Hard to walk up and down stairs? A non-deadly effect of long-term sitting

big staircaseIf you’ve seen the studies on sitting reducing your life expectancy, you know that sitting a lot isn’t great for you. But in addition to shortening your life, sitting can also make it hard to do something as simple as walking and down stairs.

When you sit, your hip joints (where your thigh bone connects to your pelvis) are in a state of “flexion.” The opposite of flexion would be extension and that would be when you are standing up nice and straight.

Now, having your hips in flexion is not necessarily a bad thing. When running, jumping, climbing, fighting, skating, belaying, or skiing, your hips do have to go into flexion. The problem is sitting with your hips flexed for 12 hours does two things to your muscles that is difficult to quickly undo.

First, there’s the problem of your butt muscles shutting down.

If you take a tourniquet and tie off the blood circulation to your forearm and hand, how long do you think your forearm and hand will be able to function properly and maintain a healthy state of muscle tone and coordination? Probably not long. If you deprived your hand and forearm of blood for 8 hours a day for 10 years, how do you think those muscles would fare?

Do you think your butt muscles — which you squash the life out of while sitting — are going to react any differently? Of course not.

Your butt muscles need blood, but they don’t get enough of it when they’re being sat upon and aren’t being used.

Second, the muscles in front of your hip joint shorten up.

As your hip flexes, the muscles in the back of your hip go dormant. This roughly means your butt muscles and your hamstrings go to sleep. The muscles in the front of your thigh (e.g.the quads, the tensor fascia lata, psoas and iliacus), meanwhile, get used to being in a shortened position.

As your front hip muscles adapt to their shortened position you’ll discover that it’s harder and harder to stand up and move fluidly. Because of the way those muscles are arranged, your pelvis will get pulled forward. When the pelvis gets pulled forward, your whole upper body will come into a forward lean.

One way to stop that forward lean is to compensate by hyperextending your spine. This is completely not ideal. Instead of addressing the hip/pelvis mobility issue, you’re just trying to hide it by getting your upper body upright. You are papering over the problem and hoping it goes away.

The thing is, if you do this, you’re very likely going to have lots of trouble walking up and down stairs. With your hips working so poorly, you won’t get proper muscle firing patterns to do this. Your spine will be unstable (or too stable as the muscles lock up), and your hip and knee joints will take extra stress from the awkward way you hit each and every step.

The other way to deal with this is to gradually restore muscle balance to the muscles around the hip joints and pelvis. This requires stretching and manipulating the muscles of the front of your thigh to restore more range of motion and better muscular activity, and rekindling better balance between the front and back of your hip joints and pelvic stabilizers.

This is never a quick process. It often takes months and solid dedication to keep your body progressing in the right direction.

If you are a chair sitter and want to start addressing the tightness of the front of your hips, give this video on foam-rolling the front of your thigh a look and start working on restoring some muscle balance to your body!

Note: your thighs may protest very loudly when you first start doing this. It usually takes 2-4 weeks of daily foam rolling before your muscle and connective tissue adapt to the pressure. Also, standard internet disclaimer: if you have certain medical conditions (like, say, blood clots/thrombi in your thighs), make sure you get cleared for this type of activity.


About the Author

Matt Hsu is a trainer and orthopedic massage therapist. He fought a long battle with chronic pain all over his body and won. He blends the principles he learned in his journey, empirical observations with clients, and relevant research to help others get their lives back.

Comments are closed