on. The difference between this and a regular chair is that it doesn’t have a lean for the back–and you sit only with your two sitz bones leaving your pelvic diaphragm free to breathe. In turn, this will help to create inner core strength, as well.
I also like the little, three-to-four feet trampolines or rebounders. Get on one for a few minutes during the day, shake it up, and then get back to your work. You will have a ton more energy.
What is the best way to sit or stand while working?
Your eyes should be looking straight across in line with your screen and not below the horizontal. You want to make sure you’re sitting upright, with your head straight on your spine, your hands typing from a comfortable, approximate 90-degree angle, and your shoulders relaxed. The key is to feel ease–in your arms, your shoulders, and your entire body–so you’re not accumulating any compression and tension. Everybody needs to find this for themselves.
Outside of our working lives, what else is essential for thwarting stagnation and compression in the body?
I like forms of activity that involve the whole body, such as swimming, yoga, Pilates, and Egoscue, an exercise method that helps to balance all the muscles in the body and decrease tension. Gyrotonics, which I can best describe as three-dimensional Pilates, also works to increase mobility, flexibility, spiraling, arching, all of which is vital for the spine.
Most importantly, we need to be mindful of our bodies and our lives in general. When we’re typing in front of the computer, we often lose contact with our body. At our jobs or in life, we’re always looking outside instead of inside ourselves. If you feel an increase in tension, listen to it and get up, move a little, rotate your shoulders, get a drink of water, loosen it up. We need to be sincere with our heart, our soul, and our spirit, and in order to do so, we have to look inside ourselves. That is when we start to hear that voice of integrity that says, “this hurts or this doesn’t feel right,” which is a very important message. Our heart and our higher consciousness tell us what’s going on–we need to become accustomed to listening to that inner voice. This is how we learn to trust ourselves and follow through with what is right for us.
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Tudor Marinescu, M.D. Ph.D. is a holistic family physician with extensive credentials in cranial and biodynamic osteopathy, functional medicine, prolotherapy, vibrational sound healing, and herbal treatments. Born in Romania, he began his medical studies in Bucharest, which he later completed at the J.W. Goethe University School of Medicine in Frankfurt, Germany. He holds a Ph.D. in Medicine from the H. Heine University in Germany, completed a one-year surgical internship at UCLA, and a three-year Family Medicine residency at USC. He holds a certificate of Proficiency in Osteopathy from the Osteopathic Cranial Academy. He practices in Ojai and Santa Monica, California.
The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies and induce conversation. They are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of goop, and are for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that this article features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.