Sitting for extensive periods of time increases stress in the back, shoulders, arms, knees, hips and legs, and particularly on the spinal discs and back muscles. Humans are not meant to sit for extended hours. We are hunter-gatherers, meant to be active throughout the day, not sedentary. This could be the reason 80% of us complain of back pain at some point throughout our lives. And now that we spend even more time In front of a computer, the cost to our spine is increasing daily.
We know hunching over has the worst impact on the spine, resulting in spinal compression and pain. But even sitting up straight in a normal chair can cause damage. Sitting straight also forces our bodies into a 90-90-90 position, where the ankles, knees and hips are all at 90 degrees and puts incredible strain on our bodies and increases spinal disc pressure 40 % over the standing position.
One study showed reclining was the most effective way to decrease low back pressure caused by sitting. Reclining just 115 degree decreased the pressure on the lower spinal discs by 40%. 135 degrees was found to be optimal when tested under an MRI scanner. But this amount of recline puts added pressure on the knees every time you get out of the chair, and can cause lower spine issues if the curve at the base of lumbar area is not supported properly. It also allows some people to slide off the chair and it is unlikely to be productive in the work place. One of the authors recommended a compromise of 120 degrees of recline or less.
Regardless of the fix, sitting extensive periods of time is not in our best interest.
So what’s the answer?
Here are a few ideas that can help:
- Find your proper spinal position by doing this- move to the edge of the chair and slouch all the way forward. Then pull yourself up and back as far as you’re able for a few seconds. From here gently relax and fall forward about ten degrees. This will impact the spine the least when sitting throughout the day.
- Add a lumbar roll, or rolled up towel, at the base of your back to support the normal hollowed out area that occurs when we sit properly.
- Use a firm, not soft, chair which tends to encourage rounding the back.
- Move close to any work table with arms easily resting on the table at an approximately 90 degrees, but not high enough to make the shoulders or neck elevate.
- Adjust the height of the chair so the knees and hips are at 90 degrees and the feet flat on the floor. In some cases using a a small step or stool may be helpful to allow proper positioning and gentle stretching of the lower extremities throughout the day.
- Use a cushioned mat under the chair to give the feet relief from hard surfaces.
- In swivel chairs, don’t twist at the waist when reaching for items on the desk. Move the entire chair instead.
- Don’t bend forward when standing, this will put additional weight on the knees. Slide to the edge and stand straight up with your legs. For added support, push up on the armrests with your arms.
- The seat itself can impact pain. Choose one that doesn’t compress the thighs or back of the knees like a waterfall or flexible edge. This design is rounded and slopes slightly in order to accommodate all body types and reduce pressure and improve blood flow.
- Don’t forget the upper spine when sitting. Our heads weigh on average 10-12 pounds. That’s the equivalent of a bowling ball resting on our necks.
- Adjust the height of your chair so you’re looking straight at the screen. Just flexing 30 degrees, as we do when looking at or inputting data on our phones, increases this weight to 40 pounds!
- High-back chairs can support our upper back, shoulders and neck, offering us a place to lie our head for a few moments when needed.
- Get a chair that reclines. It may not be a viable option when inputting data, but a few minutes to realign the spine while reading information may be enough to calm down any ache areas.
- Use an ice or hot pack in the lumbar area to soothe the muscles and give lumbar support. Extend it to the rib cage when more help is needed.
- * Whatever chair you pick, get out of it every one to two hours just to stretch and mobilize.
We may be stuck in front of a computer far more time than we would like, but that doesn’t mean we have to suffer the consequences. Implement these suggestions and they could end the nightly ritual of having to deal with sore muscles and a painful back in preparation for the another long day.