Throughout human history, we’ve never been as sedentary as we are today. While our ancestors relied on physical fitness for their livelihood—using it to hunt, fish, fight, and build shelter—we now trust modern technology and machinery to do most of the work for us. At the same time, an increase in sedentary behaviors like playing video games and watching TV has caused many of us to spend our off-work hours vegging out. And while moderate vegging is a good thing, too much of it can be detrimental to our health and well-being.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), those with desk jobs—software developers, engineers, accountants, lawyers, etc.—spend as much as 90 percent of their day sitting, and it’s taking a toll physically. The back and spine are two of the most vulnerable parts of the body among those who sit for prolonged periods of time, and the effects can be drastic over years of working at a desk. Perhaps unsurprisingly, office workers experience a high rate of back pain, with the following reasons to blame:
- Desk workers tend to slouch in their chair, causing a curve in the spine and putting pressure on the vertebrae and back muscles.
- Desk workers sit for prolonged periods of time rather than being physically active, causing weakened muscles and weight gain.
- Desk workers may hold the phone for long periods throughout the day, sometimes in awkward positions (such as between the shoulders and ear).
- Desk workers spend a lot of time hunched over a keyboard or with their head tilted looking at a monitor, notebook, or smartphone.
In this guide, we’re going over all the ways that physically idle work affects the back and spine to help you determine if your job may be to blame for back pain or discomfort. We will also provide some effective back pain treatment options and tips for how to prevent back issues from desk work.
The Effects of a Sedentary Lifestyle on the Back
We know now, more than ever, that sitting all day is not good for our physical health, but why? Given that it’s a relatively new phenomenon, scientists and medical professionals don’t know exactly how these behaviors will affect spine health in the long run, but research indicates that a few things happen when we’re more idle than active. The following are some common side effects associated with this kind of work.
- Poor Posture – Poor posture is often to blame for chronic back pain and more serious spinal issues, such as degenerative disk disease (osteoarthritis) and sciatica. Due to the nature of desk work and the fact that your desk chair is probably not tailor-made to support your unique back, sitting at your desk all day is probably causing poor posture. With gravity at play, your shoulders and upper back are inclined to hunch over and forward rather than stay straight up.
- Weight Gain – Naturally, you’re burning fewer calories sitting at your desk throughout the day than you are doing almost any other work-related task. Being overweight or obese has a massive effect on the back because the excess weight puts strain on the spine, sometimes causing it to become misaligned. Additionally, extra weight in the midsection pulls the pelvis and lower spine forward, which puts pressure on the lower back and causes pain. Another unfortunate effect of obesity is osteoarthritis, a condition that occurs when the cartilage in the spinal disks breaks down and bone spurs may form.
- Muscle Atrophy – Muscle atrophy occurs when muscle mass wastes away, which happens when you sit at a desk all day and don’t get enough physical activity. Weak muscles in the core and legs have a much bigger impact on the back and spine than you might imagine, as they’re necessary for supporting the back muscles, holding up the spine, and keeping strain off the vertebrae.
- Stress – Let’s not forget one of the biggest health concerns for desk workers: stress. Though certainly not exclusive to those who work at a desk all day, stress has a considerable impact on the physical and mental well-being of this sector. Stress affects the musculoskeletal system by releasing certain hormones (such as cortisol or adrenaline) that trigger stress responses in the body, causing muscles to tense up and spasm. Lowering stress is necessary to a good back and spine health strategy.
How to Support Your Back While You Work
Chances are, swapping your desk job for a more active profession is off the table. But that certainly doesn’t mean you have to be permanently relegated to a life of back pain and tension. In fact, just by being aware of the problem and taking your physical health seriously, you’re on your way to a healthier life. Here are a few simple, affordable things you can do to prevent back pain caused by prolonged periods of sitting.
- Exercise Every Day – It’s a no-brainer, and one that you’ve heard thousands of times in your life, but it’s so true. Getting proper exercise is imperative to preventing back pain because it helps you build muscle strength to support your back and spine. Along with a healthy diet, exercise will help you keep weight off, lessening the burden on your susceptible back and spine. Try breaking up the workday with a jog or go for a walk at lunchtime.
- Stand for Part of the Day – Working at a sit-stand desk is a good way to get your blood flowing during the day and prevent some of the effects of being sedentary. On top of that, it may improve your performance at work and lead to a better overall quality of life. According to one study, people who use sit-stand desks are more engaged at work and better at their jobs. The study also found that sitting and standing at different times throughout the day is better than standing the whole day, since prolonged periods of standing are not ideal either and can overwork the feet and legs.
- Take Breaks to Stretch – Stretching can help break up your workday and engage your entire body after it has been inactive for hours. A 15-minute daily stretch break once or twice a day will bring some measurable benefits to your back and spine health, too. The muscles in your pelvis and legs should be properly stretched and elongated in order to prevent pulling on the spine, so make sure you incorporate hamstring and hip stretches into your routine. Practicing yoga a couple of times per week or at lunchtime will have the same great effects.
- Get a New Chair – Do desk chairs really matter? Actually, yes. And here’s why: The backrest of your chair will determine how straight or curved your spine and shoulders will be for long periods of time. Getting a new back-supporting office chair can help ensure that you keep the spine straight and avoid hunching throughout the day. As a result, you’ll feel better at the end of the day and you’ll be less likely to endure chronic back pain and injuries in the future. Since everyone’s back is different and you probably can’t have a desk chair custom-made, look for one that is adjustable in height and back angle.
- Create an Ergonomic Desk Setup – If you stare at a computer all day, one of the first things you need to look at is the way your desk, computer screen, keyboard, and chair are set up. Create an ergonomic workspace in order to relieve any tension on the back, shoulders, and neck. Here are some of the fundamentals of creating an ergonomic office at home or work, according to the experts:
- Make sure your desk and office chair are at the right height. Your elbows should be at a 90-degree angle when typing or using your mouse, so your chair’s armrest should be at about the same height as your desk.
- Adjust your computer screen so that it’s close enough that your eyes aren’t straining to read normal sized text on your screen. You also want to avoid a position where you’re looking up or down at the screen. A good rule of thumb is to make sure the top of the screen is at about eye level.
- Make sure your keyboard and mouse aren’t too far away, causing you to reach. Your elbows and wrists should be doing most of the work, not your shoulders. If your shoulders and upper arms are moving a lot, you need to move the keyboard and mouse closer to your body.
- If you use a phone throughout the day, make sure it’s on the side of your desk with the non-dominant hand. This will help prevent you from cradling the phone in your neck while you write or type. A hands-free headset or a pair of Bluetooth speakers can help with this, too.
- Don’t forget about your legs. Your feet should be touching the ground, so if your chair is too tall, use a footrest or a stool. You want to keep your hips and knees at a right angle and your feet flat on the ground while working.
- Sit on an Exercise Ball – Have you noticed office workers swapping out their standard rolling desks for bouncy ball chairs? This trend is one that should stick around, as it’s an excellent way to build core strength and improve balance, which, in turn, can protect your back from dysfunction and injury. Make sure you choose the right size stability ball so as to not worsen any back issues you may have.
- Get Relief at Night – Look at your off hours as time for self-care, tension relief, and support. If you have lingering pain, use the evening to treat it with massage, hydrotherapy, or low-level laser therapy. How does laser treatment help back pain? These cutting-edge, wearable devices use lasers to temporarily increase local blood circulation to the affected area, which provides relief of muscle and joint aches, stiffness, and spasms. They can also help your muscles relax, which will lead to better-quality sleep and less stress
- Use Posture Correctors – If you believe that your back issues are closely tied to poor posture from sitting at your desk all day, it may be worth your while to invest in a posture-correcting pillow or a wearable device, such as a posture correcting bra or brace. These products remind you to straighten up throughout the day so that, eventually, you’ll have good posture without needing to use them.
Stay Mindful and Healthy
While working at a desk can negatively affect your overall health and well-being, there are many positives to it, too. Implementing some small changes to your work routine—such as taking short breaks to stretch or changing the height of your chair—can do wonders to prevent the effects of prolonged sitting on the back and spine. Stay mindful and be as active as you can be and your back will thank you later!