For many of us, the sedentary nature of our work represents a significant challenge in the maintenance of our wellbeing. A 2018 survey found that the majority (81 per cent) of UK office workers spend between four and nine hours each day sitting at their desk – an act which can have such a negative effect on health that sitting has been dubbed “the new smoking”.
The reality of our working lives means that sitting behind a computer screen for extended periods of time is near-inevitable for a large proportion of us, but this isn’t to say that the associated health problems are unavoidable. Alongside some other good working habits, yoga can be used to alleviate some of the adverse health effects associated with sitting at a desk – contributing to everything from reduced aches and pains to a decreased risk of chronic health conditions.
The health impact of working at a desk
Sitting for extended periods of time is thought to affect our posture, mental health, and stress levels. It may also be a factor in other medical issues, such as cardiovascular disease and carpal tunnel syndrome. A large evidence base suggests that, regardless of calorie intake, hours of sitting is harmful – with researchers theorising that immobile muscles may lose the ability to metabolise fats and sugar as efficiently as they should, leading to high cholesterol.
In the 1950s, a study found that people with sedentary jobs were twice as likely as those with active jobs to develop cardiovascular disease, and more recent research links sitting more than three hours a day with a shorter life expectancy. But aside from these serious health concerns, many people find that working at a desk is simply uncomfortable – with the position putting strain on their upper body, shoulders and arms.
Sitting over a keyboard for hours can contribute to tightness in the hips and legs, in addition to neck, shoulder and back pain. This position can also cause or exacerbate poor posture, in which the back and shoulders hunch down and the neck protrudes forward. When combined with stooping over our phones during other parts of the day, we may find that we rarely sit or stand with our spine in alignment.
Yoga for desk workers
Yoga is a useful practice for those feeling the physical and mental strain of their working life for a variety of reasons. Firstly, the practice of yoga promotes flexibility – something which can become limited if we spend much of our time in one position. Our hip flexibility in particular tends to suffer when we work at a desk, but yoga gives us the option of focusing on these points of tension – relieving muscle stiffness before it develops into something more uncomfortable.
Another benefit of yoga is greater body awareness. Musculoskeletal problems can become established due to the way we unconsciously hold ourselves, but practising yoga makes us more aware of what our body is doing. For example, we may type at our desk with our shoulders hunched up towards our ears – a tense and uncomfortable position, or slouch forward with fatigue. With better body awareness, we can notice the unconscious changes to our position and posture (from clenching our jaw to tapping our feet) that we make through stress, tiredness or habit, and start to correct them.
A consistent yoga practice can also improve our strength as well as our flexibility – which in turn improves our posture. Strengthened core muscles make it easier to sit and stand with an aligned spine, reducing daily discomfort and even boosting our confidence.
Using mind-body practices such as yoga can also address any issues with stress we may be experiencing, by calming our minds and slowing racing thought patterns. Mounting research suggests that yoga has a positive impact on mood and is an effective way to reduce feelings of stress, depression and anxiety, making it a useful complementary therapy and self-help tool in the management of many mental health issues.
But it isn’t only in improved posture and mood that yoga can be useful – the practice is also associated with lower blood pressure, lower heart rate and lower cholesterol. Alongside this, the charity Diabetes UK reports that yoga is a “promising, cost-effective option in the treatment and prevention of diabetes, with data from several studies suggesting that yoga and other mind-body therapies can reduce stress-related hyperglycemia and have a positive effect on blood glucose control.”
Altogether, these benefits strongly indicate that yoga is a holistic, healthy and accessible way of addressing many of the short and long-term health problems that sedentary work appears to aggravate – whether they concern our physical or mental wellbeing.