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Sitting straight isn’t enough for your back’s health

It's time to stand up and take note

By Mihika Pai  September 2nd, 2016

Here’s a real first-world problem: Besides the pain caused by unrealistic deadlines and annoying co-workers, more and more people are dealing with actual physical back pain caused by their workplace. According to WHO’s Global Burden of Disease study in 2010, lower back pain is the leading cause of disability worldwide and the most common reason to skip work. You would assume that it’s caused by an accident or by lifting something heavy, but sitting at our desks is actually far more lethal. It puts pressure on your entire spine— from the neck to the lower back, especially if you’re pulling 10-hour work days or spending too much time binge-watching TV. I still remember the stiffness in my neck and shoulders after the long days spent glued to my computer at my last full-time job. I didn’t give it much thought at first, but shortly after I quit, the situation became aggravated as the pain radiated down my arm and the rest of my back. A visit to the orthopedist revealed a herniated disc in my neck; I was not a happy trooper. Are you at risk too?

Are you sitting too much?
“In evolutionary terms, sitting on a chair is a modern posture for the human form,” says Keerti Mathur, osteopathic physician at the Gait and Posture Centre in London. The disks in our back are designed to expand and contract with movement, but in a sedentary position they compress and lose flexibility over time. Sitting in a chair may feel comfortable, but your spine loses its natural curve and the back muscles tense up to support this posture over a long period. Plus, leaning forward towards your computer or slouching is akin to slow death for the muscles. The bottom line? “Move it or lose it,” says Mathur.

Is exercise the answer?
It’s not easy to work off the damage with an hour-long workout every day. Mathur says, “All that sitting shortens your hamstrings, stretches the spinal tissue and compresses cervical joints. When you hit the gym, the same muscles are stressed even further.” This, to me, literally sounded like the straw that broke the camel’s back. After months of being sedentary with a stiff back and only a short evening walk for exercise, my pain intensified after just one session of high intensity aerobics. Even when the initial inflammation subsided with medication and bed rest, I couldn’t move or rotate my left arm and shoulder without feeling a sharp ache. And it took me four months to get back to any form of exercise. Yoga is helpful here; it allows your muscles to loosen when needed. Similarly, the correct warmup routine signals stiff muscles to relax and eases them into movement without any injury.

How do you stop it?
If a standing desk isn’t an option, pay attention to your posture and seating arrangement, and move away from your desk as often as you can. To start with, keep your spine erect, shoulders relaxed, feet flat on the floor and knees in line with hips. Choose a chair that supports the spine’s natural curve, keep your monitor at arm’s length and your keyboard within easy reach. Cradling the phone between your ear and shoulder is also a huge no-no. “It compresses the cervical joints in your neck and increases stress on the shoulder,” explains Mathur.

Can we fix what’s broken?
If the damage is already done, then preventive measures aren’t enough. First, visit a doctor who can diagnose your problem correctly. For me, recovery involved a few weeks of bed rest and painkillers. I followed it up with months of physiotherapy that I practice at home even today, and traditional remedies like heat therapy using a hot-water bag and Chinese cupping (suction therapy) to ease the muscles. When I got back to a regular exercise regimen, my trainers were very attentive and eased me into a routine that worked for my back. I don’t have a full-time desk job, but every time I feel the twinge it reminds me to sit up straight, place my laptop at eye level and go for a quick stroll.


At your desk
Pilates instructor Namrata Purohit draws up an embarrassment-free desk workout

Elbow squeezes to relax the back
Lift your arms out to the sides at shoulder-level. Keep elbows bent and palms facing forward. Slowly exhale and bring the elbows in front of you, squeeze them together, then inhale and go back to the starting position. Repeat this 10 to 20 times.

Leg extensions for core strength
Sit on a chair with your back straight, engage your core and exhale as you lift one foot off the ground by a few inches. Then inhale and lower it back down. Alternate for 10 to 20 counts on each leg.

Standing abductions to strengthen the lower body
Stand by your desk, squeeze your gluteus— exhale as you lift the leg out to the side and inhale when you lower it. Repeat for 20 counts on each leg. Next, squeeze your gluteus, exhale and lift the leg as far behind without leaning forward. Inhale and bring it back. Repeat the back-kicks for 10 to 20 counts on each leg.