Sitting down seems like a fairly harmless activity but did you know that it can be a big cause of lower back pain?
Have you ever found yourself working away on an outside job in the middle of winter and enviously looked through a window at an office full of workers sitting in the warm?
It sucks doesn't it.
There you are cold and aching while they sit there drinking coffee and typing away on their computers in comfort.
"It's alright for some" you might think to yourself.
Well not so fast because I'm going to tell you something now that may surprise you.
Which is that those office workers you are cursing under your breath may be at higher risk of developing lower back pain than you are.
Yes I know that sounds a bit off.
I mean how can grafting through a long shift be easier on your back than sitting in comfort all day right?
Well the answer to that is that our bodies are designed to move.
If we remain inactive for long periods of time things can start to deteriorate.
And sitting down for hours at a time is one thing that just makes this problem worse.
Which means as long as you are working sensibly, being on your feet all day can actually be far better for your back than sitting on your backside!
So let's give those office workers a break.
Because while it may look like they have a cushy little number going on, in some ways they actually have it worse than us.
Why Sitting Can Be So Damaging For Your Back
So what makes sitting for an extended period of time like office workers have to do so dangerous for their backs?
Well it basically comes down to three factors:
- When you sit down the vertebrae in your spine become compressed which can lead to a weakening of your spinal discs.
- Sitting down for a few hours at a time regularly will weaken the muscles that support your spine.
- Most of us tend to sit with a bad posture which increases the pressure and strain on your lower back.
Let's go through these one by one.
Compressed Vertebrae = Weakened Spinal Discs
In between each vertebrae of your spine you have a spinal disc which helps to keep your back healthy.
They work in 3 ways:
- As a ligament to hold the spine together.
- As an assistant to allow slight movements in your vertebrae which helps your mobility and flexibility.
- As shock absorbers to protect your spine from impact as you move around.
So as you can see these discs are pretty important!
But to stay healthy they need you to move.
They do this by expanding and contracting as you move around which allows them to take in the blood, oxygen and nutrients they need.
The problem is when you are sat down these discs become compressed.
And when they are compressed and squeezed in this way they can't take in any of these oxygen and nutrients so they begin to deteriorate.
Which is a massive problem.
As it leads to less flexibility in your spine, less shock absorbing protection as you move about and more pain and discomfort in your lower back.
And can even result in herniations, disc degenerative disease and other nasty disc-related ailments.
Weakened Muscles = Less Support For Your Spine
Certain muscles in your body play a vital role in keeping your back strong and supported.
Your back relies on your core, abdominal, groin, glute and hamstring muscles to help it manage it's daily workload.
So to maximise this support you need to keep these muscles strong, flexible and loose.
To do this you need to remain active and be moving around.
Because sitting down in the same position for hours on end will have the opposite effect.
It will cause your muscles to weaken and stiffen up which will mean less support and a higher workload for your lower back.
And this can also cause muscle imbalances in your body that can give you posture problems and pull your spine out of alignment.
Which will put even more pressure on your lower back and leave you in even more pain!
Sitting With A Bad Posture = More Pressure On Your Lower Back
Speaking of posture problems most of us have a habit of sitting with an unhealthy posture.
Whether that is lounging on the couch, using an unsuitable chair at the computer or curving our spine into a 'C' shape as we sit, this can be disastrous for our backs.
Because it adds pressure and strain onto your lower back which is the last thing you need!
In fact poor posture is a very common cause of lower back pain.
And it's not just your lower back that will feel the struggle from sitting with a bad posture as this will also likely lead to pain in your neck, shoulders and upper back too.
Other Problems Associated With Extended Periods Of Sitting
Unfortunately the bad news doesn't stop with back pain.
You may have heard the catchphrase 'Sitting is the new smoking' in the news over recent years.
This is because studies have found that regularly sitting down for extended periods can cause many more health problems than just a bad back.
For instance it can also lead to:
- Neck and shoulder pain.
- Problems with your hips and joints.
- A loss of bone mass over time from the lack of activity.
- Deep vein thrombosis and varicose veins due to poor circulation in the legs when sitting.
- Obesity as sitting slows down your metabolism.
- This slower metabolism also contributes to other problems such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and high blood sugar levels.
- Higher blood sugar levels increase the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.
- There is also an increased risk of suffering cardiovascular problems such as angina, chest pains and even heart attacks.
- A higher chance of getting prostate and breast cancer.
- A lower life expectancy.
As you can see there is some seriously scary stuff on that list.
Most of the more serious issues develop after years and decades of sitting in a chair for 6 or more hours per day.
However it's so important that you learn how to counteract these effects from sitting and make sure they don't happen to you.
So How Can You Sit Without Getting Back Pain?
Ok, it's all well and good me telling you the pitfalls of sitting and how bad it can be for your back and health in general.
But what can you do to stop it?
The answer may seem to be a simple one: Get off your arse and stop sitting down so much!
But for some of us having to sit down regularly may be unavoidable.
As some physically active jobs still require you to spend a few hours every day sat behind a computer screen.
However if this rings true for you don't panic!
Because there are things you can do to keep your back healthy while sitting at work.
Take Microbreaks Every Hour
The negative effects from sitting come from spending long periods in the same position and not getting enough movement in your body.
However one way around this is by taking a microbreak from your desk every hour.
Just 5-10 minutes out of your chair every hour is enough to negate the effects of the sitting and keep your body on the right track.
However just standing up and making yourself a coffee isn't enough.
You need to make sure you mobilise your body during these breaks to get the blood flowing again and to awaken your dormant muscles.
A good way to do this is by going through a stretching routine alongside having a short walk around your workspace.
And to make sure you never forget to stop for a microbreak (this is so easy to do!) I recommend downloading the Backache app to your phone.
This is great as it will send reminders through to your phone when you need to take a break and these reminders are accompanied by videos of physiotherapist recommended exercises that you can do to get your muscles and joints moving again.
So you'll know when you need to stop and exactly what to do when you do!
You can download it below:
Regular stretching is an absolutely vital part of managing your back pain and keeping your body healthy.
And it's even more important to do if you have to sit down for a few hours each day.
Because when you sit your muscles are inactive and this causes them to become tight and constricted.
And this not only causes pain, it can also lead to muscle imbalances and force your body into a hunched and unhealthy posture that adds pressure onto your lower back.
However by remembering to stretch your whole body regularly (do it on your microbreaks) you can lengthen and strengthen your muscles instead which will keep them loose and healthy.
And this will:
- Increase your overall flexibility.
- Improve your posture.
- Increase your circulation.
All of which mean less strain on your back and less pain.
For an idea of what stretches to do check out this video from Fitness Blender:
Maintain A Healthy Sitting Posture
It's really important to maintain a healthy posture as you sit to take the pressure off your lower back.
The problem for so many of us is that we've gotten into some really bad sitting habits which mean we sit with a slumped and hunched posture that is a disaster for our backs.
And if you sit with an unhealthy 'C' curve in your spine it throws your back and neck out of alignment, adding pressure and strain onto your back, neck and shoulders.
So you need to try and maintain a more natural and healthy 'S' curve in your spine instead.
Some tips on how to do this are in the video below:
And try to incorporate the following:
- Keep your feet flat on the ground and make sure your knees are bent at a 90 degree angle.
- Maintain a slight arch in your lower back rather than letting it flatten against the chair.
- Keep your head up by looking ahead at the screen rather than down.
- Don't slouch or lean forward as you work.
And maintaining a healthy posture as you sit is not just good for getting rid of back pain. It will also:
- Improve your breathing which helps your body to relax and relieve stress and tension.
- Balance your body so that the strain is divided equally rather than your lower back becoming overloaded with it.
- Improve your mood and mental performance, so it's good for your productivity too!
So next time you are sat at a desk sit up straight (just not too straight!).
Stay Active Outside Of Work
Staying active is the best thing you can do to maintain a strong and healthy back and this has been shown in many scientific studies.
For instance one such study found that people with chronic lower back pain that exercised for 30 minutes to a moderate intensity 3-4 times per week experienced less pain, a better range of motion, an improved mood and better general well-being.
So that's a pretty good advertisement for staying active!
And it's a great thing to do because it:
- Strengthens your muscles which provides more support for your lower back.
- Increases your body's flexibility which will result in less muscle pain and tightness.
- Improves your circulation which will help your sore muscles to heal.
- Releases endorphins which make you feel happy and work as the body's natural painkiller.
So what kind of activities should you be doing?
But as a rule of thumb you need a mix of the following:
By doing this you are creating a strong and supported back that will help you to stay healthy and pain-free while sitting at work.
Use An Ergonomic Desk Chair
A big cause of lower back pain at work is when you are forced to use a crappy, cheap, one size fits all desk chair.
Not only are these chairs uncomfortable and lacking in support, they force you to sit with an unhealthy posture that adds so much pressure and strain onto your spine.
Which is a disaster and can make each day at work a tortuous experience.
So if that sounds familiar you should consider upgrading to an ergonomic office chair instead.
These chairs are designed to be fully adjustable (height, seat, arms, tilt angle) so you can fine tune it to fit your body and workstation like a glove.
And they also come with built in lumbar support that will help you to maintain a good posture throughout the day.
Other benefits include:
- Taking the strain off your back, neck and shoulders.
- Keeping your core muscles active while you sit.
- Allowing you to sit in greater comfort throughout the day.
So I'd thoroughly recommend getting an ergonomic office chair if you spend a lot of time behind a desk.
Use A Sit/Stand Desk
As you are aware by now sitting down for long periods is not a great idea.
So changing position regularly through things like stretching at your desk, taking microbreaks and going for a little walk are all great for breaking up the sitting.
And another way to do this that is trendy right now is by using standing desks instead.
I mean if you don't have to sit at all then problem solved right?
However the bad news here is that standing all day can be just as bad for you as sitting because it can:
- Put extra strain on your muscles and joints.
- Cause muscle fatigue in your legs and lower limbs.
- Be a cause of long-term lower back pain.
Seems like you just can't win eh?
However a solution to this problem is to alternate between sitting and standing throughout the day.
In 2011 one study found that office workers who alternated between a sitting and standing desk reduced their back and neck pain by 54% in 4 weeks.
Pretty impressive stats.
This works because by mixing it up your muscles remain active and strong during periods of standing yet don't suffer from fatigue or weakening as you rest during periods of sitting.
And this not only helps your back stay healthy and pain-free, it can also:
- Lower your risk of heart disease and diabetes.
- Burn calories which reduces the risk of obesity.
- Help to improve your mood.
- Make you more productive.
So if that sounds good and you are interested in trying a sit/stand desk for yourself I'd recommend checking out the Varidesk Height Adjustable Standing Desk.
This desk has 11 different height settings so you can adjust it to the perfect height to suit you.
Aim to spend 20 minutes of standing following every 40 minutes of sitting to get the balance right.
I hope this article has given you new found respect for office workers and the lower back pain warriors that they are!
Because sitting all day is a tough gig.
Not only can it cause you to get back, neck and shoulder pain, it can also lead to far more serious problems such as cardiovascular disease.
However by taking the following steps you can protect yourself against this evil:
- Take microbreaks every hour.
- Stretch your body out regularly.
- Maintain a healthy sitting posture.
- Stay active, fit and strong by exercising outside work.
- Sit in an ergonomic office chair.
- Use a sit/stand desk.
Hopefully by employing a few of these tactics you can make back pain when sitting a thing of the past.
Resources used in researching this article: