Want to truly “take a load off”? Despite what the phrase suggests, physical therapist Barrett Ford says the worst thing you can do – at least when it comes to the health of your back – is take a seat.
“When you think about compressive sports, one of the most compressive ‘sports’ is sitting,” said Ford, co-owner and lead physical therapist at Step & Spine Physical Therapy in Bend, Sisters and Redmond. “When we sit, we often don’t even realize the level of compression and degeneration our spine is experiencing.”According to Ford, bent posture positions like sitting can increase disc pressure in your spine by 300 percent when compared to standing. When such compression is repetitive and prolonged, it can lead to degenerative numbness, pain and weakness in the spine, which can set you up for injury.
This can be bad news for the typical American who, according to a 2008 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, spends 7.7 hours a day in a sitting position. Such prolonged spine compression may partially explain why eight of 10 people in the U.S. will experience back pain at some point in their lives, according to the National Institutes of Health.
“There’s no doubt that a lot of people have jobs that involve a lot of sitting throughout the day, which can’t always be helped,” Ford said. “But if people can change some of their daily habits – change things like their workstations, the way they sit, how they take breaks, and so on – that can go a long way toward combating the effects long-term sitting has on their backs.”
Such changes, Ford added, include the following:
Posture with a Purpose: Sit so your hips are higher than your knees and with your feet planted on the floor – a position which Ford says helps you maintain the proper level of curvature in your lumbar, or lower back, helping to reduce compression. Adding lumbar support (e.g., a small pillow behind your lower back) can also help.
Take a Stand: Take full advantage of any opportunity you have to stand while at work, such as when you’re on the phone or eating your lunch. And instead of sending emails and/or instant messages to coworkers, take a quick walk over to their desks for a brief chat. Ford suggests taking a break from sitting – even to simply stand for a few seconds of stretching or back bends – every 10 to 15 minutes.
Break for Fitness: Don’t just sit at your desk or in the lounge sipping coffee during your breaks. Take a quick walk around the building or around the block. “Feet are made for walking, and we tend to undervalue the positive effects a simple walking program can have on your back,” Ford said. “Every patient I see for back pain, I start on a simple walking program because of all the short- and long-term benefits it has on the back.”
See a Specialist: If prolonged sitting is already causing weakness, numbness and pain in your back, a physical therapist can provide effective treatment while creating a customized plan that can help prevent such issues in the future.