Pilates for Office Workers

This is the first of our blog posts written whilst experiencing the subject matter – I am writing this on a computer at a desk so feeling all the problems I’m about to write about! So I consider it an interesting mindful practice.

Firstly, we know that sitting in static positions is not great for us. Joints stiffen, muscles are generally underactive. In the case of sitting whilst working at a computer there are some muscle groups which are overused, leading to imbalances and potentially discomfort. Blood pools in the feet and flows poorly through the areas where there is pressure (numb bum anyone?!).

Joints stiffen up in the spine, all the way from the neck, down through the ribcage and into the low back and pelvis. All the joints in the legs can stiffen up – hips, knees, ankles. Shoulders stiffen due to the muscles surrounding the shoulder being under tension as you use your mouse and type. Think of the feeling you get when standing up from your aeroplane seat after a long flight, it takes a moment to feel able to stretch up to your full height. Sitting at a desk is doing this to a degree every day. This is why us physiotherapists are always talking about those breaks, little and often! Set a timer on your computer to get up and move every 20 minutes, if only for 30 seconds.

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How often do you catch yourself with your phone sandwiched between ear and shoulder? I’m sure you know it’s not a good idea, but here’s a nice way to gently stretch your neck out after the deed is done, go gently into the stretch:

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Pilates takes your spinal joints and the joints in your arms and legs gently through their available motion and can help to counteract the problems encountered from sitting all day. Stiffened joints slowly start to release and improve joint range when doing Pilates. Core control improves and supports the joints. Joints are moved frequently into the range where they are stiff, they gradually ease out, creating more supple joints which move fluidly. However, you do not need to wait for your Pilates class to make a difference, there are things you can do during the day to help as well. Make every excuse to get up and stand or walk – to the photocopier, the water fountain, even when you answer a phone call.

Image from unitedhealthkent.com

The static sitting postures can cause typical patterns of  tightness in the muscles – the hip flexors and hamstrings are kept in a shortened position and if not stretched out can tighten over time. Poorly supported sitting can cause the upper back to become kyphotic (rounded) and the shoulders to round forward with the head poking forward. This posture can cause tightness in the pectoral muscles across the chest and the upper trapezius across the tops of the shoulders and back of the neck. Becoming absorbed in what’s on your screen certainly doesn’t help!

Image from livewellchiro.com.au

(Just caught myself in the posture above!) Why do we crane our necks to get closer to the screen, even though we can see fine?

A nice exercise you can do at your desk is to extend through the upper back, with your hands either on the chair behind you or on your low back:

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Of course your set-up of your desk can make a big difference and if you have someone who can help you get your workstation set up well it’s great to have that. Of course, in these days of hot-desking it’s not always possible. Even if you hotdesk, work on having your keyboard in front of you so you don’t have to reach far forwards to use it. Regardless, even sitting in perfect posture for a long time can be a problem!

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These are all exaggerations, but look around you, I bet some of them look familiar in your office!

Image from varierfurniture.com

Using a mouse and typing can cause overactivity in the arm muscles, especially in your wrists and forearms and around the shoulder of the hand you hold the mouse in. This doesn’t necessarily lead to strengthening of the muscles. As the muscles are held in a relatively static position, they can develop areas of tightness, called trigger points, which can cause a lot of discomfort especially when doing the same activity again. Your Pilates class will gradually move these muscles through their full range, dynamically stretching the muscles to ease discomfort. The strengthening aspect of your Pilates class will then work to build balanced and coordinated muscles through the whole chain from neck, shoulder and upper back, right down to the tips of your fingers, preparing you for next time you have to sit at a computer. Tess demonstrates a spine twist exercise (which can be done with or without a band or towel):

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Whilst some muscles become overused, others are very much underused. In slumped sitting, low back and core muscles are completely switched off, some of the deep stabilising low back muscles are held in a lengthened position and they can then take a longer time to switch on properly when returning to standing. As the shoulders round forwards the muscles across the upper back which stabilise the shoulder blade switch off, weakening and lengthening. Pilates specifically works on strengthening and building control of these muscles, so that they switch on when required.

Laura demonstrates a side bend to loosen the spine:

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Finally, Pilates requires focus on the exercises to execute them correctly. This focus and concentration has been found to reduce stress hormone levels in the body so your Pilates class is the perfect way to unwind at the end of a long day in the office!

If you do these exercises at home or in your office, please see your Pilates instructor if you have any discomfort or any questions about the exercises.

Images thanks to darrochphotography.com unless otherwise specified