There are many factors that contribute towards having a healthy body. These include what we eat, how we move, how well we rest and manage stress, and how we think, to name a few. Exercise is an important one because, well, the human body was designed to move! (Learn more in Encouraging Employees To Achieve Healthy Eating and Fitness Goals in the Workplace).
Some of the benefits associated with regular exercise and a physically active lifestyle in general include:
- Strong, balanced muscles
- A healthy cardiovascular system and high level of aerobic endurance
- Good energy levels
- Strong bones
- A more positive mindset
The challenges of modern living
Modern living doesn't always support the body's needs for consistent, healthy movement. Many people lead very sedentary lifestyles that consist of long periods of inactivity, and excessive amounts of sitting. One study of more than 6,000 people showed that overall participants spent 54.9% of their monitored time in sedentary behaviors.
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It's not uncommon for a person to drive to work (sitting), sit at a desk for most of the day, drive home, sit down for dinner, and then spend an hour or two sitting in front of the TV. These behaviors may increase the risk for lifestyle related diseases, especially if they are combined with other factors that contribute towards an unhealthy lifestyle.
The good news is that employers can play an important role in helping employees to get more physical activity in their lives. This is especially important for those in 'desk bound' roles.
First, let's take a look at the movements the human body was designed to do. Then, we'll take a deeper look at some of the potential negative effects of sitting for too long on the physical body. Finally, some recommendations for employers and employees will be provided to offer solutions to combat the negative impact of sedentary lifestyles.
Introducing the primal movement patterns
The primal movement patterns are the movements our bodies were designed to do. Babies start to display these movements early on in their development when they begin to crawl, stand, walk, and explore their surroundings.
All of these movements help the body to function optimally, in activities of daily living. This is the main reason that they are considered to be 'functional' movements. They all require movement around more than one joint, and work multiple muscles in the body. Let's take a look at what these movement patterns are and how they help us:
The squat movement pattern allows us to hinge at the knees and hips and make use of the large, strong muscles in the legs and glutes. This allows us to get up and down from the floor, use large muscles to assist us in picking up things like boxes, and it provides a foundation for other movements, such as jumping.
Like the squat, the lunge movement pattern utilizes all the major muscles in the lower body. Unlike the squat, it is performed in a split stance with one leg in front of the other. This requires an added level of co-ordination and balance. The lunge pattern is used in numerous sporting situations, as well as activities of daily living, because it's essentially an exaggerated version of walking.
The push movement pattern involves moving a load by flexing at the shouldersand extending the elbows. In a physical fitness setting, exercises such as push ups and the bench press utilize a push pattern. In 'real life,' the push pattern helps a person get out of the bath or swimming pool easily. In the workplace it helps a person to slide an object forward from point A to point B.
The pull movement pattern is the opposite of the push movement. It involves extending the shoulders and flexing the elbows to move a load. The lat pulldown and seated row are examples of exercises that utilize this movement pattern. In the workplace, the pull pattern is used when opening a heavy door or pulling a load towards the body.
Bending is essentially hinging forward at the hips. It requires strength and stability of the spinal muscles and enables the human body to perform movements such as lifting and carrying. It is important to have good core strength to protect the muscles in the back from injury when performing a bend.
The twist movement pattern involves rotating the torso to produce movement through the upper back. It is essential for safely and quickly seeing what's going on around and behind us.
Gait is simply the body's ability to propel itself forward and move from point A to point B. Walking, jogging and sprinting are all examples of gait.
Desk bound jobs take the human body away from these natural movements
A worker who spends much of their day in a seated position and completes sedentary work provides fewer opportunities for their body to move through these natural movement patterns. Although these movement patterns are easy and natural for babies to do, years of sedentary behavior can lead to compounded problems over time. (Learn more in The Importance of Setting Up Ergonomic Workstations for Office Workers).
The primal movement patterns become harder to perform. Muscles get tighter and weaker, activities of daily living become harder, and the risk for injury increases.
If we look specifically at sitting and consider the primal movement patterns, these are a couple of implications for the body:
- The muscles of the hips, thighs and lower back can easily become tighter when the hips are in a constantly in a state of flexion. This makes it harder to effectively perform the squat and lunge movement patterns.
- The muscles of the upper back can become tighter as a result of a constant forward facing, fixed posture. This could make it the body more likely to sustain a muscle strain when doing a twisting movement in 'real life.'
Suggestions for employers and employees to counter the negative effects of sitting
Employers and employees can take actions towards increasing the opportunities for the body to perform the primal movement patterns. Even with a desk bound job there are ways to get the body moving more so it can reap the benefits of performing the movements it was designed to do.
- Use a sit-stand desk so that the worker is able to change their posture for easily. This will help minimize the constantly flexed hip position that is characterized by sitting all day. (Learn more in Are Standing Desks Better For Employees Than Sitting Desks?)
- Ensure frequent rest breaks are allowed so workers can walk around, stretch their muscles and get their blood flowing.
- Encourage employees to walk to and/or from work and to take a walk during breaks. Employees who live further away can be encouraged to park a little further from work so they can walk the last part of their journey on the way to work, and the first part on their way home.
- Set up some fun workplace challenges that incorporate the primal movement patterns. This could be something like having a fun 'alarm' that goes off and requires everyone to do five squats! Or it could include entering and training for a walk or jog event as a team.
Movement doesn't need to be complex or difficult. With a little bit of awareness and a few simple actions every person can benefit from including more of the primal movement patterns into their lifestyle.