We Americans are literal working stiffs. We sit about nine to 13 hours each day, bent over our keyboards, tip-tapping away in the corporate machine, and our sore backs punish us for our sedentary lifestyles.
The products created to alleviate the pain seem endless: standing desks, biking desks, chairs that are actually balls, alarms that remind us to physically move our poor, impotent bodies before they wither away for good. And each day, it seems, there’s a new one-size-fits all solution that could let us sit even longer with fewer repercussions.
But the real problem is the sitting itself. Sure, some methods can relieve temporary pain. Experts, however, say there’s no substitute for a brisk walk—not even better posture. Or sitting with your ass out all day.
Why Does Sitting Hurt Us So Much, Anyway?
According to Stuart McGill, professor emeritus of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo in Ontario and chief scientific officer of BackFitPro, sitting with poor posture for a long duration creates cumulative stress similar to lifting heavy weight with poor technique — it’s just that instead of stress from the immediate force of heavy weights, stress accumulates from a longer duration.
As McGill puts it: “The overarching scientific principle is that high stress in your body results from the size of a load, the duration and the frequency of repetition, mitigated by rest. Posture determines the distribution of stress concentrations in the body, and while sitting for eight hours the load is low, the duration is high.”
Can the Butt Jut Give You a Better Back?
One idea, featured recently on NPR, suggests changing the way we sit, sticking the butt out and holding the spine straight. Imagine you have a tail, and sit so the tail can wag, says Jenn Sherer, an educator who teaches spinal mindfulness (“spinefulness”) in California.
This may work for you! No shade. However, McGill cautions that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. “Don’t go into this blind with a universal rule,” he warns. “Unfortunately, we’re all different, with different joint sensitivities, so we migrate the stress away from the body part that’s experiencing pain or discomfort.”
Generally speaking then, overcorrecting your spine in the name of a better posture isn’t a solution. In fact, it can put stress on your hips, McGill says, which will eventually start to ache too. “It’s a trade-off. Over time, the bent spine creates stress in your back. But if you sit upright and overly flex your hips too much, then you create hip stress and discomfort.”
McGill adds, “Our research has documented a response of the body to hip pain. This is called ‘neurogenic’ response, where the brain responds by tightening the hip flexor muscles and inhibiting the extensor gluteal muscles in many people.”
Like any good professor, McGill brings up an analogy: “Take any joint you like. Say, your finger. Bend your finger to the end range and keep it there for a long time—the stress would accumulate and generate pain. So slouched sitting is a similar analogy: The stress is on your spine joints accumulates the same way.”
A Little Test to Tell How Screwed You Are
There’s a way to tell if your sitting technique is putting too much strain on your hips and back. Sit down on any chair, pull your posture straight up, grab the seat-pan base of the chair and pull upward with about 10 pounds of force in each hand. If you feel a pinch in your hips, you’re putting too much pressure on your hips by forcing yourself to adopt better posture.
McGill explains: “Where your legs meet your torso, that’s called the inguinal crease — that’s the fold in the front of your pants. If you get a pinch in there, that’s your hip joint. So then you’re sitting up too tall.”
When You‘re Feeling Pinched, Try Manspreading (Really)
So basically, you simply can’t escape getting up and moving your ass every couple hours at work. But, as NPR suggests, there are a few adjustments you can make.
Such as? Try manspreading, believe it or not. Spread those knees like you’re an entitled bro on the subway, taking up as much space as you can. “You’ll notice those people often have their knees together, and if they’re getting a hip pinch, my suggestion there is to spread their knees apart and see if that alleviates the hip discomfort,” McGill says.
Wait—really? Manspreading? “There’s all this talk of manspreading from a social behavior perspective — probably not a considerate thing on a crowded bus,” McGill admits.
I couldn’t believe my ears. So I reached out to Kelley Rae O’Donnell, an actress and manspreading-awareness activist known for tweeting photos of subway manspreaders in New York City. Is manspreading vindicated by the nation’s back-pain crisis? “It kind of reminds me of a friend of a friend who said to me, ‘Men have to sit that way or they’ll fall over. Their center of gravity is different. So they manspread to not fall on people,’” she tells me.
“I think there are some people with medical conditions that cause them to have issues closing their legs, and yes, I’ve seen women do it too. But in my experience of documenting it for years … the arguments that happen when politely asking someone to make room for others have only a few times been because of a medical condition. I am sympathetic to people who have hip pain, but based on the nature of their defensiveness, the majority of people I have interacted with seem to have more issues with common courtesy.”
Lose the Skinny Jeans
Any other tips for sitting more comfortably? Sure, says McGill: Raise the height of your seat. Also, ditch the tight pants. Your unwieldy skinny jeans might be a culprit. “It’s so interesting, I’ll see some patients with very tight pants, so when they sit down their hips are restricted and it forces their spine to flex forward. And I’ll say, ‘Try and separate,’ and they can’t because it causes so much stress in the material of their pants.”
But Mostly, Just Get Up and Walk, for Chrissake
But really, McGill urges, nothing beats the simple act of just not sitting all damn day. There’s no way around it.
“We’re not made for sitting very long for a variety of reasons, you’ve probably seen all the literature available on cardiac health and diabetes,” he says. “Get up and take frequent breaks. Some people suggest drinking lots of water to go to the toilet often. What we recommend is to go for three brisk walks throughout the day — and we usually say, every time you eat breakfast, lunch and dinner, enjoy a 15-minute brisk walk. It’s good for the hips, it’s good for the back, it reduces the cumulative stress in the tissues of your body.
“It’s a wonderful strategy for so many reasons.”