In the course of researching and writing my book, Crooked: Outwitting the Back Pain Industry and Getting on the Road to Recovery, I met scores of people who told me that they liked—or even loved—their jobs and their colleagues. Still, they dreaded going to work, because it was hard to think about anything except how much their backs hurt.
More than once they’d ordered expensive new equipment, hoping to find a way to get out of pain. They’d raised their desktops to standing height, only to realize that being stuck on their feet all day made for cranky knees, hips and ankles. Many jumped on “the medical merry-go-round,” seeing chiropractors, physical therapists, pain management doctors and surgeons, desperate to find someone who could fix them.
They could have saved themselves a lot of time, trouble and money by changing their work habits.
I know, because in order to recover from back pain, I had to give up my addiction to sitting in my desk chair for eight or 10 hours a day. Yes, I exercised. Of course I did. But between workout sessions, I hunkered down like a hibernating bear in its den, with my fingers on the keyboard and my eyes on the monitor.
New research in the field of sedentary behavior science makes it clear that humans were not designed to remain in a static position for hours at a time. I like to compare it to keeping a sexy sports car idling, when what it really needs is the chance to rev its engine. .
Sitting still is deconditioning your muscles
Movement stimulates the circulatory system, delivering oxygen and other nutrients that muscles and ligaments need to stay strong, lean and flexible. Many chronic back pain symptoms emerge from muscles that are severely deconditioned; quite literally, sitting in a chair for hours leaves them starved for oxygen. Do it day after day and you’ll wind up with muscles that are flabby, lax and likely to fail when you need them the most.
And because moving is essential to maintaining metabolic health, those of us who are primarily sedentary (and that's everyone who sits at a desk for eight or more hours a day without working in at least 150 minutes of vigorous exercise per week) are primed to develop metabolic diseases, including diabetes and cardiovascular disorders. Moving frequently during the workday, in conjunction with periodic vigorous exercise, has been shown to substantially reduce these risks.
I hear what you’re thinking: Because you work out regularly, you don’t have to worry about deconditioning. Unfortunately, that’s wrong: studies have shown that even people in excellent shape (think astronauts, athletes and buff young men) quickly lose cardiovascular fitness and muscle strength if they don’t move for extended periods.
Leading pain doctors are now prescribing movement as medicine
Physician Heidi Prather is the director of the Orthopaedic Spine Center at Washington University Hospital in St. Louis, MO, and the founder of a new program called The Living Well Center, which focuses on providing true interdisciplinary care for people with chronic conditions, including back and joint pain.
Prather notes that for many years, employees seeking workers’ compensation related to an on-the-job injury would be reassigned to sedentary jobs, on doctor’s orders. This was standard operating procedure, and instead of leading to recovery, it often led to more disability. She'll no longer write such orders, Prather says, because these "work-related" injuries, especially those that result in back pain, are more frequently the result of deconditioning than they are of any specific trauma. There are accidents, of course—a box could fall on you or a front-loader could run you down—but typically, weak, degenerated muscles are the culprit, rather than a skeletal failure.
“So many ailments could be avoided if people moved consistently,” Prather said.
Prather now asks the employer to allow the “injured” patient to wear sneakers to work, and to leave her desk every fifteen minutes to take a spin around the building or a trip up and down the stairs. Prescribing movement instead of medicine or surgery reflects a major shift in how we understand health and fitness, says Prather, who expects to offer continuing medical education at the Living Well Center to other providers who are interested in changing the status quo.
But, seriously—you’re not going to do lunges or squats in the office, and neither am I. So how can we stay physically active and still get the work done?
Here are 5 easy ways to add movement to your workspace
1. Use a standing desk to fuel movement:
“When we treat patients with chronic pain, we often recommend that their employers provide sit-stand desks for medical reasons. We recommend that people use step-counters, and set timers on their mobile devices, so they get up every 30 minutes and move,” Prather says.
Since you are already on your feet at a standing desk, it’s easy to take a moment to roll your stiff shoulders, pinch your shoulder blades together and raise your arms overhead. This feels so good that it will quickly become a habit. If your office is conservative, try this. If real exercise fits the office culture, this is even better. At your standing desk, pose like a stork, with one foot off the ground, Your core muscles (contrary to popular belief, these circle your trunk from hips to shoulders and have nothing to do with a “six-pack”) will activate, and you’ll strengthen your glutes and pelvic muscles too.
2. Get your legs supported and your feet moving:
Ever spent a few hours looking at paintings, only to come down with a bad case of museum back and feet? The same thing happens when you stand for too long on a hard floor. I’ve found that the addition of a cushy anti-fatigue mat with an uneven surface that encourages me to stretch my ankles and calves is a huge help. The supremely coordinated (I am not a member of this club) will appreciate a balance board, allowing skateboarding-in-place in the office.
3. Raise your screens:
Compared to other species, human necks are quite inflexible. Looking down all day can lead to neck pain, tension headaches and migraines. Position your screen in front of your eyes, not the other way around, by adding a shelf or monitor arm to your adjustable sit-stand desk.
4. Get into an “active” chair:
Say goodbye to your old-school task chair, and replace it with a nimble seating option. Rocking stools, saddle seats and kneeling chairs are in this category. These active chairs develop core strength by requiring you to use your back muscles as you sit. They do not permit you to slump, which is good, because slumping can lead to “thoracic outlet syndrome,” a common source of shoulder pain. You’ll get along fine without “lumbar support,” that lump in the back of your chair that leads to slack back and gluteal muscles, tight hip flexors, and round shoulders—and pain.
5. Expand your comfort zone:
Most of us think of our desks, chairs and cubicles as our workspaces, but in reality, our professional territory extends much farther. Short of holding a dance party (not a bad idea) after the regular Tuesday morning meeting, here are some options for increasing activity, and reducing physical and mental stress while you’re on the job:
- Park “a mile away” from your office on purpose to start and end your day with some exercise.
- Get up to go to talk to a colleague, instead of emailing. If she invites you to sit down, be a trendsetter and keep standing.
- Take the stairs whenever you can. And if the stairwell is dark or uninviting, start a campaign to improve it.
- Take walking meetings. If you need to take notes, use a recording app on your phone to avoid forgetting the details.
Increasingly, your doctor can “prescribe” the office equipment you need to infuse movement into your workspace. And your employer should make the investment, because fixed assets, such as office furniture, qualify as a corporate income tax deduction.
No matter how you go about it, find a way to include more physical activity into your work life. It’s one of the best ways to tackle chronic pain.
“People get so hung up on the intricacies of what they’re supposed to be doing that they don’t do anything.” Prather says. “It really doesn’t matter how you move, as long as you move, because sitting in a chair all day is good for no one.”
Cathryn Jakobson Ramin is the author of Crooked: Outwitting the Back Pain Industry and Getting on the Road to Recovery, and also serves as an editorial consultant to Fully.
Photo credit: Howard Schatz