We Got Your Back

Photography by Caroline Knopf

By Caroline Fossi

You may have heard that “sitting is the new smoking.” Health experts agree that remaining too long in one position – whether seated or standing – can wreak havoc on our well-being. Poor posture causes additional problems.

“We’re hunters and gatherers by nature,” says Dr. Evaline Delson of Delson Chiropractic in West Ashley. “We’re supposed to be moving. … We weren’t made to sit behind a desk all day.”

In fact, Americans sit an average of 10 to 13 hours a day. That might sound far-fetched, but whether you’re sitting at your computer, driving to and from work, or lounging on the sofa watching TV, it quickly adds up.

Among the health troubles caused by extended periods of sitting are neck and shoulder pain, an increased risk for heart disease, weight gain, cancer and even depression. Research shows that people who sit for more than eight hours a day with no physical activity have a risk of dying that’s similar to the risk faced by those who are obese or who smoke, according to the Mayo Clinic.

But desk jockeys, take heart: You can counter the effects of too much sitting with 60 to 75 minutes a day of moderately intense physical activity. That doesn’t mean you have to join a gym or run for miles. Any sort of movement helps – from walking around the block to vacuuming the living room.

The ideal activity regimen differs for each person, given your workplace environment, health concerns and other factors.

If you sit or stand for long periods, make a conscious effort to move or change position at regular intervals. Set a timer on your watch or phone to remind yourself to stretch or move – ideally every 30 minutes, but at least every hour, Evaline says.

Roll your shoulders back, open and close your arms around your body, get up and go to the bathroom, take a brisk walk at lunchtime – whatever you can realistically do to incorporate movement into your day.

The way you sit and stand impacts your body, too.

With prolonged sitting, our natural posture can become slumped and curved, says Michelle Hard, a physical therapist with Roper St. Francis Healthcare. It’s this “C”-shaped curve in our backs that gets us into trouble, she says.

Over time, certain muscles in our neck, shoulders, hips and back become shortened because of poor body alignment.

Slouching posture also restricts lung capacity, blood flow and digestion, says Dr. Sabino D’Agostino, a board-certified neurosurgeon and minimally invasive spine specialist affiliated with Trident Health System, among other hospitals.

“Being hunched over compresses all those structures,” he explains.

While your mom might have nagged you to “sit up straight,” that’s not technically correct when it comes to good posture. Instead, sit with the pelvis tilted slightly forward to allow the spine’s natural inward curve to be present, says Michelle, the physical therapist.

To support your spine while sitting in a chair, use the back rest or other lumbar support, such as a small pillow or towel roll behind your lower back. Try to keep your feet flat on the floor or on a foot rest. If your job requires prolonged computer work, consider a sit-stand desk that allows for position changes.

When standing, hold your chest up and shoulders back, and don’t lock your knees.

If you experience back discomfort, try taking it easy for a week and treat pain with anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen, says Sabino, who practices with Neurosurgery and Orthopaedic Specialists in Ladson.

See a doctor if the pain doesn’t subside after a week.

Warning signs of a more serious back injury include numbness or tingling or unusual weakness in any part of your body. In that case, seek medical attention immediately.

Once you damage one part of your spine, it can change the dynamics of the whole vertebral column, Sabino notes. “It doesn’t really take much to throw off the whole balance.”

Prevention is key for back health, he adds. Practice proper sitting, standing and lifting techniques (lift with your legs, not your back), and make low-impact exercise a regular part of your day.

Stand Tall

These core strength and flexibility exercises can help improve posture and alignment:

  • Planks
  • Squats
  • Lunges
  • Yoga poses such as Child’s Pose
  • Hamstring and hip flexor stretching
  • Standing extension
  • Cervical extension
  • Thoracic (mid-back) rotation

Note: Not everyone responds to the same exercises. Stretches should be held for 15 to 20 seconds without bouncing. Whenever you first feel a stretch you should stop and hold; it’s important not to overstretch. Physical activity should never be painful. Performing exercises incorrectly can be ineffective and sometimes harmful.

Sources: Dr. Evaline Delson and Michelle Hard

How Alignment Pays Off

Keeping your body in proper alignment when sitting, standing or lifting puts the least amount of stress on your spine and its supporting ligaments and muscles. Here are some more ways proper posture pays off:

  • Improved balance
  • Increased performance in sports and activities
  • Decreased wear on joint surfaces
  • Decreased fatigue, as muscles are used more efficiently
  • Reduced risk of back injury
  • Improved appearance and self-confidence

Source: Michelle Hard