How many hours a day do you think you spend sitting? The average American person sits for 13 hours day, which is roughly 80% of your waking hours. Sitting for prolonged periods has been shown to produce a wide array of health problems, including low back pain and neck pain. While sitting, you cause more force to be directed through specific parts of the lumbar spine (low back), primarily the discs and posterior ligaments, many times causing pain. In particular, sitting with a rounded back or slumped posture greatly increases the forces through these structures that can lead to degenerative disc disease, disc herniation, and other painful spinal conditions.
Many of us are required to sit for our occupation. Here are some helpful tips to counteract the harmful effects caused by prolonged sitting:
- If you must sit, do it properly: Sit with an elongated spine, with your buttocks slightly behind you, instead of under your spine. Your shoulders should be relaxed, back, and down. Your head should sit over your spine with your chin slightly retracted, not jutting. If you are working at a computer, try to have your elbows bent at 90 degrees and the screen positioned so that you don’t have to look up or down. I know this sounds like a lot of work, but don’t worry, you will get the hang of after a couple of tries! You don’t have to do this all day. It’s okay to move around a little such as cross a leg or lean back a bit for a few minutes. In fact, it’s good to change the tissues that are bearing the load by moving around.
- Move often: Studies have shown that just 20 minutes of sitting in a slouched posture can cause significant laxity in the ligaments of the low back. Get up and move every 20 or 30 minutes, even if it’s just to walk across the office to get that donut you’ve been thinking about all day. Wait, put down the donut.
- Sit on an exercise ball: Sitting on an exercise ball can help keep your muscles engaged and minimize some of the negative impacts of sitting. Just remember, it’s still possible to slouch on an exercise ball, so make sure you are engaging your core.
- Get a standing desk: Standing desks are becoming more and more popular and for good reason. Standing has many positive health benefits over sitting, including less stress to the back for most people (some conditions can be aggravated by standing). If you and your healthcare provider decide that a standing desk is a good idea, be sure to make the switch gradually, as new parts of your body are going to bear loads throughout the day and need time to adjust.
- Exercise throughout the day: If you work in a place where this is possible, set an alarm to do 5 minutes of exercise and stretches every 30 minutes. There are many simple exercises that are very effective for back health that can be done with minimal to no equipment or space needed such as squats over your office chair. These will be covered in detail in my next blog.
Remember that most spinal conditions do not occur overnight, they are the result of years of poor posture and/or thousands of repetitions of poor movement. These small corrective improvements in your daily routines can save you costly and painful back and neck problems in the future.