Lower back pain affects almost 84% of Canadians at some point in their lives. That’s according to an estimate from researchers from the University of Alberta, based on a study of Canadians in Alberta and Saskatchewan. That’s an epidemic by virtually any definition of the word. And it affects Canadians of all ages: Statistics Canada notes that back pain is among the top causes of chronic pain in Canadians age 12 to 44.
So does that mean we should simply resign ourselves to suffering and limitations?
Devoting a modest amount of time – in some cases mere seconds – throughout the day to improving your back health can help you reduce pain or even avoid this widespread problem altogether.
Here’s how to get started:
1. Stay active throughout the day
Once we get "in the zone" at work, many of us don’t move again for hours. Too often, physical activity takes a back seat to emails, meetings and endless to-do lists. Over time, that inactivity can take a toll on your back.
"Movement is medicine," explains Dr. Tam Pham, owner and chiropractor at Hybrid Health & Fitness in Toronto. "And the more you move the better."
Getting more active doesn’t need to be complicated, Pham says. Simply shifting positions or making time for a light stretch every 20 minutes – say, while your lunch heats up – can benefit your back in real and substantial ways. Set a timer on your phone or adopt a modified Pomodoro technique (20 minutes of work followed by a five-minute rest) to build effective breaks into your work routine.
2. Be mindful of your posture
Let’s lay one myth to rest: Good posture doesn’t mean sitting up perfectly straight all the time. In reality, holding "perfect" posture for hours, Pham warns, can tire your muscles out and lead to temporary aches.
Instead, set up your desk so that you can hold healthier positions without excessive effort. For example, keep your monitor at eye level and approximately an arm’s length away. Set your chair at a height that keeps your knees bent at a 90-degree angle. If you’re on the shorter side, placing books under your feet can help.
- Need help with your posture? Wearable gadgets like Adrenalease and UPRIGHT can help you correct your body’s alignment.
3. Practise posture-friendly exercises
Your core muscles form a “corset” that supports your spine. Pham recommends simple moves such as the plank – whether done on your knees or full-length – to strengthen your core and fend off back pain.
Hamstring stretches are likewise important for preventing low back pain and maintaining good posture. To relieve tight hamstrings, sit at the edge of your chair with one leg extended forward and your heel resting on the ground. Be sure your knee is slightly bent, hinge forward at the hip until you feel a stretch in the back of your leg and hold for 15 to 30 seconds. Repeat on the other side.
4. Reduce back pain during pregnancy
Back pain is especially common during pregnancy, thanks to both hormonal changes and the additional weight you’re carrying. But that doesn’t mean you can’t take steps to prevent or minimize discomfort. The best approach, Pham advises, is to remain active with pregnancy-friendly exercise like brisk walking, swimming and stationary cycling.
Also pay special attention to your posture at work. Sit all the way back in your chair to support your spine and try placing a pillow in the small of your back. The constant, soft contact encourages your muscles to relax, helping stave off soreness.
5. Make preventing back pain part of your daily routine
When it comes to preventing back pain, mindset is paramount. "Mental awareness and having a positive outlook are especially important if you’re experiencing pain," Pham explains. "As you start to do more to address your pain or discomfort, your muscles will feel looser and the exercises will become more comfortable." If, however, you experience sharp pangs or your pain otherwise increases, don’t hesitate to consult a professional.
Finally, be an ambassador for good back health. Set aside your self-consciousness about doing stretches or posture exercises at your desk, for instance, and you just might set a positive example that benefits the entire office. After all, as Pham notes, caring for your spine should be normal. Let’s make it so.