You had set it all right… An ergonomically sound, ortho-recommended chair to ensure the long hours spent on it don’t trigger aches or stiffness. A platform for the laptop, keeping it at the optimum height to reduce stress on the spine and the neck. You maintain a decent workout schedule in the morning as well. Yet, it grips you, a nagging pain in the lower back that refuses to subside. The pain you feel could, in fact, be due to weakened core and lower-body muscles, and performing lower-body activation or strengthening exercises (walking, stretches, squats, lunges etc.) could provide a solution.
The core and leg muscles remain inactive while sitting. Long hours in an immobile position lead to weakening of the muscles, triggering stiffness and pain. The pain in the lower back is just one of the many conditions or injuries caused by inactive lower-body muscles. From stiffness and injury of the glute muscles, quadriceps, the hamstrings and calf muscles to plantar fasciitis (inflammation and pain in the heel) and a host of other niggling and, at times, debilitating conditions.
Importannce of exercising at work
“Sitting is the new smoking,” Viswanathan Sridharan, a Bengaluru-based physiotherapist and sports-medicine specialist, says while talking about the ill effects of an inactive lifestyle. Besides aches and pains, it can also lead to debilitating diseases or conditions, he adds.
“[Because of] sitting for long hours, the glute, which is the king muscle of the body, gets weaker,” says Vishwanathan. “According to research, one side of the glute muscle can pull [up to] 34kg, but sitting for long hours makes it weak. When the glutes get weak, it affects the joints above and below, which further results in muscles like quads, hamstrings and calves taking the load and getting strained. And a weaker glute makes the lower back and core muscles weak too, due to which one may end up having disc bulge and serious postural issues.”
Gopakumar V, senior physiotherapist from Bengaluru, lists out a range of physiological issues associated with sitting for long periods. “Other than strained neck and shoulders, sitting puts more pressure on the spine,” says Gopakumar. “The load on the back worsens if sitting hunched in front of the computer. Problems in the abdominal and hip regions are also common. Sitting for long hours leads to poor blood circulation in the leg, which ultimately causes swelling in ankles. This results in varicose veins and blood clots (also known as vein thrombosis), accompanied by weaker bones.”
All about muscle activation
Regular muscle activation is key to keeping this common work hazard at bay. This is regardless of whether you have a regular morning or evening workout schedule — be it at the gym, playing sport or jogging/brisk walking. The culprit here is the muscles being inactive for long hours, and this can be countered by incorporating movement and exercises while taking short breaks between work.
Along with taking a short walk within office, or climbing the office stairs, specific exercises to work the lower-body muscles are also important, say experts. Lunges are recommended since they provide a wholesome workout to all major muscle groups in the legs as well as engage the core. They require minimal space and can be executed at the office parking lot or garden, or even within the cubicle.
“Lunges are one of the best functional-cum-stability exercises for the lower body,” says Vishwanathan. “Lunges activate the glutes, quads and hamstrings. They are an important exercise for everyone, whether it is at an elite or recreational level. As the muscles gets activated, they help avoid injuries.”
Dos and don’ts of lunges
It is essential to take things slow initially, especially with exercises involving the lower back and core muscles. Rushing into lunges, especially when the muscles are inactive or in a weak state, may cause serious injuries. At the start, the exercises should be done with minimal intensity and their frequency can be kept to once a day.
Ahmedabad-based fitness trainer and state powerlifting champion Kishan Thapa stresses the importance of warm-up before performing lunges. “Before starting any exercise, a warm-up is a must,” says Thapa. “So, an individual who intends to do lunges can do a set of free-body full or half squats of ten counts each [after basic activation of the leg part with light stretches]. Initially, people should start with one set of eight counts of lunges for each leg. As they become regular, the number can be increased. But caution must be taken in terms of two things: one, the posture should remain appropriate throughout the exercise, and second, walking lunges, which are an advanced form of exercise, should be avoided.”