Anatomy Stories: Why the new adage, “Sitting is the new Smoking” Leaves Out One of the Basic Tenets of Understanding Human Anatomy
I spent 5 hours standing on my feet the other day and then went for a 7 mile run. I know, dumb. The obvious impact of standing for a long time, prior to my run became apparent shortly after I began. My legs were tired, my feet hurt and I felt like I was dragging them along with me. As I struggled to settle into a less than stellar pace, it got me thinking: “Don’t people say that “Sitting is the New Smoking?” If that’s the case, why do I feel like crap?
We live in a culture that feeds off of sound bites: “Sitting is the new smoking,” “Sugar is killing us,” “Detox your way to a flatter stomach!” We want to make a fix but it better be fast AND simple. But in our zest to quickly digest the latest snippet of “health” related information, we sometimes lose our common sense. I know, of course, that sitting is not the new smoking. Smoking is pretty awful for you on its own and to compare smoking to sitting doesn’t make much sense to me because smoking is a cancer causing habit that effects the respiratory system. Sitting for extended periods of time, while not great for the body, won’t cause cancer and won’t really have a negative impact on the respiratory system– at least not in the way that smoking does.
But I get the spirit in which this latest health inspired tip is shared; it’s a warning to the general public to GET OFF YOUR BUTT and start moving. And, this brings me to what I feel is the problem with this particular piece of wellness advice.
As a yoga teacher who specializes in teaching anatomy, I am constantly sharing anatomy inspired information with students, both in person and virtually through my class, online videos, books and online courses. I focus on anatomy because I truly believe that the more people understand about the physical structure of the body, the more they can proactively do things to preserve the body’s structure and as a result, improve how long it lasts. I don’t teach from anatomy to impress people with medical terms; I do it because I honestly have seen in my own body the impact of “getting how it works.” And, it’s amazing to me how little people understand about the body from an academic perspective because they mainly get their information from these little sound bites of advice on social media and the media in general. So, I use my classes and online products to share the objective information and then leave it to the student to apply it to their body, their practice, their other forms of exercise and most importantly, all the things they do when they are not in yoga class.
So, to get back to the issue with sitting all day, let’s look at one of the basic tenets of human anatomy and that is the body needs “balance.” I’m not talking here about balancing as in standing on one leg, although that’s part of it. I’m referring to the idea of creating balance in the body by taking on a number of movements in all planes of the body as regularly as possible. And, guess what? When we sit all day or when we stand all day, how are either of those alternatives healthy? If you think sitting all day is unhealthy, ask any mechanics or full time cafe manager, any nurse or any bartender how their body feels after a shift and they’ll complain of aches and pains in the back, hamstring tenderness, swelling in the feet and ankles, varicose veins and just an overall achy feeling. If you’d like to check out one of the articles in the medical journals on the negative effects of standing, check this out here.
When we look at the structure of the body and how it needs to function for long term health, it needs MOVEMENT, in all planes, as much as possible. I recently wrote a blog post about how yoga is an excellent form of exercise primarily because in one session, you move through all planes of the body. You can see that blog post here. What this concept supports is that in order for the muscles and joints of the body to remain healthy, they need movement. This keeps the muscles both strong and supple at the same time, it keeps the joints healthy and maintains a healthy cardiovascular system. Balancing between both sitting and standing allows us to give the body both the rest that it needs for the lower extremities and when balanced out with standing for certain periods of time, this can relieve some of the contraction of the hip flexors so they are not passively contracted as we sit for hours on end.
So, what’s the take-away from all this? Here are my thoughts:
1) Be skeptical of any sound bites in terms of having high expectations for them in terms of their long term application. Yes, sitting all day is not good, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that standing all day isn’t good either.
2) Movement of ANY kind is your body’s friend and along with that concept, VARIETY is even better. Ask any runner who only runs how their back, hamstrings, knees and feet feel and they probably will share challenges related to tight hip flexors, plantar fasciitis and a host of other things.
3) The body needs balance in order to stay healthy. That means doing things like standing, sitting, moving through all planes of movement and an important one: getting the feet up above the head. If you don’t do handstand, shoulder stand or headstand (which quite frankly, can present their own host of anatomical concerns) just take this easy Legs Up the Wall Pose, against a wall, for a restful way to reverse the negative effects of BOTH sitting and standing all day:
If you like learning about anatomy, you can check out my online courses here.
If you like to read about anatomy, my free e book called “Key Aspects of Anatomy for Yoga Teachers” may be of interest.
Just keep moving!