We all know that heavy lifting or a sudden jolt can trigger back issues, but did you know even sedentary behaviour such as watching TV or sitting at the computer can result in chronic back strain?

In fact, the number one cause of back pain according to the Australian Rheumatology Association is related to prolonged sitting or standing.

We chat to physiotherapist Sharon Richens about how sitting causes back pain, and the specific exercises and stretches that may prevent it altogether.

What factors cause lower back strain?
Prolonged sitting affects the back because it places increased pressure along the lumbar region, specifically the discs, says Richens.

These intervertebral discs are the cushions in our lower back that separate the vertebrae, or bones, of the spine. Normally, the discs protect our spine by absorbing shock and allowing for everyday movement. However, we lose this cushioning if the discs become damaged from certain activities, or lack thereof.

This is particularly a concern when you factor in the ageing process, explains Richens. “One of the natural occurrences as people age is that you decrease the fluid that’s in the disc – and combined with accumulative sitting, that’s not a good thing.”

Should we simply stand more?
Richens says the key is to move more. “People that stand all day, they have achy bodies as well. What our body and our posture really needs is the change from sitting to standing,” she says.

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Standing desks are a good idea, but the key is to keep moving

“When people are working on decreasing their sitting time, it’s about having short intervals of standing and walking.”

She says while standing desks are great, the underlying principle of using these desks is to encourage movement. But what if you don’t have access to a standing desk at work or your home office?

“Simple strategies like standing up while talking on the phone, moving the rubbish bin away from your desk so you have to get up when you need to throw something out, or it might be that you move your home laptop to your kitchen bench so that you are standing for 15 minutes instead of sitting.” 

Sitting affects our core muscles, too. “One of the problems that happens when we’re sitting, especially if we’re sitting poorly or in a slumped position, our core muscles are disengaged or turned off,” says Richens.

These core muscles are the muscles in the back and the deep abdominal muscles that protect your back and keep your whole body stable and balanced.

That’s why many physiotherapists recommend core-strengthening exercises to ease or prevent lower back strain. Regular stretching and increasing flexibility are also important.

“Prolonged sitting causes the muscles in the front of our hips to get very tight, so sometimes people need to learn how to stretch their buttock muscles and the muscles in the front of their hips. And then learn to use their core and abdominal muscles as well.”

So, what are the best exercises for this region?
Richens says you should avoid traditional sit-ups or crunches, which can aggravate the back, and instead opt for a series of simple and subtle exercises that build strength and encourage safe movement.

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Regular stretching and doing core-strengthening exercises can help ease lower back pain

The plank exercise is great for the core, however Richens says many people hold this exercise incorrectly and end up working the exterior abdominal muscles as opposed to the deep core area. She recommends seeing a physiotherapist to learn the correct technique.

She also suggests a simple squat, or half squat, exercise that engages your core, your back muscles, your quadriceps and glutes.

When performing a half squat, keep your chest and torso upright, gently push your bottom back and knees out into a half squat position. Place your hands on a back of a sturdy chair or bench for support.

You can do this from a three-quarter squat position, with your knees slightly less bent.

A standing hip flexor stretch, either performed with your front foot up on a small box or stool, or with your back leg bent up behind you, is another useful exercise to counter the strain caused by prolonged sitting or standing.  

When to seek advice
Richens says if you have persistent pain or are unable to relieve symptoms from walking or changing posture, this is a sign to seek further advice from a GP or physiotherapist.

Do you suffer from back pain? Let us know in the comments section below.

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