This season, spare a thought for all of those who spend too long on their computers every day. Glance around – not far from you will be a typer in pain. There he is – let’s call him James. The moment he switched on his laptop at 9am, he stopped noticing his achy shoulder. His back hurts from an old injury, which prompts him to cross his legs to compensate. His shoulders are hunched around his ears, like a homeless hermit crab that someone taught to type. Sometimes he remembers to relax. He looks around the room and sits properly for a while, assuming an attitude of repose and calm. But look, he’s started typing again and his shoulders are creeping up…
Poor old James, eh?
You’ll probably already be all too familiar with the term ‘muscle memory’ – athletes talk about it a lot – how repeating a manoeuvre will get the action embedded in their mind and body so they can perform without having to think. Used correctly, muscle training can have a profoundly positive effect in all areas of life. Strikers practice penalties and sprinters practice leaving the blocks, taking the smallest but most important task from their entire performance and honing it to absolute perfection.
So who would train their muscles badly?
Well, unfortunately, that would be James – and millions of other ‘deskworkers.’ Sitting with your legs crossed in spite of the ensuing pins and needles or hunching over your desk, despite it making your shoulders sore – these are symptoms of muscle memory or ‘posture habituation’, the process of developing a good or bad habit in the way you sit or stand.
…even the way you drive your car reflects the way you’ve learned to sit since infancy
Poor posture habituation can come from sitting in a chair that doesn’t support you properly, leading to muscle pain and stiffness. The way you relax on the sofa when you’re at home, your posture while you carry a work bag or handbag, even the way you drive your car all reflect the way you’ve learned to sit since infancy. The posture habituation that you are living with right now means that chairs that correct your posture can take some serious getting used to – just like breaking any bad habit.
Interestingly, posture becomes a reflex action – just like walking or swallowing. These types of reflex are known as ‘somatic’ reflexes and can be categorised as green light, red light and trauma. It’s interesting stuff, so check out the science bit.
Green light reflex
Green light reflexes are those that represent positive activities such as walking or standing and mainly affect the muscles of the back. These muscles engage to keep you stable and upright so you can go about your daily life without looking like a Weeble. Bad posture or movement habits can result in stiffness, headaches and backaches.
You can help yourself here by making sure you have a good mattress to sleep on and a supportive office chair that sits at the correct height.
Red light reflex
These involve the muscles in the front of the body – those that react to negative stimuli such as surprise or pain, particularly if you perceive yourself to be under attack.
If you find yourself dropping to the floor and curling into a ball when the boss unexpectedly walks in the door, you are experiencing a red light reflex – AKA a natural response to a nasty surprise. You are making yourself as small and low as possible whilst protecting your face and internal organs. This should never happen – if it does, have a word with yourself – it’s time to consider changing job.
Red light reflexes are serious stuff – you shouldn’t be experiencing this on an average working day in the City.
Sounds alarming? In fact it’s very common. The trauma reflex action is characterised by compensating for an injury, like limping on a blistered heel or holding your head aslant because of a neck injury such as whiplash.
If your trauma reflex has become habituated you will adapt your environment to suit yourself until your environment starts to shape you in return. Preferring to have one arm-rest lower than the other, cocking your neck, preferring an old, unsupportive chair to a sturdier new one are signs that your posture is suffering as a result of habituation, possibly caused by a previous injury. If this is happening, talk to your GP about what you can do to rectify the problem.
Change your posture habits
If you have developed bad habits in the way you lie down, sit, stand, walk or run, make efforts to change them as soon as you can. Habituation starts with functional problems, but will end up creating structural ones. Your body is an amazing machine and will adapt physically to the stimulus put upon it – whether good or bad. The likelihood is that you are still young enough to change your habits (even if you know what a Weeble is, there is still time.) Exercise, massage, balance balls, yoga, pilates and just sitting straight are all effective ways to break bad comfy habits.
Stretches require zero equipment and can be done anywhere at any time, creating the illusion that you’re a pro athlete in your spare time
It’s easy to start making positive change. First, simply remind yourself to uncross your legs and sit up straight. This will immediately improve your posture, and positively affect your mood too.
Having a good stretch will make you feel better immediately, so why not start doing proper stretching exercises? Stretches require zero equipment and can be done anywhere at any time, creating the illusion to colleagues that you’re a pro athlete in your spare time. Even just walking around your desk or standing up to roll your shoulders for a few minutes will help – not least because these actions interrupt slouching.
Now think about the way you’re breathing. Sit with your shoulders back and breathe in deeply through your nose. Breathe out slowly through your mouth and repeat. This oxygenates the blood, so the heart has to work less to get oxygen to the muscles, lowers blood pressure, relaxes the body and reduces anxiety. Try it before and after giving a presentation, responding to an annoying email or dealing with a difficult person or situation.
Try to build awareness of the muscles you use in your day to day life and respond to aches or niggles, no matter how minor. While you’re at work, allow yourself time for stretches and deep breathing. Combining good posture with relaxation will start to show benefits surprisingly quickly – just listen to your body, help it re-habituate and then feel the rewards.