Backache, sore shoulders, tight neck muscles – if you sit in front of a computer all day, you’ve probably had to deal with one of these problems at some stage.
The health issues that can be caused by sitting all day extend beyond just sore muscles and joints. It also raises your risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and stroke.
Those who sit in front of a computer for work usually don’t have a choice in the matter. So how do you counteract the hunched-over-my-keyboard pose? There’s only one way – you have to be proactive about moving your body. And daily stretching is a great way to do it.
“Movement is medicine,” says Dr Marni Kruger of the Chiropractic Association of South Africa, adding that stretching is a good way for patients to keep pain and stiffness at bay.
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High-performance sport specialist and yoga instructor Gemma Haywood agrees. “When you’re seated for long periods, you deactivate large muscle groups, including your glutes, hamstrings and core,” she says. “At the same time, other muscles, usually in your back, shoulders and neck, strain from being held in stasis behind a desk.”
The pain caused by sitting for hours on end can manifest in various ways, Kruger adds, including as headaches and numbness or tingling (pins and needles) in the limbs.
Beyond alleviating pain, stretching has other benefits, too. It increases blood flow to dormant muscles and calms the mind. But what about that all-important term “flexibility”?
“I try to teach my clients not to get too hung up on flexibility, which simply refers to muscle elasticity,” Haywood says. “Some people are naturally more flexible than others. Stretching is incredibly important to maintain mobility, especially as we get older.
“Mobility is a joint’s ability to actively move through its intended range of motion. Dynamic stretches are excellent for targeting mobility – the improved flexibility is a bonus!”
When Olympian Lwazi Madi was a young athlete, stretching wasn’t something he took seriously. Madi, who now has a master’s degree in sport science, captained the South African men’s water polo team at the 2020 summer games in Tokyo.
“During my studies I began to realise how vital stretching is, irrespective of activity level. Incorporating dynamic stretching has helped me and my team to increase our performance and range of movement. Stretching, be it static or dynamic, should accompany every lifestyle – especially those that are more sedentary.”
“Daily stretching can help you identify areas of tension or imbalance in your body,” Kruger says. “If you take note of these areas of tension early on, you can combat pain and stiffness down the road by self-treatment or consulting with a chiropractor.”
Here Madi and Haywood demonstrate the five stretches that can help combat the common issues they and Kruger have seen in people who spend most of their work hours sitting.
1 Seated figure 4 stretch
What it does Targets pain and stiffness in the glutes and lower back.
How to do it Sitting upright in your chair, raise one leg and place your ankle on the opposite knee. Your legs should roughly resemble the figure “4”. Keeping your back straight, move your chest towards your bent knee, pushing it down until you feel a comfortable tug in your glute.
You can use your arm to aid this stretch by holding your knee and gently pulling your torso towards it. Do not push to the point of pain. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds before repeating on the other side.
2 Pilates hip rolls
What it does “This stretch is great for warming up the spine,” Haywood says. “A healthy spine is the backbone of a loose, limber body. It also strengthens your glutes and hamstrings while activating the core and opening up your hips.”
How to do it Using a yoga mat or a towel, lie flat on your back with your knees drawn up. Place your arms, palms up, slightly away from your sides. In a controlled motion, lower your legs to the side until they touch the floor. Allow your outer foot to peel off the ground so you can keep your knees together.
As your knees reach the floor, roll your head to the other side so your chin is almost touching the opposite shoulder. You should feel like your body is making an “S” shape. Bring your knees and head back to centre and repeat on the other side. Do five reps per side.
3 Seated cross arm stretch
What it does “Here we’re looking to target pain and tension held between the shoulder blades,” Kruger says.
She also highlights the importance of investing in an office chair with a gently arching backrest for optimal spinal support.
How to do it Sit on a chair and place your feet together on the floor. Cross your arms in front of you and let your forearms rest gently on the outside of your knees.
Your arms are now in an “X” over your knees. Slowly lean forward as you pull your knees apart, flattening your crossed arms between your chest and your legs. You should feel a slight pull between your shoulder blades. Hold for 30 seconds.
4 Shoulder shrug
What it does “This stretch alleviates tension and pain in your shoulders,” Kruger says.
Tension headaches occur when neck, shoulder and scalp muscles become tense, and performing this stretch a few times a day can help prevent or alleviate tension headaches.
How to do it You can stand or sit on a chair. Make sure your back is straight and that both feet are flat on the floor. Pull your shoulders up to your ears, hold for 10 seconds, and slowly relax. Repeat three times or more, depending on what feels comfortable.
5 The world's greatest stretch
What it does “This stretch hits every part of the body,” Madi says. “It targets thoracic mobility [the middle part of your spine], so it’s a good counteraction to sitting in an upright position for long periods. I do this stretch every day, whether I’m playing sport or not.”
How to do it Get into a high-plank position – as if you’re about to perform a push-up. Step your left foot up to the side of your left hand. Push your right hand into the ground and raise your left hand over your head, twisting your middle to open up your chest.
Bring your gaze to the extended fingertips of your left hand. Hold for 20 seconds then repeat on the other side.