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Sitting is the New Smoking – an abridged excerpt from #MADBACK

Our Bodies have evolved to be in constant motion during our waking hours, not to remain still. Yet our economy and culture has transitioned so rapidly into a sedentary lifestyle that in the context of human evolution it occurred in the blink of eye. Our physiology has yet to adapt, meaning the sedentary lifestyle we’re leading is akin to a fish being out of water.

Commuting, office jobs, and TV have tied us to our chairs and reduced physical activity more than ever in human history. More than half of Americans are insufficiently engaged in physical activity to simply maintain good health. Physical inactivity leads to increased inflammation, decreased metabolism, changes in blood pressure and circulation, it contributes to anxiety and depression, coronary heart disease, high cholesterol, diabetes, cancer (especially breast cancer and colon cancer), obesity, and ultimately premature death.

The physical inactivity of sitting has long been linked with a large number of health problems far beyond back pain alone. Such health issues range from obesity to cardiovascular diseases. A recent study by the American Institute for Cancer Research has found the physical inactivity of sitting is also linked with several common cancers - 25 percent of colon cancer and 28 percent of breast cancers are linked to sitting.

We all know we need to increase our engagement in general physical activities, but it won’t be enough when we spend 8-10 hours a day strapped to a chair at work. Yet our modern economy requires us to be stationary for long periods of time. We are left with two choices if we want to maintain our health, adopt a new career which allows for constant movement, or adapt our sedentary lifestyle to facilitate movement in the body during stationary activities.

“You must be kidding! Should I keep moving around while sleeping too?” you may say. No, you don’t. The reason is that the body repairs itself, and keeping movement in your back is only important when your back is working against gravity.

Your back works against gravity when you sit, stand, walk, and run. However, your back doesn’t work against gravity when you sleep. Why does gravity make such a big difference?

Its an evolutionary adaptation, that when your back works against gravity it builds up tension in the muscles, especially our deep stabilization muscles, that helps keep us upright. As explained in depth in the book #MADBACK of which this blog is a except from, the tensegrity nature of the back means that what holds us upright is not the spine, but the tension in our back muscles. Your spine only plays a passive role in this process. It is your deep stabilizing muscles that are playing an active role in keeping you upright, and not on all fours.

This tension is the blessing which allows us to walk on two feet instead of all fours, but it is also a curse for those who lead a sedentary lifestyle. Under static tension when there is no movement in your back,  deep stabilizing muscles tend to stiffen and contract 20-minutes after the static tension begins. Such stiffening and contracting of the muscles compromise blood flow, increases waste build up that often results in muscle pain and fatigue.


The stiffening and contracting process of deep stabilizing muscles also increases the pressure on spinal discs. Since spinal discs have pain receptors that respond to excess pressure and deformation, the increased pressure on spinal discs may also fire pain signals causing back pain. Keep as much movement in your back as you comfortably can, when ever your back is working against gravity, i.e. in an upright position, whether you are sitting or standing. How do you keep movements in your back while sitting or standing?

For sitting, use an unstable sitting foundation. There are many chairs, seat cushions, discs, and stability balls developed for this purpose. You need to pay attention to the level of instability a particular chair, seat cushion, disc or ball provides. The higher level of instability such devices offer, the more physical activities will be invoked in your back. Too high a level of physical activity stimulated in your back should be used for short durations only, because it may be distractive to you from your work, and may also be overtly challenging to your body.

For prolonged sitting, especially for use in the office or in any situation where you need to focus your attention on certain tasks, such as working on a computer, a low level of stimulation is desirable. The right level of stimulation tends to be a level at which your mind does not have to think about balancing your body, and can comfortably focus on the task on hand. Since every individual is different, and every sitting situation is different, it may be desirable and practical to use a device whose level of seating instability can be easily adjusted and customized. In fact, easy customizability of the neuromuscular stimulation needs to be a key criteria when purchasing your next chair or seating device.



This post is an abridges excerpt from #MADBACK, your ultimate guide to identifying the root causes of your back pain, and eliminating it for good.