You read a lot about sitting disease these days, but the focus tends to be on a short list of the most obviously evident symptoms—metabolic syndrome (leading to obesity and diabetes), lower back pain, “computer hunch” issues, poor circulation in the lower extremities, and shortened life expectancy. Surprisingly, one of the most obvious symptoms in the eyes of physical therapists and other healthcare practitioners is often left completely off the list, and that symptom is “disuse atrophy.”
Simply put, disuse atrophy is when a muscle shrinks due to inactivity. Our bodies are meant to move throughout the day, and prolonged inactivity will cause muscle groups to deteriorate and lose mass. If you’ve ever had a cast for more than a couple weeks, you may remember how difficult it was to use your arm or leg when you first removed the cast—isolating your limb without any activity causes your muscles to waste away. Disuse atrophy is a nightmare for professional athletes recovering from an injury, and for astronauts spending months in zero gravity. But disuse atrophy also affects regular office workers, particularly those who sit for hours at a time.
Once Again, Prolonged Sitting is the Culprit
When you walk, and even when you stand, your spine is supported by your abdominal and back muscles. But according to an article by Hollistic Nutritionist Michelle Dawn, sitting for too long will affect your abs and your back muscles, particularly your erector spinae muscles, which run parallel along your spine. These muscles are essential for stabilizing your back, and their deterioration can lead to permanent damage to your spinal structures and cause back pain.
It doesn’t get better below the waist, either. This Washington Post infographic highlights many of the ways sitting harms our bodies, and what is most clear is that the problems don’t end with the back and abs. Some of the worst disuse atrophy occurs in the hip flexors and the glutes, which govern your range of motion and give you the power to push off from your seat. Atrophy in these muscle groups results in weak, inflexible hips, and a shorter stride. Prolonged sitting can also cause atrophy in your glutes. Weak glute muscles can also lead to hip bursitis, in which your hip bursa—fluid sacs that act as a lubricant between tissues in your hips—become painfully swollen. All of this deterioration happens every day to unsuspecting office workers glued to their chairs.
The Solution is Simple: Walk
The best way to combat disuse atrophy is simply to get out of your seat! The less time you spend in a seated position, the less likely those muscles are to deteriorate. Taking time throughout the day to move and stretch will help stave off muscle deterioration and keep your body nimble and energized.
And for desk-bound office workers trying to eke more movement out of their day, a treadmill desk is a natural solution. Walking at a treadmill desk engages your legs, hips, core, and glutes—pretty much every muscle group affected by prolonged sitting—with the added benefit of increased focus and productivity. They are an indispensable tool for improving your health and well-being at the office without interrupting your work flow.