The work of lawyers is often characterized as standing up for one’s client or sitting in judgment. But how well do we do both? The reality of law practice is that sitting—whether in judgment or otherwise—is how many lawyers spend much of their days.
Unlike other learned professions, such as medicine, architecture, or teaching—all of which have some movement built into the workday—many lawyers are relatively immobile. Sitting at work is not by itself a problem, but it can become one if the individual involved not only limits motion but allows the environment or the task to shape their posture—not always for the better.
Remember these five keys to better posture and better performance:
- First, avoid sitting for extended periods of time.
- Second, shape your work environment so that it helps your posture and does not harm it.
- Third, reshape your body with appropriate exercises to restore it to its natural balance and alignment.
- Fourth, exercise regularly but with due care to avoid injury.
- Finally, check your progress from time to time.
Avoid sitting for extended periods of time
Lawyers read, write, listen, and talk—and do most of this sitting down. To understand how much, check out your own sit-to-stand ratio. Do you sit to eat breakfast and drink coffee? What about during your commute to work? What about when you arrive at work and get to your desk? Maybe you stand up to get lunch or go for a walk around the office, but then back to sitting at your desk to finish the afternoon and the commute home. If you totaled the time sitting compared to other postures, what would it be? If the ratio is high, should you be concerned? The short answer is yes.
The negative side effects of extended periods of sitting are well documented. For example, extended sitting has been shown to increase cognitive impairment, the risk of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, metabolic syndrome, and obesity, and the risk of premature death.
The first remedial action is to break up your sitting time by getting up and moving at least every hour, or preferably more often.
Shape your work environment so that it helps your posture and does not harm it.
Get a desk where your computer monitor can be at eye level and invest in a good chair, so you have appropriate support. The interesting thing about our sitting time at work is that we can adapt our office to us. Installing ergonomic workplace equipment, such as adjustable chairs and desks, has been shown to help reduce musculoskeletal disorder symptoms. Ergonomics training sessions, which include mandatory time at standing desks, are shown to reduce both musculoskeletal and visual discomfort, which can arise from looking at screens for prolonged periods. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) has even created web pages centered on ergonomics, and computer workstations with proper sitting techniques, advice on evaluating and purchasing beneficial office equipment, and tips for setting up your work environment to work for you. (Those attorneys and staff with posture-related disabilities may find appropriately designed and outfitted offices to be important accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act if they are reasonable in the context, a subject beyond the scope of this article, but worth examining when relevant.)
But even with these considerations in mind, an irony of our modern life is that we may pay thousands of dollars on an automobile with good seating in which we spend maybe 10-12 hours a week; but then we arrive to sit in our offices 40+ hours a week without spending a fraction of that money for proper furniture and office design.
Reshape your body with appropriate exercises to restore it to its natural balance and alignment.
Good posture has even been shown to reduce the risk of deteriorating concentration and improve overall health, including reduced risk of musculoskeletal disorders. Clearly, it is worth investing in. How do we go about it?
Assess your posture.
Take front and side view photographs in a natural standing position, looking for abnormalities. From the side, your ear should be in line with your shoulder, which should be in line with your hip, which should be in line with your knee. From the front, your head should be level and facing forward, both shoulders should be even (with the dominant arm possibly lower), your pelvis should be level, your kneecaps should point straight ahead, and your toes should point forward. See the images below and compare them to yours. Even without a picture, a good quick check is to sit against a wall and see if your butt/lower back, upper back, and head can touch the wall at the same time. Make sure you don’t force yourself to do this, it should occur naturally. Chances are that you will see—or feel—opportunities for improvement.
Protect your spine.
Your spine is a curved set of small bones. When the natural curve is changed, problems can arise. The body works as a kinetic chain, meaning everything is connected. A spine issue can cause a hip problem, a hip problem can cause a leg problem, and a leg problem can cause a foot problem.
Look at the images below of where the head is sitting in relation to the spine. How often during the day is your neck being pulled forward, or to the side, by the weight of your head? Do you have “tech neck” from looking down at phones, tablets, or computer screens?
Therefore, the first rule of good posture is to do no harm, so start with your spine. Arrange your work environment, if you can, so that you are not holding your spine in unnatural ways, as in the images above.
Loosen the fascia.
Our muscles are held in place by a sheet of tissue called the fascia, which is a thin casing of connective tissue, almost like plastic wrap, under the skin. (For a more visual representation think of the white layer that encases the orange after you peel away the skin). When we are inactive or hold a position for an extended period of time, the fascia can become tight and cause problems. (For example, plantar fasciitis is a condition where the bottom of the feet become sore because the fascia is too tight.) A foam roller, a rolling pin, or a small hard ball, such as a lacrosse or tennis ball, can be used to loosen up tight fascia by rolling over areas of discomfort. (One easy way to use a golf ball for your feet is simply to keep one under your desk and take off a shoe from time to time and roll the bottom of the foot on it.)
The key is to remember that muscle and fascia influence the alignment of bones; muscles move bones, bones don’t move muscle. Therefore, good bone alignment, and subsequently good posture, are shaped by muscle and fascia.
Stretch or strengthen the muscles that need it.
Underneath the fascia are the muscles, ligaments, and tendons that tie our bones together, support them, or help them to move. Our bones align naturally when the muscles are in balance; sitting or standing improperly can cause some to become tight and others to become elongated. What follows are some exercises to help you feel better. (Note that more exercises are available to help your specific situation. The ones that follow are intended to help you get started.) While the images show the co-author in casual clothes, you can do many of these in your home or office.
Muscles to stretch for better posture.
Typically, if people have postural dysfunction, the following muscles tend to be tight or restricted:
- Hip flexors (front of thigh and pelvis)
- Latissimus (“lat”) dorsi (back muscle)
- Pectoral muscles (chest muscles)
Sitting for long periods of time can affect the hip flexor, as that muscle group is shortened when in a seated position. One of the hip flexors attaches to the lumbar vertebrae (low back), which is a reason why some people experience back pain from sitting too long. If the hip flexors are tight, you can see a reduction in the activation of the glute max (butt muscle). It is important to first stretch the hip flexor and then activate the glute muscle by doing the exercises below.
For example, a kneeling groin stretch will open these tight hip-related muscles. (Start with your left knee on the floor and right knee bent at 90 degrees. Stay tall, place your hands on your right knee, and lean slightly forward. Hold this for 45 seconds and repeat with the right knee down. You should feel this stretch in the thigh and hip area.)
The next exercise, a “glute bridge,” targets the hamstrings and glutes. (Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the ground pointed straight ahead, and your arms straight out to the sides, with palms facing up. Push your heels into the ground and lift your pelvis up, pause for one second, and return to the floor. You should feel the burn in your glutes and hamstrings, not your back. Complete three sets of 10 repetitions each.)
Next, a pose that will loosen up a tight back. (Begin by kneeling on the floor, with the knees, ankles, and feet together. Sit your body back, all the way down so that the buttocks rest on the heels. Roll the upper body forward and down to the floor, placing the arms straight above your head. Hold for the desired amount of time. Then reach over to your right so your left hand reaches 2 o’clock. Hold this position for the desired time. Then reach over to the left so your right hand reaches 10 o’clock. Hold this position for the desired amount of time. Try 30 seconds in each position.)
Another helpful stretch is the “pec doorway stretch,” where, as the name implies, you will need a doorway. Just as the hip flexors can become shortened from sitting for long periods, the muscles in our chest can become shortened from being hunched over, either from your desk or looking at your phone. A way to restore them to their normal length is through this exercise. (Stand in the doorway, raise your right arm to 90 degrees with your hand straight up, press your right elbow and hand against the doorway at shoulder height, step your right foot forward and lean your upper body until you feel a stretch in your chest. Hold this stretch for 30 seconds and repeat on the left side.)
Muscles to activate or strengthen for better posture.
The next step is to activate other muscles that may be weak or less used through light and easy exercise routines. You will need some exercise bands, which are a cheap but worthwhile investment if you want to practice good posture. Any kind of stretch bands will work for the band pull apart. For the band walk exercise, you will need to order “mini bands,” which can be found on Amazon. (Search “Gaiam Restore Mini Band Kit” on Amazon.) You should start with the lighter resistance and then work your way up.
The first exercise, “band pull apart,” targets weak mid-back muscles. From your pecs (chest muscles) being shortened your mid-back muscles may not activate the way they should. (Hold onto an exercise band, with palms face up and arms fully extended in front of you. Pull the band towards your chest, keeping your ribs in place, as you squeeze your shoulder blades together. Do not shrug your shoulders and you should feel the burn in your mid-back (between the shoulder blades). Complete three sets of 10 repetitions each.)
The final exercise, is called “band walks.” This exercise activates the glute med/min (lateral butt) muscle. This exercise helps stabilize the pelvis which in turn can affect the knees. (Put an exercise band around your ankles, stand with a slight bend to your knees with feet hip-width apart, and take a wide step to the right, keeping constant tension in the band. Focus on keeping hips steady, core muscles tight, and move laterally, without letting your feet come together. You should feel this exercise in the outside part of your glutes. Take five steps in the right direction, five steps in the left direction, and repeat for three sets.)
These simple, yet effective exercises will promote good posture and strengthen the muscles that can become weak from excessive sitting.
Exercise regularly but with due care to avoid injury.
When performing the above stretches and exercises, taking a break between sets will aid in recovery and prevent the dominant side from taking over. Ideally, you would perform these exercises daily, however, if that is not feasible, three days per week will be sufficient.
It is important to understand that our bodies have natural processes built in to prevent injury, of which pain is one. Do not undertake an exercise that is painful for you, as this may cause more dysfunction. Also, swift movement without a slow warm-up can cause the muscles to tighten to prevent movement and potential injury. Therefore, please take all of these recommendations as exercises you should start slowly and perform gradually. Increase duration before increasing intensity. We also recommend that you consult a physical therapist, professional fitness trainer, or athletic trainer before going into any exercise regime for the first time. While physical training has no formal licensure, at least two professional associations focus on evidence-based practices, such as the National Strength and Condition Association and the American College of Sports Medicine.
Check your progress from time to time.
How do you know if you are making progress? Go back and take your picture again and see how your alignment has improved. Seeing your progress can help you make regular posture exercise a beneficial habit to enhance your well-being.
Remember when you knew little about the law but learned more with education and practice. The same is true of your physical well-being that is a precondition for standing up for your client or sitting in judgment. Indeed, if there is one summary of our advice, it is to spend more time standing up for yourself so you can do better standing up for others.
About the Authors
Lisle Baker (firstname.lastname@example.org), is a law professor at Suffolk University Law School in Boston, MA, where he teaches a course in Positive Psychology for Lawyers, described in his article, Designing a Positive Psychology Course for Lawyers.
Carol-anne Hoffmann (email@example.com) is a Boston-area fitness professional who is an NSCA (National Strength and Conditioning Association)-certified personal trainer, Certified Functional Movement Screen Specialist – Levels 1 & 2, Pregnancy and Postpartum Corrective Exercise Specialist, and PROnatal certified trainer.
The authors gratefully acknowledge the help of Peter J. Scanlon ‘22, a student at Suffolk Law School, and Anna Katherine Wherren, a reference librarian at Suffolk Law School, in the preparation of this article.