It’s funny, isn’t it – a hundred years ago, the workers of the world would toil from sunrise under the harsh elements, straining their grimy, taut flesh against picks and shovels, bearing the load of bulky materials on worn-down joints without the benefit of hydraulics and conveyor belts. How they would have delighted in the modern, comfortable office space, replete with wide desks, padded chairs, and those marvellous screened typewriters. A space in which workers, using their skills just as earnestly as their forebears, never need stress a single joint or muscle in the pursuit of a KPI. It’s something of an irony, then, that sitting is as much of an occupational hazard as slaving away, and it’s killing us as quickly and quietly as a pack-a-day habit.
It’s hardly original to draw the parallels between smoking and sitting, but the message, coming loudly from health professionals and research institutions, isn’t quite getting through. Necessary behaviour is the hardest to modify in the long term (think eating), and we often take our cues from our corporate superiors. This means most of us who spend our days looking at pixels and papers continue to damage our cardiovascular system, our muscular system and our spine. Just six hours a day of sitting can lead to the development of chronic disease and pain.
So without faddish luxuries like standing desks and treadmill tables, what on earth can you do? Being mindful of our posture is just one of the ways that we can start to modify our sitting habits. Having your desk ergonomically assessed can help to prevent some of the strains that seize up our joints and stress our backs – your neck should be straight, your lower back supported and your elbows at an angle less than 90 degrees from the floor. As soon as an ache is recognised, you should stand up, stretch and take a short walk, perhaps to get some water. Even when it’s not practical to stand up, such as when you’re under a tight deadline, you can roll your ankles, swing your lower legs, gently twist from side to side, rotate your shoulders and stretch your neck. Little movements are far better than none at all, but they must be done habitually in order to have a long-term benefit. Setting a calendar reminder to stretch and stand will help reduce some of your risk factors, as well as break up the monotony of your task and hopefully refresh your mind.
Strengthening your back muscles will have a protective effect on your spine, assisting in its alignment and keeping it robust. The spine is a long, complex column consisting of oddly-shaped bones called vertebrae, which are separated by delicate discs that work together to hold everything in place and protect your spinal cord. The discs and the surrounding muscles are particularly susceptible to damage, and office workers can develop pain just like manual workers. Exercise that targets the back muscles will lessen the workload on the spine, keeping your body lengthened rather than hunched, and will assist in supporting the entire upper body as you go about your business. Yoga, Pilates and upper-body weights are a few examples of activities that improve back strength and flexibility.
Good posture is a by-product of a healthy, strong spine, so if you find yourself regularly hunching or slouching, it’s probably time to get a physical assessment from a relevant therapist. Back pain is estimated to cost more than $9 billion a year in lost productivity in Australia, so as you suffer, the economy takes a battering as well. Physiotherapists, osteopaths and chiropractors are all qualified to assess the overall health of your back and spine, and they can help you implement a plan of care to help you recover from pain or injury, and they can work with you to identify what sorts of changes to your daily habits you can make to protect yourself into the future. Ongoing care can be expensive, so having the right extras coverage is a great way to ease your financial burden as your therapist eases your physical one.
Keeping fit and within a healthy weight range has benefits for the entire body, but people carrying excess weight towards their middle tend to be more susceptible to back pain. Strengthening exercises can mitigate the strain, but the back is still under increased pressure because it must work harder. Working some basic exercise into your daily routine not only reduces your risk factors for the chronic conditions that arise from prolonged sitting, but it can help to keep you in generally good shape. So straighten up, stand up, and have a happy Spinal Health Week!