Movement Habits for a Healthier You (II)

This is the second part of a series of articles on movement habits you can implement for better health. Read the first part here.

2. Switch up your relationship to the ground

This is a cool one that you probably hadn’t thought of, and really simple to do. The premise is this: the way that your body is positioned relative to the ground affects the length and load on your muscles and joints. For example, when you’re standing, your leg muscles have to work harder to keep you upright, while your lower body joints are being loaded in the neutral (pelvis and ankle) or extended (knee) positions. On the other hand, when you’re sitting cross-legged or squatting on the ground, your leg muscles may be more passive but the joints of your legs are also more flexed.

A diversity of positions means more work being done by your body as it learns to adapt to these different positions. Being in a variety of positions enhances circulation and recruits different parts of your body to work to stay upright. Conversely, sitting the same way in a chair all day leads to shortened and weakened posterior muscles, and joints (including your wonderfully articulate and mobile spinal discs) that are constantly being loaded in the same ways. If you, like me, have suffered from back pain, you should also know that chair sitting for extended periods of time can both cause and aggravate your pain.

So, now that you’re (hopefully!) motivated to change your relationship to the ground, here are some ways to go about it:

  • Dedicate a certain number of hours each day to standing rather than sitting. The important thing is not the standing per se, but the fact that you are introducing a new position and therefore more diversity into your daily routine.
    • Choose to stand rather than sit in certain situations throughout the day. You can designate specific conditions for yourself, such as saying you’ll stand while waiting for your cab/bus/train, while eating a meal, or whenever you get a phone call.
    • For those who work at a desk for most of the day, there are a number of ways to convert your seated workstation into a standing one:
      • Get a large carton or box on which to elevate your computer, keyboard and mouse
      • Move to a different part of the office, cafe, or house where you can use a higher item of furniture to work off, eg. a bar table, a chest of drawers, a bookshelf etc.
      • Invest in adjustable table legs, or an adjustable table. Both of these available from IKEA: the former for around $150, and the latter for around $350.

I have recently switched my own desk to a standing desk and am happy to report being pain-free in my back, as well as stronger in my legs and feet. Standing also makes me feel more alert, more dynamic and more motivated to get things done. It’s a win-win!

  • Dedicate a certain amount of time to sitting on the floor every day. Again, this is a way of injecting variety into your positioning. I like to sit on the floor after dinner in the evenings, when I am more relaxed and ready to settle down before bed. Being near the ground is grounding (pun intended!) and also provides the opportunity to stretch out your legs and work out any kinks in your joints after your day.
    • Get a few cushions or yoga blocks and sit on them, particularly when you’re cross-legged, squatting or sitting on your heels. It’s important to elevate your hips higher than your knees so that you can maintain an aligned, relaxed lumbar spine without slouching.
    • Change your leg positions frequently. There are a lot of different possibilities for sitting on the ground (many more than in a chair), for example: squatting, half-squatting, sitting on your heels, sitting cross-legged, sitting with one leg crossed and the other extended…the list goes on. Be creative and listen to your body’s prompts (like cramps or pins and needles) to indicate when it wants you to change position.
    • If you’re using a laptop or tablet while sitting on the floor, stack a few books or use a tray table for your screen so that it’s at eye level and you don’t strain your neck by looking down too much.

An important caveat to both these points: while increasing the number and variety of positions you’re in throughout the day will undoubtedly benefit you, it is important that you learn to sit, squat and stand well in order to ensure that you are not just moving from one harmful chair-sitting posture to another potentially harmful standing posture. If you are not well-aligned or working towards better alignment, you’ll still be loading your joints at awkward (non-optimal) angles and over- or under-using muscles to hold you upright, no matter what position you’re in. Not ideal! Learn to position yourself well first, and that way you’ll ensure that you’re improving your alignment no matter if you’re standing, chair-sitting or on the ground.

  • You can also make a “movement break” out of transitioning between upright and floor-based positions. When you need a refresher or want to take 5-10 minutes off, practice getting up and down off the ground in different ways. Use your creative brain and work your coordination, balance, mobility and support mechanisms. You can give yourself unique conditions to work with, eg. only use one side of your body, or try it without hands, or never repeat the same trajectory of movement. What you are doing here is training your body to support you, instead of relying on external supports like your furniture. You are discovering new ways of moving in space and new ways of using the earth’s support to hold you. Lying or rolling around on the ground for a few minutes is also a wonderfully restorative way to take a break from active tasks 😉

Another way to think about all three of these ideas, and this post’s advice in general: in addition to changing your relationship to the ground, by standing and/or sitting on the ground, you are also reducing your reliance on external supports like chairs and furniture. In these instances, try to stand on your own two feet (pun intended!), or if you’re on the ground, be upright without a backrest for as long as you can without fatiguing or collapsing into a unhealthy alignment. What you are doing is learning to support your own weight using just your body—something that you are designed to be able to do comfortably for long periods of time. Time to get squatting!

In my next post, I’ll talk more about “movement breaks” and how to get moving in low-intensity ways throughout the day.