There’s been a lot of media coverage of the queue to see the Queen lying in state at Westminster Hall. Most coverage has focussed on the length of the queue and the wait time, which is currently 24 hours! Queuing (or waiting in line for American readers) is usually associated with boredom and mental fatigue. However, queuing for hours is also physically demanding.
Despite expending more energy when we walk, the act of standing still and occasionally moving a few paces (i.e., queuing) can be much more fatiguing than walking or even running. People who have queued for 12 hours or more will probably feel like they’ve run a marathon by the time they leave Westminster Hall! I’ll briefly explain why…
Why do muscles fatigue when we are standing still?
To understand why standing still causes muscle fatigue it is helpful to have a basic understanding of how skeletal muscles produce movement. There are three types of muscle action: concentric (shortening), eccentric (lengthening) and isometric (producing force with no change in length). Movement involves a combination of these muscle actions but the absence of movement doesn’t mean the muscles are inactive.
When you are standing still, your body is not completely still or resting because your muscles are working isometrically, producing small amounts of force to maintain your balance and posture. Therefore, when we are standing still the leg muscles are constantly active, especially the muscles in the calves and feet.
The constant low level of muscle activation when standing still causes the leg muscles to become fatigued, which can have a knock-on effect on muscles in the upper body. For example, research in workers who stand for long periods indicates that fatigue in the lower limbs caused changes in posture, which placed more stress on muscles in the back. Anyone who has switched from working at a regular desk to a standing desk might have experienced this back pain.
Why is standing more tiring than walking?
Walking involves using more muscles, which distributes the forces across the leg and trunk musculature more evenly than standing still. Also, the alternation of feet during walking provides a brief period where one leg is unloaded (i.e., resting). To put this in context, when you walk for 30 minutes, each leg is active for around 15 minutes, whereas when you stand for 30 minutes, both legs are active for 30 minutes.
Prolonged standing can cause blood and other body fluids to pool in the lower body, which is why your ankles and feet swell when you’ve been standing for a while. However, this swelling doesn’t occur to the same extent when we walk or run because the contraction of the muscles aids blow flow back to the heart through a mechanism called the skeletal muscle pump. Basically, when muscles in the lower body contract this squeezes the veins thereby increasing blood pressure and venous return (blood flow to the heart). To use an analogy, this is like squeezing a carton of juice causing the juice to spurt out of the straw.
The summary above explains why the seemingly easy task of queuing is more physically demanding than it looks. I’ve not discussed the mental fatigue that also occurs when we stand still for long periods. You may have experienced the phenomenon of museum fatigue (aka gallery fatigue), which describes the feeling of physical or mental fatigue that occurs during or after a visit to a museum or gallery. Most theories for museum fatigue focus on the how focussing on different objects and reading for prolonged periods induces cognitive fatigue, but the act of queuing and standing still likely also contributes to the phenomenon of museum fatigue.
How can you reduce the physical strain of prolonged standing?
Choose your footwear wisely
Make sure you wear the most comfortable trainers or shoes you own. Avoid high heels, flip flops, and footwear with minimal cushioning.
Try not to stand stationary for long periods. This sounds unavoidable in a long queue but you can still move in a enclosed space by marching on the spot, doing some squats, leg swings, lunges etc. You can also do some simple static stretches. Perform each stretch until you feel light tension in the target muscles and hold the stretch for 30 seconds while taking deep breaths. You might feel a bit silly doing exercises and stretching in the middle of a queue but you’ll feel better for it!