Death by the desk: How to prevent back pain associated with sitting all day
Updated: Jan 18
featuring Dr Wade Stutchbery, chiropractor at ActiveLife Chiro (@activelifechirosingapore) and fitness enthusiast who is pretty good at Brazilian Jiu Jitsu
"80% of the cases I treat here in Singapore are desk-related injuries"
As a chiropractor, one thing I wish more people knew is that they have to move more. A lot of people think that it’s normal to sit from 9am to 6pm because so many of us do it, but sitting is actually extremely strenuous for your spine. We need to get up and move every hour, even if it’s just to get a glass of water. Try to also exercise at least four times a week for 30 minutes each, even if it’s just a low intensity walk. And no, being a weekend warrior doesn’t count. You can’t be inactive all week and then do a monster bike ride over the weekend; you’re more likely to get injured that way. Your body needs balance. It needs to move regularly.
Being sedentary for prolonged periods of time can lead to the most common condition I see, back pain. 80% of the cases I treat here in Singapore are desk-related injuries, and 90% of these desk-related injuries can be traced back to bad posture.
How to sit with good posture:
Always keep your head above your shoulders and your tailbone. Sticking your head out front exerts strain on your spine. What I like to tell people is to elongate their spine rather than pull their shoulders back or retract their head. Imagine someone is lifting your head up - quite often, when this happens, you’ll feel your core muscles contract to hold you upright; your shoulders will then naturally retract and your head will sit nicely above your shoulders and pelvis.
How to set up your workstation so you can sit with good posture:
If you’re working with a computer or laptop, always ensure the screen is at eye level. If it is below eye level, you’ll have to shift your gaze downwards, which means having to bend your neck forward and exerting additional stress on your spine. If you adjust your laptop so it’s at eye level, that would mean that the keyboard will be lifted up, which might make it awkward to type on - this is where a wireless keyboard would come in handy.
Get a proper chair with a good amount of lumbar (back) support and armrests. The more contact your body has with your chair, the better. Don’t sit at the edge of your chair as this does not support your spine.
Your feet should be flat on the ground while sitting. Leaving them dangling exerts pressure on the spine.
A cue that I like to give people is to keep their arms next to their bodies like a T-rex, the dinosaur. If they have T-rex arms, they won’t hunch forward. Having their keyboards nearer to them and having more of their bodies in contact with their chairs will allow them to keep their arms closer to their bodies. If they have T-rex arms while typing and are looking straight ahead, that is good posture.
How to use items lying around the house to set up your workstation so you can sit with good posture:
The thing about setting up a proper workstation is it doesn’t have to cost a lot. You don’t need to get crazy expensive, high tech equipment. There are a lot of household items you can use to improve your posture.
If you don’t have a laptop stand, simply place your laptop on a stack of books so it’s propped up to eye level.
If your chair doesn’t have that curvature that provides lumbar support, you can place a pillow below your lower back.
If your feet don’t touch the ground when you’re sitting on your chair (especially the case for petite women), rest them on a footstool or a box.
How to keep moving:
Even if you have the best workstation set up for good posture, you still have to move your body. Sitting all day with the best posture in the world is still bad for your body. The small things you do matter.
If you’re stuck at your desk during a long call, stand up and shake out your legs, march on the spot, roll your shoulders, touch your toes - do a variety of movements to get your spine moving again. (If you have to keep your video on during your call, proceed with this pointer with caution - maybe explain to your colleagues what you’re doing and why you’re doing it before they think you’ve completely lost it)
Take the stairs instead of the escalator.
Stand instead of sitting while on public transport.
If you have trouble committing to a workout, make plans with a workout buddy who will kill you if you don’t show up to hold yourself accountable.
I had a friend in Australia who had to shovel sand into bags for a living and would always feel too exhausted to exercise after knocking off. So he turned his job into a workout by shovelling ten times on the right side, and then ten times on the left side. Aside from the fact that he’s absolutely ripped now, he also prevented injuries from repetitive strain and muscular imbalances from overusing one side of his body. Moving enough and moving well is possible regardless of your situation; it’s really what you make of it.