Before he became a chiropractor, Stephen Bizal of Newport Beach was--among other things--a competitive gymnast, a stunt man, even a "human torch," diving with his clothing afire into a pool of water for the entertainment of amusement park crowds.
Dangerous work, as Bizal can attest from the many injuries he suffered along the way, including a fractured pelvis and a head injury that brought on a bout of amnesia.
But there's something many of us do every day that can also be hazardous, even if it's nowhere near as flamboyant: We sit. And sit. And sit. Working on a computer, talking on the phone, taking part in staff meetings, all day every day, with hardly any respite except for a trip to the coffee machine now and then.
Crowds may never gasp at the sight of a worker hunched over a computer terminal but, Bizal says, in one sense that's even more risky than some of the spine-tingling stunts he used to do, precisely because we don't consider it so. We don't train for it, as athletes do with more obvious physical stresses. Nor do most of us compensate for it with other forms of physical activity.
"We spend a lot of time being mental creatures," he says. "More and more jobs involve computers. We're trying to be more efficient, and we've gone from a high-touch to a high-tech society. Most jobs are tied to intellectual abilities, not physical ones. And people are getting locked into less and less motion on the job."
The more mentally and emotionally stressful the job, the more dangerous extended sitting can be, says Bizal, who works at Personalized HealthandFitness in Newport Beach.
"When you're under stress," he says, "it causes the muscles of your back to tighten up, and that compounds the problem by cutting nerve flow."
In that hunched-over position, muscles cramp, nerves get pinched, lungs are unable to expand to full capacity and blood circulation is impeded. It's no wonder, he says, that office workers tend to get headaches on the job.
In addition to classic chiropractic cases such as auto accidents or sports injuries, Bizal says he's seeing more and more clients suffering chronic headaches, backaches and other problems brought on by extended sitting, poor posture and lack of exercise.
Bizal's interest in fitness to counteract stress goes back to the years before he even began his chiropractic studies, when he was a self-styled fitness trainer, working primarily with business executives.
For most adults, the trouble probably began long before computers became commonplace. We got into the habit of hunching over our desks way back in kindergarten, he says, learning to write our ABCs with those big round pencils. By the time our sixth-grade teachers started scolding us to "Sit up straight!" it was too late for many of us to unlearn that improper posture.
"Sitting places three times the stress on the lower back as standing," Bizal says. "After you've been sitting a while, as you get tired, you lean forward with your head, your shoulders start to round a little bit. Your body does what it can to compensate."
Today's children are learning bad posture even faster than their parents probably did. "They tend to sit around watching TV, playing video games--and that just adds to the problem," Bizal says.
"Our bodies weren't meant for this," he says. "We're supposed to be physically active. Our ancestors were hunters, fishermen, farmers. They used their back muscles every day. Now we don't."
Bizal may use the word "we," but he isn't including himself among those who don't get enough exercise. He works out at least an hour a day, six to seven days a week. "My workout regimen is part of my normal workday," he says. "I schedule it in, because it's important." Bizal divides his workout time about equally between weightlifting and cardiovascular conditioning on a bicycle or treadmill.
Even when he's seeing patients, he tries to avoid remaining in the same position for too long. When children come to the office, he treats them--and himself--to a handstand or two, just to make things more interesting.
Posture problems can be compounded, Bizal says, by factors such as vision problems, ill-fitting shoes, excess weight--even poor mattress support or sleeping in the wrong position.
"Sleeping on your back--on a firm mattress--is best for most people, with a little orthopedic support for your neck and knees," he says. "You can get into a nice neutral position on your side too. But sleeping on your stomach is the worst, because you have to torque your head off to the side or you'll suffocate. That can leave you in pain the next morning."
The best antidote to the problems caused by extended sitting is, logically enough, regular physical activity, Bizal says. Even just getting up and moving around from time to time during the day can help to some extent, but it's best to have some kind of regular workout.
Working out with weights can give tight, neglected muscles a much-needed challenge, he says. And aerobic exercise improves both lung and heart capacity, as well as improving circulation in the extremities.
Not only does physical activity counteract the effects of extended sitting, it can help relieve job-related stresses, Bizal says, by providing an outlet for the aggressions that can build up.
"We're physical creatures," he says. "You can't just think stress away. You've got to get up and move around and give your body the chance to do something about it."