The idea that sitting isn’t good for you isn’t new, but if you think regularly running makes you exempt from negative the side effects, well, you’d be wrong. Research shows that no matter how much you exercise, sitting for excessively long periods of time is a risk factor for early death. And it definitely inhibits your exercise performance—you can’t, for example, sit for eight hours at work and then get up and run five miles without it affecting your body.
“Sitting all day will make the front of your body tighten up—especially your hip flexors, rectus femoris, pectoralis, upper traps, and anterior scalenes (the front of your neck),” explains David Reavy, a Chicago-based orthopedic physical therapist at React Physical Therapy. “When these muscles tighten up, it creates musculoskeletal imbalances. For example, tight hip flexors can cause an anterior tilt, which shuts down your abdominals and your glutes. So if you run after prolonged sitting, then those big stabilizing muscles simply won’t work.
Obviously, the best things to do would be a) practice good posture and b) stay active throughout the day. But since that’s often easier said than done, you have to warm up. “If you put your body into full drive after it’s been at rest for an extended period of time, you are simply setting yourself up for injury.” That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to do an intense stretching session, but you should make time to stretch and open up these little muscles that may be extra tight after you’ve been riding that desk all day. Here’s how to do it.
Your Pectoralis Muscles
Why you need to stretch them: “We tend to lean forward or slouch when we sit, which creates an anterior tilt of your ilium and scapular,” says Reavy. “That anterior tilt shortens your pecs,” (your chest muscles) which can lead to postural problems and shoulder pain.
How to open them up: “The best way to stretch or open your pecs is to perform movement patterns that pull your shoulders back,” says Straub. You can do this with foam rolling, stretches, or strengthening exercises, but her number one exercise for this is a reverse fly. “It strengthens your back and stretches your pecs,” she explains. “If your back muscles are weak, you will have a greater tendency for tight pecs. So usually solving flexibility problems is best complemented by also strengthening the opposing muscle.”
Start standing with feet shoulder-width apart and dumbbells in hand. Hinge at the hips so that back is nearly parallel to floor and micro-bend knees. Let the dumbbells hang straight down, palms facing each other. Keeping back flat and torso still, engage back muscles to lift arms straight out to sides until they’re in line with shoulders. Your upper body will form a “T.” Return to starting position then repeat for 3 sets of 12 reps.
To stretch, cross your arms in front of your body, then pull your arms back behind you as far as possible. At the end point, hold for 15-30 seconds then repeat. You should feel a stretch in your pecs, along with contraction of your back muscles.
Your Hip Flexors
Why you need to stretch them: When you sit, your hips are flexed—and when your hips are flexed, the muscles of the hips shorten. “And if your hips are placed in a shortened position for an extended period of time—and you don’t do exercise to extend the muscle back to a normal length—this then pulls your pelvis into a more forward position,” explains Straub. And that can lead to limited mobility and lower back pain, she adds.
How to open them up: “You have to release your hips before you can stretch them,” says Reavy. Any muscle that bends the knee and/or pulls the thigh back will help. A simple lunge is hard to beat because it does both.
Stand tall (holding dumbbells in each hand at sides is optional). Take a big step forward with right leg and lower body until right thigh is parallel to floor and right shin is vertical. Make sure your front knee is tracking directly above your ankle, and your other knee doesn’t touch the floor. Keep the weight in your heels.Press into right heel to drive back up to starting position. Continue on right leg for 8 to 12 reps then repeat on opposite leg. That’s one set. Complete 3 sets.
Your Spine Stabilizing Muscles
Why you need to stretch them: “When you’re slouching, it puts extra stress on your thoracolumbar fascia—a membrane throughout the abdomen and lower back—and paraspinals,” says Reavy. “Some of the biggest muscles attach to your thoracolumbar fascia, including your abdominals, lats, and glutes.” If these muscles don’t have adequate strength and/or endurance, the demands of sitting (or holding your core up) become too much and you’re setting yourself up for pain.
How to open them up: Opening your hip flexors is key—they cross eight joints, including your entire lumbar spine. And then there are exercises that help: “Planks and push-ups require you to activate your spine stabilizers to maintain a neutral spine,” says Straub.
Start at the top of a push-up position, shoulders shoulders directly over wrists. Draw shoulders down and back and engage abdominal muscles tight to keep hips in line with shoulders so your body forms a long, straight line. Squeeze legs and glutes for support and hold this position for 45 to 60 seconds, or lower chest to hover above floor before pushing back up to start.
Why you need to stretch it: Your piriformis is a muscle located deep in the butt, behind your glute max. “Sitting positions your pelvis in a way that doesn’t allow your glute to engage when you run or walk,” says Reave. “So what does engage? Your piriformis.” If that muscle gets too tight, it can shorten and put pressure on your sciatic nerve, adds Straub. The end result: agony.
How to open them up: The best way to do this depends on your level of flexibility. Pigeon stretch feels great to some people, others might prefer to lay on their back and do figure four legs. A standing version can be easily adjusted to your flexibility level, says Straub.
From a downward dog position, draw right knee to chest, then lie right shin on floor so that shin is parallel to top edge of mat as you lower down to mat with left leg behind you. Then lean forward if possible. Hold for 30 seconds. Repeat on other side.
If you’re too tight for pigeon, you can try a figure-four pose.
Lie faceup with both knees bent, feet flat on mat. Cross left ankle over right knee and keep left foot flexed. Thread hands between legs to grab behind right thigh and pull right leg toward chest until you feel a stretch in left hip. Hold for 30 seconds. Repeat on other side.
Your Plantar Fascia
Why you need to stretch it: Your plantar fascia is the connective tissue that runs from your heel to the base of your toes. When you sit all day, it—and the other muscles of the foot—tend to be in a shortened position, which can cause them to become tight, says Sophia Solomon, M.D., a podiatrist in New York, NY. “When we stand up or go for a run following a full day of sitting, these tight muscles tug on our bones leading to inflammation and painful bone spurs,” she says.
How to open it up: Rolling your feet over mini foam rollers or pointing and flexing your foot against resistance bands are the best ways to stretch these foot tissues and muscles. A targeted plantar fascia stretch can also open up the connective tissue.