More Brits are suffering from back pain than ever – around 80% of the UK population will have it at some point in their lives – and it’s affecting people at a much younger age than before. According to recent figures, it’s one of the most common causes of sickness absences, with almost 35m days of work lost a year due to back, neck and muscle problems.
Put simply, humans weren’t built for sitting in front of computer screens for hours – which can lead to weaker, more rounded muscles. Over time, this can lead to serious issues, but even if the problem isn't too severe, aches, pains and stiffness can still cause misery.
Like with most things, prevention is better than cure, so SL spoke to movement specialist Kerrie-Anne Bradley – a self-confessed “ex-professional sloucher” – to get her top tips for beating back pain at work…
1. Ensure You’re Sitting Correctly
First of all, make sure you are sitting properly so your muscles are balanced. A lot of people don’t know, for example, that you’re supposed to sit on your ‘sit bones’ (the boney bits under your bottom) – this is a massive game changer. For the lower part of the body it’s all about right angles, which is quite a good mnemonic; it goes like this:
- Have both feet firmly on the floor so that the foot is at a right angle to the ankle.
- Have your lower leg at a right angle (at the knee) to your thigh.
- Sit on your sit bones and make sure you have a right angle between thigh and torso.
- Your ribs should be over your pelvis.
- Keep your shoulders wide and down your back (not slumped forward and not squeezed together).
- Keep your neck in line with your spine (imagine you have a smelly fish in front of your face).
2. Take Regular Breaks
Try to get up every 30 minutes or so and walk about. If you’re struggling to do so, try my water method – it’s why I call water a ‘movement enabler’. Instead of having a large bottle of water to last the whole day, keep a smaller glass at your desk and, every time it’s empty, walk to the kitchen and fill it up. That way you’ll stay hydrated and mobile.
Incorporate movement at your desk too. Slow shoulder rolls are an easy option: First, roll your shoulders in one direction and then the other, then do the ‘lift and melt’ technique – lifting your shoulders up to your ears and then melting them down your back.
Taking breaks from sitting in the evening is helpful too – try to limit the amount of time you spend on the sofa, get to an exercise class when you can, and pack in movement whenever possible (like dancing in the kitchen whilst you’re preparing supper).
3. Ditch Al-Desko Lunches
Speaking of moving more, if you’re suffering from back pain and are still guilty of eating lunch at your desk, it’s time to break the habit – even if your office culture encourages it. Your health needs to come first, or you could end up unable to work at all.
Your lunch break is a great opportunity to stretch your legs and get your blood pumping – whether it’s a lunchtime gym class, or even a ten-minute walk around the block. Walking all, or part of, your journey home is great for reducing back pain too.
4. Don’t Look Down
Not having your computer or laptop screen at the correct height can cause serious neck pain in the long-term. Adjust the monitor height so that the top of the screen is at or slightly below eye level. Your eyes should look slightly downward when viewing the middle of the screen. Position the monitor no closer than 20 inches from your eyes – a good rule of thumb is an arm's length distance.
Don’t look down when you walk or commute on public transport either – this is so common nowadays, as we’re all on our smartphones. Where you look sends a neurological signal to your brain to tell your body to follow, so if you look down your body will follow, causing the neck and shoulders to slump forward. To avoid ‘smartphone neck’, hold your device at eye level.
5. Reduce Your Stress Levels
Aside from the physical aspect, stress is a big cause of neck and shoulder pain in an office environment. Workplace stress can often manifest itself in jaw clenching (if you’re a teeth grinder, listen up) – so check in on yourself to make sure you’re not unnecessarily tensing your face. If you are, open your jaw slightly to relax the muscles.
Remember to breathe properly too. Taking deep breaths is not only an instant calmer, but a great way to stretch those tight middle back muscles. Here’s how:
- Place your hands on your bottom back ribs.
- Inhale through your nose to a count of five, focusing on expanding the back and sides of the ribs.
- Exhale fully through your mouth to a count of five.
6. Try Desk Pilates
Pilates At Your Desk (PAYD) is about good movement. It teaches you how to sit well, along with a range of simple exercises that can be discreetly done at work throughout the day to counteract desk posture. I offer corporate workshops teaching PAYD and PAYD Extra (an advanced workshop) and hold lunchtime classes through my PAYD Weekly programme.
I worked as an economist for ten years and had my fair share of knee, hip, back and shoulder issues. Pilates has really helped to sort this out and every time I have to sit for a long time, I make sure I incorporate some of the PAYD moves into the sitting session – it really is amazing how much of an impact a bit of awareness and more movement can have on the body. I work with many clients with rehab issues, some of which have come as a result of desk working, and all of these people have benefited greatly from these simple moves.
7. Request An Occupational Health Assessment
If moving more and correcting how you sit isn’t making a difference to your back pain at work, I’d advise requesting an occupational health assessment. They will advise you on any desk add-ons you might need, such as ergonomic keyboards and lumbar support cushions – these come down to individual needs and can be very useful in the event of repetitive strain injury (RSI).
Kerrie-Anne runs an Instagram page full of daily tips at @pilatesatyourdesk, and offers 1-2-1s, corporate workshops and classes in London. She is fully trained Pilates teacher, specialising in rehab Pilates, covering a range of issues including: scoliosis, arthritis, hyper-mobility, muscular dystrophy, hernias, diastasis recti, spondylilithisis, slipped disks and general aches and pains.
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