The definition of wellness has changed drastically over the past 10 years or so. As technology has changed, so has our lifestyles, and along with it, the meaning of what it means to be in a state of physical and emotional health. It seems that the medical community gets a number of illnesses and diseases under control, only to have others pop up and become challenges to our health. There may be some simple solutions to the changing face of health problems. Maladies caused by technology can be avoided by some simple steps that can yield big benefits.
The amount of time that the average person spends seated each day has risen dramatically. The average person now spends close to 50 to 70% of their time sitting. The negative impact of this, in most cases, is quite obvious. While we initially think of this leading to weight gain, which it does, there are a host of other, equally dangerous problems that it leads to. High blood pressure, diabetes, and cardiovascular problems can occur even among those who otherwise take care of their health. You can be following a good diet, working out three times per week, be a non-smoker, and still develop major health problems. And, problems with health are a huge contributing factor to many emotional and mental health problems. Sitting has indeed become the new smoking.
Other areas that are greatly affected by the sitting lifestyle are our musculoskeletal system and our sense of equilibrium and balance. The human body is an incredibly adaptable machine that molds itself into the shape that is required for the majority of its activities. You literally become what you do. This is why cyclists tend to have huge quads, mechanics have thick wrists, and weightlifters have large shoulders and arms. Genetics, while playing a role in this, are not the primary factor. Over time your body becomes what you do, good or bad. When you look in the mirror, what you see is a result of what you do. While we blame genetics, our parents, and our job, it is literally what we do that results in what we see.
The musculoskeletal system of a person who spends half of their day seated takes on a structure and shape that creates all kinds of problems. Slouching shoulders and weakness of the thoracic spine play a role in headaches and neck problems. It leads to an internal rotation of the shoulders, and a caving in of the chest which can result in not only physical problems but emotional as well. Studies have shown that the way we carry ourselves physically plays a large role in how we feel mentally and emotionally. (See “Need Confidence? Power Pose,” March 7, 2014.) The lumbar spine compression, and in the tightening of the hamstrings, disrupts the body’s core structure which can create crippling and debilitating problems.
While the problems of an imbalanced musculoskeletal system are visible, a potentially larger problem remains hidden. An inability to maintain a sense of kinesthetic balance leads to a tendency towards being susceptible to falling. We tend to accept falling as a natural byproduct of aging. While that may be true, there are a number of things that one can do to build resistance to falls. (See “I’ve Fallen Down And I Can’t Get Up!”, February 17, 2014.)
There is an expression in personal training and physical therapy that is worth mentioning and considering. Those of us who exercise are not immune to these problems. The reality is that even an hour a day may not be enough to fully protect us. The expression is, “What are you doing for the other 23?” This refers to the 23 hours of the day that you are not exercising. If you are sedentary and sitting for those other 23 then you are shoveling against the tide. You need to find ways to build wellness exercises into your other 23.
Some brief ways to do this are to make some simple moves, designed to create balance and wellness, and incorporate them into your lifestyle. One of the simplest ones is lift your leg slightly off the ground and stand on one leg a few times a day. It does not have to be lifted too high, and only needs to be held for less than a minute. The effects of the exercise of magnified if you close your eyes while doing so. With eyes closed, you initially will struggle to stand on one leg at all. If you can build to 10 seconds or more with your eyes closed, regardless of the height you’ve lifted your leg, then you’re doing great. If you want something more elaborate this you may want to consider practicing yoga’s “tree pose,” or karate’s “cat stance.” Yoga, karate, and tai chi practice are the best for building a sense of equilibrium and balance. You don’t have to practice these disciplines, but you should incorporate their stances into your routine to build your balance.
During the day, it is vitally important that you take some time to move, stretch, and walk around. As a general rule, a 10 minute break from sitting for every hour that you sit will alleviate many of these problems. During your formal exercise sessions, those where you are “working out,” work to create a balanced musculoskeletal system, rather than trying to look good. Don’t get me wrong, looking good is great, but remaining healthy and feeling great is even better.
Consider taking a few yoga classes, or find a YouTube video from any of the ideas mentioned above. If you are ambitious, the Five Tibetan Rites are very powerful and take less than five minutes per day.
Even if you’re working out regularly, remember “What are you doing for the other 23?” With less than 3 to 5 minutes per day you can supplement your exercise program with simple things that may even be lifesaving.
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