In honour of Back Awareness Week, we take a look at what is really the best combination of conditions for a happy back whilst at work. Resident Osteopath, Andrew Doody, takes a closer look.
By now I’m sure we all realise that sitting for long periods is bad for you. But just how bad have our habits become, and what can be done about it?
Sitting in an office chair for long periods of time can wreak havoc on your lower back as well as many other joints and muscles. Simply stated, our bodies weren’t made to sit for prolonged periods of time. In fact our bodies developed a heck of a long time before chairs were around at all.
According to research, the average office worker spends an average of 5 hours and 41 minutes per day sitting at their desk. The same study also found that those who sit longer at work are more likely to sit more outside of work as well.
Overall, sedentary jobs have increased 83% since 1950 and physically active jobs now make up only a bout 25% of the workforce, which is 50% less than in 1950. Additionally, the average working week is longer. We now work an average of 47 hours a week, 164 more hours a year than 20 years ago.
On top of time spent sitting in the workplace, on average, we spend 7 hours sleeping and 4 and a half hours watching tv a day.
So should we be standing?
A recent study in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology found that standing for those almost six hours a day instead of sitting not only prevents weight gain — it can help people shed pounds. They calculated that standing burned 0.15 calories more per minute compared to sitting. If an average person stood for six hours a day instead of sitting, they would burn an extra 54 calories a day. Some studies had it even higher. In addition, the muscle activity from standing is also associated with lower risks for strokes and heart attacks.
Quite a few studies have shown that a single day of breaking up sitting with standing or short walks seems to have a beneficial effect on health parameters like blood sugar control, blood pressure, and feelings of pain and fatigue.
However, before we all decide to stand all day instead, let’s look at the downsides.
There’s a confusing array of conclusions from recent studies involving the health implications of standing vs sitting for long amounts of time. There have been studies, for example, that have concluded that people who primarily stand for long periods of time during the day, instead of lowering their risk for heart disease, may be up to twice as likely to develop it. Perhaps long periods of standing are not the answer either. It has also been pointed out that standing for extended periods of time isn’t safe for all people, such as those with joint or vascular issues.
However swapping out some sitting time for standing time is not only about heart disease. One variable that makes sitting for extended periods damaging to the spine is the sustained contracture of the abdominal and hamstring muscles and the imbalance this creates affecting the mechanics of the lower back. It also increases load on the lumbar discs.
Using a standing desk, even for a portion of a workday, can minimise this imbalance and help maintain better spinal alignment and muscle symmetry
So a combination of sitting and standing?
A recent study was preformed where office workers of varying ages and body masses used a sit-stand desk where the alternated between sitting and standing throughout an 8-hour work day. The study found that the participants reported a 31.8% reduction in standing desk back pain when compared to sitting for the entire work day.
But just like sitting and leaning forward for extended periods can increase pressure on the back, the same applies to standing with poor ergonomics. Maintaining good posture and taking frequent breaks is the best way to ensure you’re standing or sitting optimally.
Try not to wear high heels (you can swap out for flats or slippers while at your desk if needed). Have the top of the computer screen at about eye level, and vary posture. When you’re in a sitting phase of your day make sure your chair and workstation have been fully ergonomically assessed. Have your osteopath discuss any conditions specific to you to adapt both the sitting and standing phases to suit you better. Have regular breaks from your desk altogether when you walk around the office.
And then of course if you really want to blow the budget there’s treadmill desks…