A number of studies have shown that sitting at your desk all day is not good for your overall health, but there’s been little proof that sitting for long hours leads to back pain.
Still, some studies do show that sitting puts pressure on the disks supporting your spine, which may make you prone to injury.
“One of the negative effects of sitting is that it puts the spine in a flexed position (bent forward) and this may cause your back muscles to stop working efficiently, putting your back at risk of injury,” said Donald R. Murphy, clinical assistant professor at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University in Providence, R.I.
Also, many people, at least anecdotally, complain that sitting makes their backs start to ache, and if you already suffer from back pain, sitting may make it worse. But there are definitely steps you can take to protect your back-- and some bad habits that can make it worse.
Be ergonomically correct. Ergonomics is the study of designing equipment and devices that fit the human body and its movements. In other words, people have studied what shape and height your chair should be and what positions of your back, feet and arms are the most natural and cause the least strain on your body. Ergonomics can get excruciatingly detailed, but here are the key points:
1. Make sure your lower back (lumbar spine) is curved naturally forward (as opposed to slumped outwards). This is so important because it reduces the strain on your back. Many ergonomically-designed chairs have a “lumbar support” built into them that is designed to maintain the curve. If yours doesn’t, you can buy a lumbar support pillow to stick behind your back. If you can’t do that, it is best to sit forward in your chair so you can let your spine fall naturally into a forward curve.
2. Adjust your chair and desk heights. Your desk height should allow your forearms to rest comfortably at a 90-degree angle. Your wrists should not be higher than your elbows. The top of your computer screen should also be at or slightly below eye level.
3. Keep your feet flat on the floor and your back against the chair. Shoulders must be relaxed and be careful not to hunch them up.
Stretch your back. Get up and stretch every 30 to 60 minutes. Sitting for long periods puts pressure on discs and can weaken your muscles supporting your back.
“Walking around for a few seconds and doing a few standing back bends (provided this does not cause pain) is enough to offset the negative effects of sitting,” Murphy said.
Stand up and place your hands on your lower back. Gently push your hips forward and slightly arch your back. This takes the pressure of the discs. If you have some privacy, get down on the floor and do the yoga position called “the cobra,” in which you lie on your stomach and press up with your arms leaving your hips on the floor. Studies have shown that doing the cobra 15 times per day can lessen the likelihood of future back pain, Murphy added.
Take regular breaks and microbreaks. Just getting up out of your chair can help break the cycle of clenched muscles.
“We recommend people take many microbreaks to relax their muscles, and reduce their stress,” says Erik Peper, professor at the Institute for Holistic Health Studies at San Francisco State University. Drop your hands to your lap for one second or less every few minutes or raise and drop your shoulders. You can make a rule to do this every time you send an email, click the mouse or do some other regular task, or install break reminders on the computer such as Stretchbreak.
Strengthen your 'core.' To help your body cope with sitting, do core exercises like Pilates to strengthen your core muscles. Core exercises can train your muscles to work more efficiently, countering the negative effects of sitting. Aside from doing back specific exercises, simply getting regular aerobic exercise will help ward off back pain.
Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist whose work appears in the New York Times, among other national magazines and websites. She has authored several health books, including "Perfect Hormone Balance for Fertility." Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.