What is the effect of prolonged sitting and physical activity on thoracic spine mobility? An observational study of young adults in a UK university setting

Nicola Heneghan, Gemma Baker, Kimberley Thomas, Deborah Falla, Alison Rushton

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OBJECTIVE: Sedentary behaviour has long been associated with neck and low back pain, although relatively little is known about the thoracic spine. Contributing around 33% of functional neck movement, understanding the effect of sedentary behaviour and physical activity on thoracic spinal mobility may guide clinical practice and inform research of novel interventions.

DESIGN: An assessor-blinded prospective observational study designed and reported in accordance with Strengthening the Reporting of Observational Studies in Epidemiology.

SETTING: UK university (June-September 2016).

PARTICIPANTS: A convenience sample (18-30 years) was recruited and based on self-report behaviours, the participants were assigned to one of three groups: group 1, sitters-sitting >7 hours/day+physical activity<150 min/week; group 2, physically active-moderate exercise >150 min/week+sitting <4 hours/day and group 3, low activity-sitting 2-7 hours/day+physical activity <150 min/week.

OUTCOME MEASURES: Thoracic spine mobility was assessed in the heel-sit position using Acumar digital goniometer; a validated measure. Descriptive and inferential analyses included analysis of variance and analysis of covariance for between group differences and Spearman's rank correlation for post hoc analysis of associations.

RESULTS: The sample (n=92) comprised: sitters n=30, physically active n=32 and low activity n=30. Groups were comparable with respect to age and body mass index.Thoracic spine mobility (mean (SD)) was: group 1 sitters 64.75 (1.20), group 2 physically active 74.96 (1.18) and group 3 low activity 68.44 (1.22). Significant differences were detected between (1) sitters and low activity, (2) sitters and physically active (p<0.001). There was an overall effect size of 0.31. Correlations between thoracic rotation and exercise duration (r=0.67, p<0.001), sitting duration (r=-0.29, p<0.001) and days exercised (r=0.45, p<0.001) were observed.

CONCLUSIONS: Findings evidence reduced thoracic mobility in individuals who spend >7 hours/day sitting and <150 min/week of physical activity. Further research is required to explore possible causal relationships between activity behaviours and spinal musculoskeletal health.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere019371
Number of pages6
JournalBMJ open
Issue number5
Early online date5 May 2018
Publication statusPublished - 5 May 2018


  • Sedentary behaviour, physical activity, thoracic spine, spinal mobility, spinal pain


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