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Sitting Is The New Smoking (And The Lungs Of The Lower Back)

in YogaDork Ed

by Lisa Sanson

Figure 1. Photo courtesy of Jill Miller and Victory Belt Publishing from The Roll Model - A Step by Step Guide to Erase Pain, Improve Mobility and LIve Better in Your Body

Figure 1. Photo courtesy of Jill Miller and Victory Belt Publishing from The Roll Model – A Step by Step Guide to Erase Pain, Improve Mobility and LIve Better in Your Body

“Sitting is the new smoking”? Yes, I am suggesting that sitting negatively affects your deep low back muscle, the quadratus lumborum (QL), just as smoking negatively affects the lungs, and both can create dis-ease/disease in the body. In this analogy, the QL can be thought of as the lungs of the lower back.

The QL is a flat sheet of muscle that sits deep in the back waist on either side of the spine and runs from the posterior iliac crest to the 12th rib. When both sides contract, the QL extends the lumbar spine, when one side is contracted it laterally flexes the spine, and if the upper body is stabilized it will elevate one hip. The latter action gives the QL the nickname “hip hiker,” as this action lifts one side of the pelvis when stepping over a log or simply creating space for one leg to swing ahead of the other when walking.

The QL plays an important role in stabilizing the lumbar spine, an area that is highly susceptible to pain and discomfort, so the strength and flexibility of these muscles is vital in maintaining a healthy spine.

Just as smoking can harm the lungs, sitting can impede optimal functioning of the QL. If you allow your lower back to round, which is what tends to happen during sitting, the QL is in constant state of flexion. This persistent and long held over lengthening decreases overall tonicity of the entire muscle. Being that the QL is a major player in stabilizing the lumbar spine, this can certainly create vulnerability and weakness in your lower back.

If you are in the habit of watching your posture as you sit you still run the risk of stressing out the QL because of the QL’s relationship to the psoas, your deepest hip flexor. When seated, the psoas is in a shortened position, which requires the QL to step up support of the spine. The overwork of the QL is amplified if sitting entails hunching over a computer and rounding of the upper spine and shoulders places even more stress on the QL. This overuse leads to muscle fatigue and weakness with decreased blood flood the area.

If “sitting is the new smoking,” then sitting crossed legged is like smoking an unfiltered cigarette, creating even greater negative repercussions as the QL continues to over work trying to stabilize the spine and hike one hip, quite possibly resulting in debilitating muscular imbalances. A final point drawing this parallel of sitting/smoking and lungs/QL is considering that the QL assists in respiration by fixing the 12th rib in place when the diaphragm contracts on a forced exhalation.

Suppleness and health in the QL can allow for a full, more powerful breath and muscle dysfunction inhibits optimal breath. Maybe I should have opened with that point – WOW.

Figure 2. The boomerang stretch is a wonderful way to introduce movement and stretch into your QL,  obliques and other side tissues.

Figure 2. The boomerang
stretch is a wonderful way
to introduce movement and stretch into your QL, obliques and other side tissues.

I took up smoking, I mean sitting, when I entered grad school and instantly my lower back was not amused. For the most part, I am aware of my posture as I sit. However, as I recently discovered, sitting for long periods of time can create lower back pain even with good posture. The longer I sat, the more fatigued I became, inevitably allowing my upper spine to hunch over the keyboard, thus shifting my weight forward and putting even more stress on my QL.

There is hope! With targeted self-massage into the QL and a specific low back stretch, I found relief. The video below demonstrates a super easy lower back and side stretch that can be done on the floor. As boomerang stretches one side of the lower back, it compresses the other and this compression facilitates muscle toning with increased circulation. Whether you need stretching or toning to achieve lower back health, boomerang delivers.

P.S. If you sit in an office and would rather not lie on the floor for boomerang, take it to the wall – MAGICAL!


Lisa Sanson is an E-RYT a certified Yoga Tune Up teacher and Foundation Training student instructor.  With graduate studies in Counselling Psychology Lisa is able to integrate knowledge of the mind as she guides students through explorations of the body.  She believes that awareness of the mind/body connection offers an effective path to wellness.  Interweaving anatomy, psychology and yogic philosophy, Lisa strives to create an easy-going atmosphere where students are encouraged to experiment with traditional and innovative poses working to find a balance of strength and ease in the body and mind. www.sansonyoga.com



15 comments… add one
  • Jerome

    That’s a very nice side stretch there in the video, a reclining half moon.

  • Sedentary lifestyle is definitely dangerous for our health. It decreases our lifespan and increases our risks in mortal diseases. It is important that we should promote more body movement and coordination to fight this disease!

  • I like your explanation and analogy. Thinking of the muscles as the lungs of the lower back helps us to appreciate the importance in our overall physical wellness. The video was clear and well explained – will be sure to try out that one and recommend it to those who might need it! Perhaps you can examine the pros/cons of sitting on the ground, perhaps in easy pose/perfected pose. I have found for myself that working on my sitting posture on the ground has made me so much more aware of how modern chairs have a really awful impact on the body. For me there is nothing more rewarding than being able to sit comfortably and at ease for my meditation. Thanks again!

  • Great study. I spend a lot of time at the computer each day. I now use a stand desk. start with an hour at a time, then increase the amount of time as your feet and legs get used to standing.

  • M

    Great post! I’m very active in my personal life (taekwondo, swimming, yoga) but have a very sedentary job. The two extremes can be tough on my back…in fact, right now I am typing this from my bed because I’ve thrown my back out for the third time. Once I’m able to move again I’ll definitely be trying out these gentle stretches.

  • Zazie

    I’m sorry to be negative, but I feel like someone’s gotta call it out? This post is gibberish. First, yeah, excessive sitting is bad, but…don’t we have to sit to, like, meditate or something? And like that’s related to yoga??? Or something?

    Second, there is nothing really special about the QL! It has no magical properties and it isn’t killing folks in their sleep, er, at their desks. It definitely feels great to stretch it, though… but you don’t need a “boomerang” to do so. Parsvakonasana and janu sirsasana — some of the most commonly taught poses out there — do a great job.

    Okay. I know only a little more anatomy than the average Joe or yoga teacher. I’ve never taken an anatomy course. But I do know that the author knows even less than I do.

    “If you allow your lower back to round, which is what tends to happen during sitting, the QL is in constant state of flexion.” Nope. Extension. “This persistent and long held over lengthening decreases overall tonicity of the entire muscle.” Oh, it’s over lengthening now instead of flexion. Ok. Tonicity IS a word, but it relates to chemistry, not biology; I’m going to assume the author meant “tone.” But muscle tone is what ALLOWS us to sit, stand and maintain any posture! Sitting cross-legged is an unfiltered cigarette…debilitating muscular imbalances….lions…tigers….bears…

    I won’t go on; I think I’ve made my point. This post is BS. Assuming the audience is a community of mostly yoga teachers, we should all be educated enough to know that it is BS. If the author wants to self-promote, which is great, she should take it down, rewrite it to make sense and be factual, and republish it. If the blogger wants to remain credible (and I’m really sorry to hate because I DO support YD and think it’s awesome), she should consider taking it down. Or at least reply??

  • Diane Summers

    I was wondering if anyone has had lower back problems while meditating? I’ve tried sitting on the pillows , but it’s just too soft. I love meditation and the benefits I receive from it but my back is killing me! help please.

    • Dave

      To: Diane Summers
      I always feel kind of sad when I hear these things. Yoga should never hurt. No exceptions. Ever.
      Do you know the reason for the pain? Maybe see a good doctor to be certain. If his/her answer is writing a prescription for drugs then maybe not such a good doctor.
      Can you meditate lying down?
      Maybe include some torso lengthening and strengthening in your practice. Child Pose, cat-cow, Boat Pose, Locust Pose, many others.
      There is endless resources available in yoga for back problems. It is important to know what the problem is and then find the proper help. It is usually weak and short muscles but you have to know that for certain before proceeding.

    • Pain in the back means your body is misaligned. You must maintain the four natural curves of the spine with the skull balanced on top. It could be that your skull is sitting forward of the spine and your knees are higher than your hips which will cause your lumbar spine to flatten and compress creating a tense locked out long painful back. If the knees are at the same level as your hips when sitting, the flexor chain in the anterior body will shorten which will cause the lower back sacral area to flatten and compress. When sitting cross-legged, you need to sit on something firm and get your hips at least 4 to 6 inches higher than your knee caps. Balancing on your ischial tuberosities ( sit bones) will keep you aligned and the hips need to be higher than your hips to achieve this . Another good way to maintain natural spine alignment that will release back tension that I use in YogAlign is to place 2 yoga blocks under your sit bones while you are in vajrasana or the kneeling on top of your feet position. This is an excellent way to meditate as it is much easier to maintain upright spine alignment than when sitting cross legged. It is important that your hips are elevated higher than the knee caps by using the blocks even if you can sit easily without pain in the ankles or knees. Without the blocks, your spine will collapse and the extreme flexion of the knee will loosen the stabilizing ligaments over time. Also you can meditate by sitting on the edge of a chair but place blocks in the seat of the chair so that your hips can be at least 4 inches higher than your knees. Some say one must be sitting to meditate but I think you can even do it lying down in a side lying position with a pillow between your thighs and under your head to keep your spine aligned but watch out for the yoga police.

  • Muscles can only do one thing; contract. A muscle cannot flex or go into flexion because this term is to explain what a joint does. Your knee flexes or extends and muscles contract to make this happen. Basically when a nerve impulse signals a muscle to contract, joints can extend or flex depending on the action you are doing.
    If one has forward head carriage or does a lot of yoga forward bends, the QL is actually in need of contracting it to shorten because going forward creates a long tense and weak muscle QL. Oddly enough, the QL is actually considered the deepest muscle of the abdomen. But no matter what or where you call it, the QL in most people who do yoga forward bends like janu sirsana , is locked out long and tense. The more one bends forward and flexes the spinal column, the more tense and stressed the QL and other back extensors become. The answer is not stretching the Ql but to activate it when the body is in an upright posture to recreate balance and synergy. See http://www.yogalign.com for more information

  • Did the writer take the Therapeutic Yoga for Seniors training at Duke University? Because I heard “Sitting Is The New Smoking” from Duke U doctors two years ago in that training. Not a new concept.

    To Diane Summers: try sitting in a chair while meditating, like a straight back chair. Sitting on the floor for meditation is not an absolute. I do vipassana retreats where we must sit for 2 hrs at a time meditating — many people sit in chairs.

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