If you have back pain, you are not alone. It is the most common job-related disability and a leading contributor to missed days at work. More than 25% adults suffer from a back pain incident, at least once in 3 months.
If you belong to the vast majority of people who have a fixed desk jobs (80% as per latest statistics), then you probably also suffer from poorly developed muscle groups in your back.
Sitting is the New Smoking
Smoking was once socially acceptable and allowed at workplaces. Considering that workplaces are high-stress environments, it can be assumed that stressful work environments were increasing the smoking habit. Thankfully, smoking is now banned from workplaces. Over past few decades, the smoking rate in adult males has fallen from over 50% to below 20% and Cigarette smoke as a work-related health threat has come down sharply.
But now, another threat has replaced smoking as the no 1 health concern at workplaces – Sitting.
Extended sitting is harmful to the body. The body uses less energy and this excess, unutilised energy from food is converted into fats. This is one of the primary reasons for obesity among working professionals. The physical inactivity due to prolonged sitting is also the reason behind many modern-day health concerns such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and high blood sugar all of which increase the risk of death due to cardiovascular events.
A meta-analysis of multiple studies measuring the health risks of people sitting more than eight hours every day without any physical activity was done. It found that people who sat for long hours have a similar risk of dying as those with obesity and smoking issues.
Sitting for long periods are bad for the body posture and can lead to many forms of muscular or skeletal disorders.
Prolonged sitting causes physical disorders
When the human body evolved a few million years ago, our muscular, skeletal, and cardiovascular system too evolved to better support an uptight body.
Over the past few decades, the proportion of humans engaged in professions requiring long hours of sitting have increased tremendously.
Evolution of many millennia cannot be undone in a span of few generations. It is but expected that a sudden change in human lifestyle will have its undesirable consequences such as:
Sitting causes weakness in Glutes and Legs
These muscle groups are the largest muscle in the human body. Unlike four-legged animals, the entire body weight of a human is supported on two legs.
Standing erect and walking or running require strong muscles in the buttocks and legs – thighs and claves. This is required to keep us balanced in an upright position and for the burst of speed while running.
Long periods of sitting signals to your body that you do not require these muscles. As a consequence, you will lose these muscles, unless you keep challenging them by playing sports or hitting the gym.
Sitting causes Stiff Neck and Shoulders
The human head was designed to look mostly forward, and downwards only for brief periods of time. The hunter, gatherer never had to hang their heads for long hours. Looking forward puts the weight of your head on your spinal vertebrae.
The sitting man spends most of his time hunched over a computer screen or looking down at a mobile screen or a file. The weight of the head now is borne by the muscles in the back of the neck instead of the spinal. This makes your neck stiff.
Typing is another activity that body was not designed for. The weight of the arms that were supposed to hand on the sides are now mostly raised while typing. This weight is borne by the shoulder muscles, making long periods of typing literally a pain in the neck – and shoulders!
Sitting causes weakness in Back and Abdominal Muscles
Keeping the upper body erect requires support from both the back (mostly lower back) and the abdominal muscles.
While moving, the body is never completely erect. When travelling over different types of terrain or obstacles, the body may need to be inclined forwards, backwards or sideways. Depending on which side your body is leaning the back muscles, abdomen or the obliques (muscles on the sides of the abdomen) may be in use.
When we sit on a chair with back fully rested against the backrest, none of these muscles get any exercise. Unlike legs or torso region which have the support of stiff bones, the back muscles are supported only by an elastic spinal vertebra. It is no wonder that back pain is the most common problem faced by professionals that sit for long hours.
Acute back pain can become chronic if timely action is not taken
Most back problems are of acute nature and tend to resolve on their own within days, but they can have scary long-term implications for many adults. The fixed nature of office work, like sitting in one place for long periods of time, minimal physical movements and sitting in a bad posture for prolonged periods of time can slowly make back pain a chronic issue.
One easy way to prevent acute back pain from becoming a chronic issue is to do some simple office exercise and follow some good practices. You can do these exercises even if you have a history of back problems, but with some caution. Immediately stop the exercise if you notice any pain or discomfort. You can re-start the exercise after discussing with a doctor who knows your case history.
Office exercise for back pain
All of us do not have the luxury of having our own cabin. Frankly, most modern offices have less personal spaces and more common work areas where teams can interact freely. Accordingly, we have omitted exercises that require lying down, involve full body stretching or things that might embarrass you. We have also avoided exercises in which body weight needs to be supported by the chair as there is a risk of chairs slipping or sliding and causing physical injury.
These are 5 simple but effective office exercise that you can do without getting off your chair. Even the person in the next cubicle will not know that you are working out.
Office Exercise 1 – The Torso Twist
Let’s start with the simplest office exercise first – The Torso twist. The torso twist is a good starting point as it stretches the largest back muscle groups. The torso twist also has the highest stretch potential with minimal risk of injury, so it is the ideal warm-up that your back needs.
How to Do it:
- Keep your chair exactly parallel to your desk
- Inhale and twist your body to your left, turning as far as you possibly can
- Hold yourself at the farthest position for by holding the chair back or armrest
- When your back cannot move any further, twist your neck to see how far left (which is now the back of the room) you can see without moving your chair from its parallel position
- Count 5 seconds and slowly come back to centre and exhale
- Inhale and repeat twisting to your right
- Repeat minimum 3-5 times on both sides
- You can repeat entire set at least twice a day, but for best results repeat at gaps of every 2 hr.
The key to torso twist is holding the position, not repetitions. Increase your hold time from 5 seconds to 20 seconds over time. Do not overstretch when doing the torso twist. How will you know? Well, stretching should feel like pressure in your muscles. If it feels like pain, you are probably overstretching. Anyways, it is not a competition. You can start easy and steadily extend your limits. Over time, your goal should be to increase how bar back you can see.
Office Exercise 2 – The Reverse Back Arch
Another easy office exercise for upper back is the reverse back arch. Unlike the torso twist, this one puts pressure on your middle and lower back. Here you can manipulate which back muscle groups to put under stress depending on how wide you hold your palms or how much you arch your back.
How to Do it:
- Sit closer to the front of the chair and spread your legs wide to stabilize yourself
- Place your hands on the seat, behind your back palms facing downwards
- Inhale, hang your neck backwards and push your chest upwards using your back muscles
- Hold the position for at least 10 seconds while exhaling slowly
- Relax your back and come back to the original position
- For best results, do it every hour or whenever your back feels stiff
Just like torso twist, even in reverse back arch, holding the position is more important than repetitions. Slowly, over time increase your hold time from 10 seconds to as long as you can. You can increase the intensity of the exercise depending on how far you arch your back. More repetitions & holding the arch for longer will strengthen your upper and middle back muscles. If you are feeling the contraction in your lower back, then you are pushing out your belly rather than pushing up your chest. Reposition and try again, but don’t push yourself beyond your comfort zone. The best thing about reverse back arch is that you can do it as many times as required in a day or whenever back feels stiff.
Office Exercise 3 – The Twin Leg Extension
You can call this office exercise ‘The secret weapon’. The twin leg extension not only strengthens the lower back, it also tones your thighs and abdominal muscles. You can burn extra calories secretly at work and no one will ever know that you are getting those abs and thighs into shape. Women, are you listening!
How to Do it:
- Place your hands on your thighs, palms facing downwards
- If your lower body is heavy then you can hold on the chair seat to stay in place
- Keep your back upright but do not rest it on the chair backrest
- Take both your feet off the floor together and try and keep them parallel to the ground
- Breath regularly and hold the position for as long as you can
- To make it tougher and to exercise your calf muscles simultaneously, point your toes upwards (towards yourself)
- Release when you can no longer keep your legs parallel to the ground
- Repeat as many time as required
The great thing about this office exercise is that there are so many variations to it. If you find lifting both feet together difficult, you can do the same exercise with each leg separately. Resting your back on the backrest will make it a thigh only exercise. If are unable to balance your weight, you can grab the seat while doing the exercise (see figure) but that will rest your abdominal muscles.
The key to getting great results is keeping back straight and away from the backrest. This brings the abdominal muscles into play and the shift in the centre of gravity due to the extension of feet immediately puts pressure on lower back. So, if you are not feeling a tightening of muscles in lower back, you are not doing it right.
Office Exercise 4 – Touching Your Toes
Touching your toes is simple enough. Here is a variation of the standing toe touch exercise where you do the same while sitting on your chair. It does not strengthen your back muscles much, but it stretches the lower back muscles.
How to Do it:
- Place your feet together in such a way that your legs (ankle to knee) form a 90-degree angle to the ground
- Bend down, touch your toes and hold the posture for 30 seconds to 1 min. That’s it!
- Repeat as many time as required
This office exercise is better suited for obese people who already suffer from chronic low back pain as it provides relief to the weak spine. Bending readjusts the spine and can provide relief to those who have a bad sitting posture.
If you find it too easy, then you can increase the difficulty level by straightening your legs as much as possible while keeping your soles firmly planting. Your legs should be away from your chair forming a 135-degree angle to the ground. Point your toes forward and now try touching the very tip of your toes while still seated.
Office Exercise 5 – The Single Knee Hug
The last one is more of a cheat than an office exercise. The single knee hug can be done whenever your back starts to get stiff or to hurt. You can hold this posture easily for long periods of time providing your back with a well-needed relief, while not seeming out of place even in formal situations.
How to Do it:
- Lift one foot off the ground and bring your knee closer to your body
- Lock the fingers of both hands and wrap it around your knee.
- Stretch both arms to their full extent and let the weight of your leg rest on the locked fingers
- Hold till arms tire then rest your arms and repeat with the other knee
- Repeat whenever back feels stiff or needs a break
As you might have seen from the description, this exercise cannot be done while operating a computer or using your hands. But, it is ideal for those times when you have to sit on a chair for long hours without a break, like in conferences, presentations, meetings or discussions.
This exercise works because, when you hold your leg, you are adding a counterweight to the weight of your upper back. This relaxes the upper back muscles by stretching them forward, and forces the spine into a more vertical position, reducing stress on the lower back muscles.
Chronic back problems cannot be resolved without a change in your habits or routine. Unless the causative factors remain, simply exercising won’t help.
Some simple tips to correct issues that may be causing your back issues.
- Change the laptop/ desktop screen and keyboard position: Keep at eye level so that you don’t have to constantly look down and cause injury to neck and back
- Manage by walking around: Find reasons for leaving your seat, go for short walks within the office every few hours
- Stand and talk to your colleagues: Unless you are in a formal meeting, have work discussions while standing
- For those with more severe back problems, Doctors recommend taking a break after every hour of sitting. So, for better results do the exercise as often as possible.
- Decreasing muscle mass could be a reason for chronic backache in middle-aged men. Exercise and Testosterone boosting supplements could help such men.
- Eat foods rich in anti-oxidants like Resveratrol or Resveratrol Supplements. They increase bone density.