Having to stand all day at work can leave you stiff, sore and in a lot of pain. Here's why that happens and how you can fix it.
Do you get a familiar nagging pain in your back after you've been standing up for a while?
I know I do.
That annoying ache that makes your whole body feel uncomfortable.
It can make going to things like music concerts and sporting events where you have to stand a real pain (literally).
When this happens to me I can't wait for the relief of being able to get home (or into the pub!) afterwards to sit down and take a load off.
However while pain from standing at social events sucks, those that are forced to stand during their work day have it far worse.
Which is a big problem because having to stand at work is extremely common across many industries not just construction.
For example teachers, assembly line workers, doormen, healthcare professionals, supermarket cashiers, security guards, shop assistants (the list goes on) all need to be on their feet most of the day too.
Which is bad news for their backs.
As extended periods of standing have been shown to lead to the development of lower back pain.
Also studies have found that workers who stand for more than 4 hours continuously have a higher amount of musculoskeletal disorders than those that don't.
And it's not just back pain these workers are at risk from by standing all day.
As it can also lead to joint pain, lower limb fatigue and foot problems too.
Bad news right?
So if you are worried about the amount of time you have to spend standing read on and I'll explain why this pain happens.
And more importantly, what you can do to stop it.
Why Does Your Back Hurt When Standing?
There are many factors involved with developing lower back pain from standing and they all add their own nasty contributions.
So let's go through them one by one.
1. Increased Muscle Co-Activation
When you are standing your body is under constant pressure from the forces of gravity to keep your body upright..
And as a consequence certain muscles have to work a lot harder than normal.
This is especially true of your hip, trunk and gluteus medius muscles.
And an increase of muscle activation in these areas at the same time has been shown to lead to the development of lower back pain.
This happens because as they are forced to work harder together they are less able to offer support to your back.
Which means your back has to take more of the strain as you stand which leaves it sore, tense and painful.
2. Lower Limb Fatigue
Your leg muscles and tendons also have to work constantly to support your body weight as you stand.
Which means long periods of prolonged standing will result in these muscles and tendons becoming tired and fatigued.
And what doesn't help is that the blood supply to the legs reduces when you are stood up.
This means they don't get the right amount of oxygen and nutrients they need to stay healthy.
And this is bad for your back because fatigued lower limbs will again mean your back won't be receiving the right amount of support and will be put under even more strain.
3. Standing With a Bad Posture
Maintaining a healthy posture is vital for staying pain-free, whether you are sitting, standing or moving around.
This is because when your body is aligned and balanced (in a good posture) it can share the workload placed upon it evenly.
However when you stand or sit with a bad posture your body becomes unbalanced.
This leads to it having to compensate with some muscles having to work much harder than others.
And this extra strain results in greater pressure and strain on your lower back, muscles and joints.
Which will only ever lead to more muscle tightness and more pain!
Unfortunately many people stand with an awkward and unbalanced posture without even realising it, which makes standing far more painful than it should be.
Common mistakes include standing with your bottom sticking out, your stomach sticking out, your neck hanging forward or having a flat back and hunched shoulders.
However you can retrain your body to improve your posture and I'll go into that in a little while.
4. Having a Forward Tilting Pelvis
This one is an extension of standing with a poor posture and is increasingly common for people that sit or stand in the same position for hours each day.
Having a forward tilting pelvis (also known as sway back or Donald Duck syndrome) is when your stomach protrudes forward while your bottom sticks out (just like Donald!).
This is caused by tight hip muscles and weak stomach muscles, which is exactly what people who sit or stand in the same position at work are prone to develop.
And this combination of tight hips and weak abs forces the spine to curve out of shape.
Which is really harsh on your back.
Because it leads to muscle imbalances that force your lower back to work harder than it should.
And this will leave you with tired, tense, angry and painful muscles as you stand unless you can sort it out and neutralise your pelvis again.
5. Physical Inactivity
Our bodies are designed to move and regular physical activity throughout the day is vital for maintaining strong and healthy muscles.
However in the modern world so many of us live a life that is far too sedentary, especially during working hours when we are forced to sit or stand still for long periods of time.
And the problem with this is that when you are sitting or standing still your muscles will eventually weaken and tighten.
- Your range of motion to become restricted making you less physically able.
- Less flexibility and increased muscle soreness.
- Muscle imbalances to form as the body is forced to compensate for weakened muscles.
- An overworked lower back that doesn't get the amount of support it needs.
And the irony is that it's these problems that come from standing in the same position for a long time that will make it more painful to stand up in the future!
The trick is to keep our body moving throughout the day and I'll explain how you can do this in a moment.
6. Restricted Blood Flow
When you are standing for an extended period of time it can mess with your blood circulation, especially to your legs and feet.
And this is important because we rely on our circulation to deliver oxygen and nutrients to our muscles to keep them strong and healthy.
This is why you may experience muscle cramps, pain and inflammation in your lower limbs while standing.
Because muscles that are starved of oxygen and nutrients can't keep up with the physical demands placed on them while standing.
Now this will most commonly affect your legs and feet.
However the knock-on effect is that as your legs and feet become cramped and sore your lower back will have to work harder to maintain your balance.
So you don't just end up with leg and foot cramps, you get lower back pain too!
And unfortunately the pain doesn't stop there just yet.
Other Dangers Of Prolonged Standing
You are not only at risk of developing lower back pain by regularly standing for prolonged periods.
It can also lead to:
- Pain in your joints such as your knees and ankles.
- Tightness and pain in your neck and shoulders.
- Foot pain.
- Varicose veins.
- Muscle fatigue.
- Problems with circulation that can lead to dizziness, lack of concentration and energy, and shortness of breath.
And a recent study has also found that workers who stood for prolonged periods were twice as likely to get heart disease than those who sat down.
So if you have to stand at work you need to do something about it!
9 Ways To Prevent Back Pain When Standing
While standing up all day can be a real pain it doesn't have to leave you in pain.
By learning and practicing a few good habits you can take the pressure off your back and stand more comfortably.
So try to implement a few of the following tips and see if they help you.
1. Maintain a Good Standing Posture
As I mentioned previously, standing with a bad posture will put your lower back under all sorts of strain and pressure.
So you need to make sure you are standing with a healthy posture that spreads the workload evenly throughout your body instead.
It's all about staying aligned and balanced.
This way your body is able to function correctly and you don't run the risk of muscle imbalances or any compensating happening.
So as a rough guide aim for the following:
- Stand with your feet shoulder width apart.
- Contract your core muscles and keep your stomach in rather than allowing your belly to stick out.
- Stand up straight and keep your shoulders squared.
- Keep your head up rather than allowing your neck and shoulders to slouch forward.
Your ears, shoulders, hips, knees and ankles should all be in a straight line as you stand as if a piece of string was connecting them all.
To see if you are doing it right stand with your back against a wall.
The back of your head, shoulders and bum should all be touching the wall.
WikiHow have an article that goes into more detail about how you can improve your standing posture which you can find here.
Old habits can be hard to break but keep at it because over time your body will re-train itself to feel comfortable standing this way.
And this will have a massively positive effect for your back at work.
Just remember that standing with this new posture shouldn't feel stiff and tense so make sure you're relaxed as you try it out.
2. Take Microbreaks
The problems I've gone over already are not so much about standing in general but standing for long periods of time in the same position.
Standing still puts your muscles and joints under a pressure and strain that just builds and builds as they constantly need to be active to bear the load.
And there is nothing the body hates more than bearing the same load for an extended period of time.
So you need to find a way of relieving this pressure and tension and a great way to do that is by taking regular microbreaks.
These breaks give your body something new to think about.
So try to take a 5 minute break every half an hour to mobilise your body again and work out the tension.
Things like going for a walk or having a stretch will really help your muscles and joints to get moving again.
Plus it'll also get your blood circulating into your legs again which is great as this can get cut off when you are standing still.
And if your muscles feel really tired and you can't get away from your workstation then even a 5 minute seated break can help.
3. Shift Positions Regularly
Our bodies hate to be stuck in the same position for too long.
Muscles tighten and weaken from the inactivity and soreness and pain are then never far away.
So take an 'ants in your pants' approach when standing.
Instead of just standing still try and shift your position regularly as you stand.
Moving your weight from one foot to the other, using a foot rest to change leg positions and practicing small movements in your hips can really help to stop the build up of tension.
And this will also help your circulation.
Because rather than allowing the blood to pool in your legs and feet, by moving positions you can keep it flowing towards the muscles that are working hard to keep you upright.
This delivers oxygen and nutrients to them that allows them to keep working without getting fatigued and tense.
4. Stretch and Mobilise Your Body
I've already gone over this one briefly in the microbreaks section.
But it's so important that I think it deserves it's own section!
Because regularly stretching your body is one of the best things you can do to prevent and reduce your back pain.
When you're standing in the same position for so long your muscles can become shortened and weakened which makes them tight and sore.
And this can cause you many problems such as developing a poor posture and muscle imbalances that put your back under increasing strain.
However if you stretch your body out at regular intervals throughout the day your muscles become lengthened and strengthened instead.
Which is great for your back as it gives you:
- Increased flexibility throughout your body.
- A greater range of movement.
- An improved posture.
- Increased circulation.
- And a lower chance of picking up muscle strains and injuries on the job.
All of which will help to lower the strain on your back as you stand and reduce any back pain you are feeling.
Just make sure you stretch out your whole body and not just your lower back area as your body works as a whole and this will prevent any muscle imbalances from developing.
I've included the video below from Fitness Blender to give you some ideas of what kinds of stretches to do.
5. Stay Fit and Active Outside Work
Keeping yourself fit and strong by exercising regularly gives your back the strength and support it needs to be able to withstand the pressures of working on site.
And life in general.
This is so important.
Just 30 minutes of moderate exercise 3-4 times per week has been shown to lead to big improvements for people with chronic lower back pain.
So get active and try to work in a mix of stretching, strengthening and cardiovascular exercises for the best results.
- Stretching exercises like yoga and tai chi will increase your flexibility and lengthen your muscles.
- Strengthening your core muscles with exercises like pilates will give your back stronger support.
- Doing cardiovascular exercise like swimming, walking and cycling helps to maintain your aerobic fitness which is good for your heart and increases your muscle stamina.
It is good advice to be exercising regularly in general anyway but it will also help you out massively when you are standing at work.
It will also help you to keep your weight down which also lessens the load on your spine.
Don't put it off or make excuses.
Your back will thank you for it.
6. Alternate Between Standing and Sitting
I bet as you are standing there in pain you are dreaming of a nice, comfortable chair to plonk down into.
After all, life would be so much better if you could sit all day instead of stand right?
In fact prolonged periods of sitting are just as bad (if not worse!) than the same amount of time standing.
However the trick to beating back pain at work is to be able to combine both of them.
Now I know that this may not be an option for everyone as your job may not allow it.
But if there is a chance to be able to switch regularly between sitting and standing throughout the day it can make a big difference to the health of your back.
This gives you the best of both worlds.
Because your muscles remain active while standing but get some rest while sitting.
And this can prevent the muscle fatigue that comes with standing still too long and also the weakened muscles that comes from too much sitting.
However for this to work you need to get the sit-to-stand time ratio right.
One study found that spending 15 minutes sitting and 45 minutes standing every hour didn't help workers with their lower back pain.
However spending 40 minutes sitting and 20 minutes standing did have a positive effect.
Office workers have had great success with this in recent years by using sit/stand desks so if you have a chance to sit instead of stand for 40 minutes every hour take it!
7. Stand on an Anti-Fatigue Mat
As I mentioned before, standing on hard and inflexible surfaces such as concrete puts your feet, joints and body under enormous stress.
However if you have no choice but to stand on concrete during the working day a good way to improve the situation is by standing on an anti-fatigue mat.
These are thick and flexible floor mats that are gentler on your feet and lower limbs and allow you to stand more comfortably.
And they can help lower your back pain in two ways:
- They reduce the stress and shock on your body as you stand lightening the load on your lower back.
- They promote better blood circulation in your legs and feet which helps them get more oxygen and can help prevent lower limb fatigue which gives your back more support.
You also have the added advantage that using one of these mats will give you a better grip so you're less likely to suffer any slips or falls at work
So while anti-fatigue mats are not a miracle cure that will take all the pain out of prolonged standing they can help.
And if you're interested in trying one I'd recommend the Durable Corporation Industrial Anti-Fatigue Mat.
This has been designed for use in the workplace so is built to endure and it could just make your shift a hell of a lot easier.
8. Wear Supportive Footwear
Now you can probably guess that standing around in things like flip flops or high heels all day is going to give you back pain and foot problems!
But if you wear footwear that is comfortable, fits well, and has good arch support instead it can really help to keep your back and feet healthy.
And this is a big deal for construction workers.
Because unfortunately we have it even tougher than most when it comes to standing all day.
That is because we have to spend a lot of time at work standing around on concrete surfaces.
Which is a killer for our backs.
As concrete is such a hard and unforgiving surface that standing or walking on it forces your joints, feet and muscles to absorb all of the impact.
So to avoid this you need to be wearing footwear that can absorb these shocks, provide good arch support and fit well and be comfortable to wear all day.
And a good pair I'd recommend for this purpose is the Timberland Pro Endurance Work Boots.
These boots come with 'anti-fatigue technology' that takes the pressure off your joints and muscles as you stand, especially your lower limbs.
And they are extremely comfortable and supportive which is exactly what you want to keep your body balanced and your feet happy.
9. Stand on a Sloped Surface?
Now I'm not convinced with this one personally.
Because from my own experience I know that my back is screaming after standing on an uneven surface even for just a short amount of time.
But there is science to back up the benefits of standing on a sloped surface so I thought I'd include it and you can make up your own mind!
For example one study tested how small groups of workers would react to standing on a sloped surface (at a 16 degree angle) rather than a flat one.
And they found that the workers using the sloped surface had:
- Different pelvis and spinal postures while they stood that reduced the load carried by their lower back.
- Less hip and trunk muscle co-activation (which is a big cause of lower back pain when standing).
Both of these factors had a positive effect on the workers and the ones standing on the sloped surface had less lower back pain afterwards.
In fact many requested to keep using the sloped surface afterwards.
So there might be something in this!
And while I won't be rushing out to try this myself, if you do fancy investigating further the sloped surface they used to stand on in the study was the eQuilibrium Almond.
As you probably already know having to stand at work all day can wreak havoc on your back.
However you don't have to keep suffering.
By employing the tips in this article you could be well on your way to a more comfortable working experience and a happier and healthier back.
So don't stand for back pain at work. Do something about it today!
Resources used in researching this article: