Lower back pain is a major health problem for many millions of people. Along with colds and flu, lower back pain is one of the biggest causes of lost working time in the Western world today. In my opinion, ‘most’ straightforward lower back pain problems are caused by sedentary lifestyles, poor posture, people spending far too many hours sitting down, and too many people having ‘uneven weight distribution’ in the form of a big fat belly! That comment is slightly tongue-in-cheek, I am not a qualified back-care specialist, and I appreciate that there are many other reasons for back pain. The spine is a complex structure, and the ‘core’ of a human, and understanding backs is a complex science for which I am not trained.
However, I think sedentary lifestyles and desk jobs, and comfy sofa’s in front of the TV, have created a generation of people who spend the majority of their waking hours sitting down, and this causes a lot of lower back problems. I personally suffered from lower back ache for several years. I had a ‘desk job’ between 1998 and 2006, and in those 8 years, my weight fluctuated between ‘normal’ and ‘overweight’ to just touching ‘obese’ in 2003 and again in 2005/6. Over that time, the combination of a 20-pound belly out front, and sitting on my behind for 15 hours per day, I suffered my share of lower back pain. Nothing debilitating, just a near-constant low level ache, worse on some days than others.
Also, during that time, I had periods were I was exercising regularly and periods when I was not. If I was exercising, it was usually running or playing squash, or sometime mountain biking on local trails. When running, I found I was very prone to minor calf sprains, and each time I suffered a calf sprain, it would mean 3 weeks off running completely before I could start back again. if I started back too soon, it would just go again instantly.
Then, eight years ago today, I had a revelation and I realised that sitting all day was all wrong for me, it was killing my energy levels, and hurting my back. In a fit of ‘must change mentality’ I threw out my office chair and decided I would stand all day, no matter what. In the spirit of taking immediate action, I propped up my monitor on a sturdy cardboard box, and my keyboard/mouse mat on another, and for a few days, it worked.
Later that week, I bought a few banister spindles from the local DIY shop, and build a proper little stand just the right size for a keyboard and mouse mat - see the picture here, of my cluttered home office!
I replaced the cardboard box at the back of my desk with a wooden one that I knocked together which had a handy little shelf underneath, and I was all set. Today, 8 years later, that home made stand is still going strong and I still stand in front of it for 11 or 12 hours almost every day!
I have now been standing up working every day for 8 years, and I can honestly say that I have not felt lower back pain ONCE since the day I stood up. (Caveat: I fractured my lumbar spine in two places in a training accident in early 2012, and clearly I did suffer some considerable back pain then!!) Additionally, standing up to work had provided numerous other benefits too. For one, my energy is far stronger all day…no more nodding off at my desk mid-afternoon! I feel my work has benefitted…when I talk to customers or colleagues on the phone, I think my voice sounds better as my energy levels are up, and I find that I hardly ever suffer calf sprains any more when I go running, even though I do far more running these days which ought to mean the calves are under more stress.
Back in February 2006, most people thought I was slightly nuts. However, standing up to work at a desk has started to shift into the mainstream in recent years, and right now it actually seems to be ‘all the latest rage’, and companies are now selling stand-up desks, treadmill desks and working-out-work-stations for use at home and in offices.
Many of my friends have now started using stand up desks, such as this one to the right. You can now buy purpose-built stand up desks with adjustable legs, or you can buy a solution like the one in this picture, which is adjustable, if you want to shift throughout the day between standing up and sitting down - you just move your PC and other equipment up and down as you go.
I know that the solution pictured here was purchased on Amazon, and I know another friend who bought a purpose-built desk from Ikea. There are even dedicated places online now to purchase your stand up desk - this site - http://iwantastandingdesk.com/ - is a company run by a friend of a friend, and there are other sites too. Some solutions can be expensive, costing hundreds of pounds, or even into 4 figures for a working ‘treadmill desk’, but I am still doing fine with my home made solution that cost me about 10 bucks!
This friend has been standing to work for a couple of years, and now he recently built this superb workstation in his home, built using DIY Ikea bookshelf components. He has an upper shelf for his laptop, set to eye height, and a lower shelf for a separate keyboard, set to elbow height, and then he also has a separate squatting desk. He stands to write, squats to read, and tends to wander around the room when on phone calls, as I do. At the end of the day when he is finished working, the shelves slide back into the bookcase on the wall and the whole “office” is discretely packed away. Genius! Puts my messy home made effort to shame!
I love the squatting desk, there are lots of benefits here - hamstring flexibility, stretching out the lower back - I must try this myself.
Some people have asked me if it gets boring, or tiring. I stand for anything up to 16 hours per day, and I have been standing for 8 years now - if I am honest, I have to say that up to about 12 hours per day is fine, any more get’s a bit tiring/boring. My legs start aching after 12 hours, telling me that it must be evening, and I should shift to sitting down for the last 2 or 3 hours of the day.
There are a few hazards to watch out for with standing desks.
Hazards - posture
When we get bored (either standing too long without moving much, or if the task at hand is not interesting) then we tend to get lazy, and we start ‘hitching’, throwing your weight on to one leg, and ‘hitching’ your hip to one side, leaning forward on to your elbows. This is OK for a few minutes, but it SUCKS long term, as it will lead to muscle stiffness and imbalances around the pelvis and hips…then all kinds of stuff gets out of whack and you end up picking up injuries in sport or out running or down the gym.
I find the best thing is breaking from standing every few hours to go do something else, either get out for a walk, go get some exercise, or find a reason to sit down for half an hour and give your eyes a break from the screen.
These days, as I mostly stand for about 12 hours per day, I try to often get my daily exercise in the middle of the day. So I might work for 5 hours, then go out running, come home for a shower and then sit down for 20 minutes for lunch, and that breaks the standing day nicely before another 5 hours stood at my desk in the afternoon. Then, if I want to work (writing for this blog!) in the evening, once the kids are in bed and the house is quiet, I’ll go and sit down in another room to finish my work from a comfortable chair. That all works well for me.
There are other postural issues to look out for. I am not an osteopath or back specialist, but I know that some issues to watch out for include foot alignment, hip placement, head alignment (too much tipping the head forward can place pressure on your spine and neck) and for some people there is a concern over varicose veins and blood pooling in the legs.
I would say that I try to counteract all such issues by keeping variety and movement in my mind every day. So, when I am on the phone, I am hands-free, so I wander about my office, keep my head up (helps your voice sound better on the phone…if you hang your head, you’ll sound down - I spent 8 years in telesales, there’s a tip for you!) and wave my arms around expressively. Sometimes when I have something to read, I lay on the floor, stick my feet up on the desk and let the blood drain out of my legs while I read. Most days, I try to ensure I spend at least 20 minutes with my legs above the height of my heart, then let gravity do the rest.
Take a reading break
Other days, if I have something to read, I might lay on my office floor on my front, prop myself up on my arms and bend my spine gentle back for 10 or 15 minutes.
I try to move around a lot, all day. I play music in my office most of the time, so I am constantly foot tapping, dancing on the spot or ‘bopping’ my hips to the beat. On days when I “don’t have the time to exercise” so an hour out running or gym visit is not on my schedule, I’ll do sets of push ups between emails and phone calls, just to keep me moving and keep my metabolism from slowing down too much. Sometimes I can get 500 push-ups done in a day, which seems pretty good for a day without exercise! I will often break from my email, run to my garage, crank out a set of chins or dips, then dash back to my desk. It only takes 20 seconds each time, but if I can do that ten times in a day, it keeps my muscles stimulated - and that’s important after 17 years in a desk job!
Finally, and this one might seem odd, but it’s one of the best tips I can give you. I practice ‘anal locking’ (that’s a chi exercise to you martial artists, or it’s called ‘closed mula bandha’ if you are a yoga practitioner, or pelvic floor lifts to you ladies who have had babies) and ab contraction exercises. Basically, while I stand here typing, I bring my legs together, feet pointing forward, I pull my butt ‘under’ me, suck in my abs, clench my abs and butt cheeks, and suck in my butt, like trying to stop a bowel movement (sorry guys…) and lock all the energy and tension inside. I try to holds this position in reps, controlling my breathing with each rep.
Yogis do this, as a way of controlling the flow of energy and to strengthen the core, to help time the yoga movements with the breathing. Martial artists also do this, as a way of managing chi (energy) inside their bodies. Once mastered, it helps you to throw far harder punches, among other things. It’s an excellent core strengthening technique, and one exercise I can do 20 times daily without losing a second of productive work time. I’m doing now, as I type this 🙂
So, try standing up to work, and reap the benefits of more energy, a stronger core and no more lower back pain! 8 years for me now, and I would never go back to sitting all day.