Travel often means spending prolonged periods in a seated position. Aside from being absurdly uncomfortable, extended bouts of sitting can cause health issues including blood clots, nerve problems such as numbness or tingling, muscular atrophy in some parts of the body, and muscular tightness in others.
It took millions of years for the human body to develop its upright standing posture, evolving biological mechanisms to battle the force of gravity — in fact, human bodies actually utilize gravitational force for their benefit when they walk. To illustrate, imagine a spring resting on a table. You push down on the spring to ‘load’ it. When you let go, it releases all of its stored energy and pops up. In this analogy, you are the spring and gravity is your hand pushing down. Every time you take a step, gravity pushes on you, in essence compressing you like a spring. Due to your various joint alignments, muscle tensions, and directions of pull, this creates a ‘loaded’ spring effect that the body uses to propel you forward from step to step. This is why you can walk for miles, but can only do biceps curls with a 10lb weight for a handful of repetitions.
Your body, built for standing and walking, comes under severe strain when you sit for long periods. Hip flexor muscles get tight. Glute muscles stop functioning. Chest muscles tighten and the whole upper body collapses down and forward, causing tightness and immobility of the mid-back region of the thoracic spine.
Implementing a quick stretch regimen can offset much of the detrimental consequences of sitting. Try adding the stretches below to your post-travel routine when you get to your hotel or final destination. While the videos feature the use of a medicine ball, you can use a bench, chair, or bed as a substitute for this workout tool.
1. Lunge stretch
Hip muscles control and assist with many movements of the body. Since sitting puts these muscles in a flexed and compressed position, this stretch should be done first in the series. It’s also a good one to do if you have a layover between flights.
Additional note: If you often travel or exercise on a bike, don’t forget that all that sitting in the saddle will have similar consequences on the hip region.
2. External rotator stretch
The glutes are arguably the most important muscles of the body. When functioning optimally, they keep your lower back healthy by doing most of the work during activities such as running and lifting. Lower back muscles are just too small and not oriented in a way that allows them to significantly contribute to athletically demanding tasks. Ironically, people with bad lower backs typically have stronger lower back muscles than those with healthy lower backs. When the small muscles of the lower back do too much work, they are overloaded beyond their capabilities, resulting in injury.
Sitting is the easiest way to ruin glute function. When you stretch them regularly, you help improve circulation to an area that is constantly being compressed. The result is softer muscles that function much better.
3. Chest stretch
The pectoral muscles may get a lot of attention in the gym, but they rarely receive the stretching they deserve. Over time, your body gets ‘stuck’ in that slumped seated position largely due to the increasing tightness in the two major muscles of the chest area: the pectoralis major and pectoralis minor.
Next time you get a post-travel massage, request some pec work. You might experience some tenderness, but it’ll be worth it. In the meantime, this stretch will surely help. Stretching the pectoral muscles can also assist in opening your chest and taking tension out of your upper back and neck.
4. Thoracic spine mobility exercise
The all-important thoracic spine is the middle part of your spine, between the cervical spine of the neck and the lumbar spine of the lower back.
The thoracic spine is built for mobility, and lots of it. When people continually slouch forward, their posture alters over time, with the result being that the thoracic spine loses much of its inherent flexibility. With an immobile thoracic spine, basic human movements that require significant contributions from the thoracic spine now must utilize other parts of the body.
Try this experiment: Sit up nice, tall, and straight in a chair. Rotate your upper body left and right. Now, slouch your shoulders and head down and repeat. Ouch. Over time, this spells disaster for other parts of the body, like the neck and lower back.
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Luke Sniewski is one of the emerging leaders in the Sustainability Movement, since optimal personal health ultimately stems from optimal environmental health. A former Pro-Football player and CPA, this suit-and-tie left cubicle world to change the world one person and idea at a time. He is a micro-greens gardener, which puts his Masters in Sustainable Food Systems and professional culinary expertise to practical use. His motto “Healthy Living. Smart Business. Endless Fun.” has provided a personal mission statement that guides his coaching, training, speaking, writing, and living. Follow him on Twitter. (@LukeSniewski)