Office employees sit for an average of 10 hours per day. But the more sedentary we are, the more prone we become to weight gain, diabetes, heart disease—and to lose the flexibility in our backs, which endangers our spinal health and our overall mobility.
Being sedentary puts 40 percent more pressure on our spinal discs than standing. This strains the lower back, tightens the pelvic muscles, and thrusts the body forward and out of balance. Doctors say that given how many of us sit on the job, it’s little wonder that musculoskeletal disorders rack up $20 billion in workers’ compensation claims—and $1 trillion in indirect costs—every year.
Want to avoid expensive health problems—and have a better back? For the 9-to-5 office worker, three keys to back health are creating an ergonomic desk setup, taking frequent stretch breaks, and building more movement into each workday.
Set Up Your Desk
Think about how your workstation is laid out. Is the top of your computer monitor at eye level? Are your hands resting at or below elbow level? Are you seated in a comfortable chair that supports your spinal curves and that’s placed at a height where your knees are in line with your hips? Would a pad to support your lower back and help with your alignment? Are you using a footrest if your desk is too high for you—or a standing desk if your doctor recommends one for your back?
Consider how you move within your workspace. Are you keeping your keyboard, phone, mouse, and other essential tools all within easy reach? Is your seat facing your computer monitor to help avoid straining your neck? Are you sitting erect without slumping, making sure your ears are stacked over your shoulders and your shoulders are stacked over your hips? When you chat on the phone while typing, are you using a headset so you don’t have to cradle your phone between your head and shoulders, potentially triggering neck problems?
By creating an ergonomic desk setup, you’ll be able to say yes to all these questions—and increase your chances of saying goodbye to back pain and neck pain that may be bothering you.
Office workers who took a stretch break every 30 minutes during the workday improved not only their posture and mobility but their concentration and sense of engagement, too, found a 2012 Boston study.
Stand up and stretch for two minutes every 30 minutes, perhaps setting timers to remind yourself that it’s time for you to move. Whether you do warm-up stretches (which shift from one muscle group to another) or static stretches (which lengthen one particular muscle for 30 to 60 seconds at a time), you’ll be doing your back a favor—and improving your flexibility, balance, range of motion, and overall joint and muscle health while keeping your mental clarity and focus at their peak.
To stretch your back and other major muscles, try this two-minute routine:
- Come into a full forward bend.
- Shake out your head and arms, then let them dangle as you breathe deeply.
- Clasp your hands behind your back and tugging gently on your arms.
- Release your arms and roll up into a standing position very slowly, feeling your head hang heavy then become light as it floats up onto your shoulders.
- Step your feet apart, reach both arms overhead, and do side stretches from left to right.
- Windmill your arms circles at your sides several times.
- Wrap up with gentle neck stretches, rolling your head slowly in both directions.
If you’d like to take a seated stretch break, you can try the chair stretches here and here. Or you can take more time for this chair yoga routine, which includes two minutes of breathing exercises and 16 minutes of stretching. Please listen to your body and stop if you experience pain. If you have existing spine issues, it is always best to check with your physician before taking on any new physical activities.
Short bouts of exercise—including movements other than stretching—improve mood, decrease fatigue, reduce food cravings, and promote “overall well-being at work,” according to a 2016 study in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.
As you consider your work schedule, consider how you can take—or create—small opportunities to be more physically active throughout your workday.
Do you drive to your office? Try parking farther away from your building and taking a five- to ten-minute stroll before you get to your desk. (One of the best forms of exercise for the spine, walking can reduce low-back pain by up to 50 percent).
Commuting by bus or subway? Consider using the public-transportation stop that’s one or two stops away from your usual one, and walking the extra distance.
Work on a lower floor of your office building? Take the stairs instead of the elevator to get a mini-workout that helps build and strengthen the muscles in your lower back.
Used to grabbing lunch at the company cafeteria—or having takeout delivered to your desk? Try strolling outside the office for a bite, and picking up your takeout order instead of having it sent to you.
Have a gym near your office? Or places offering yoga, tai chi, or other fitness classes? Head outside to enjoy a short workout at least once a week. Taking a break will lift your spirits—and improve your back health, too.