I would like to address an issue three of our readers wrote to me about, which they all have in common. They all struggle with low back pain, and when I asked some questions, I discovered each of them sits a lot.
As we get older, we tend to sit more, whether doing work, indulging in a hobby, or just enjoying our retirement. Especially during these trying times, many of us are just at home in a seated position more frequently.
So, let’s get started on alleviating this issue. I would like you to get a chair and sit on it. Can you notice the angles going from your torso to your legs and from your upper legs to your lower legs? There are 90 degree angles in both places.
Both of those angles put a lot of compression on all of the muscle fibers running through those joint areas. That results in really tight calves, as well as hamstrings, and oftentimes, very underactive bums. Essentially, sitting for much of your day will affect your body.
You will have underactive calves and hamstrings and glute muscles. Without the benefit of those muscles, along with a tight upper body from sitting, you will likely experience some low back pain. The answer is not as simple as “strengthen your core.”
First of all, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you really can’t be sitting all day long, and not have that tightness and compression happen. So, what is your best position to sit in? Answer: the next position you sit in because the lesson is not to be stationery in one position for too long.
Maybe you use a stool and a chair, maybe you have a big exercise ball. Maybe you can put your computer up on the kitchen counter and you happen to have a high one. You can move things around. Even if you don’t have a standing desk, you can figure out different desk arrangements.
Give yourself multiple options each day. Figure out ways to be standing as well as find ways to be using different heights for your seated positions. I have been known to put my computer on a low coffee table and stack up a few blocks and sit on the blocks on the ground.
The goal is to maintain a neutral spine, so you don’t get to tuck your tail. Stack up enough blocks or pillows so that you can keep a neutral pelvis.
You don’t want to be sitting on the bone at the back of your pelvis, the sacrum. What you want to do is to sit on those sitz bones (the bones that, if you search in the fleshy part of your bum, are pointing like laser beams at the floor. Yes, you want them to point at the floor.)
Sometimes in order for our sitting bones to point at the floor, we have to do things to release the tension in the back of our body.
My number one suggestion is the calf stretch. You don’t have to have a half dome foam roller as I do in the video, but you do need something to get the front of your foot up. This is preferred to any other kind of calf stretch because you can keep your body in neutral.
You can see the signposts.
The first signpost is the side of your thigh, that hard thigh bone of the lower trochanter. You want to be able to figure out if you can get that landmark over your second signpost, the side of your heel. Watch the video to see how to get the lower body in neutral regardless of what the top part of your body is doing.
You want to get your hip over your heel, and then stretch. So how do you know if you are stretching? Can you feel a sensation on the back of your leg? When I do this, I feel a moderate sensation with my non stretching leg a bit behind the stretching leg; so I hold onto something and advance my non stretching leg forward.
If you change the location of your left foot, you will feel more of a stretch. You can do this stretch standing with your legs straight. And then, you can bend that stretching leg because there are two calf muscles in there. One is deeper than the other. You’ll do both sides, of course, and they’ll probably be different.
And then you’ll move to both feet. When you do both feet, what I like to suggest is that you hinge over. You can have bent knees; they don’t have to be straight. Maybe you feel it more up in your thigh and less in your calf. It doesn’t matter where exactly; just experience it, do not force it.
Remember that you want your feet to be generally facing forward. Go for sensation, not pain! You want to be able to breathe. Keep breathing and keep your ribs in your body.
You want to strengthen the bottom that you have been sitting on all day. Squats are a great way to strengthen your bum, but your calves may still be too tight for it to be effective. I suggest you put your heels up on a rolled up mat, maybe a pillow that you’re willing to stand on.
With your heels slightly elevated it is easier to squat. A squat involves bending your knees, sending your bum backwards and your torso, in one piece. You are not changing the shape of your spine. Think about a plumb line going from your hip to the top of your head.
Your entire torso stays on the plumb line and hinges over. You send your bum back and your knees are not really going forward very much. That’s because you are trying to build a bum. There are other kinds of squats where you might allow your knees to go forward, not in this one.
As you increase the number of squats, you will start feeling your bum come alive. If you’re not feeling much, maybe you don’t need to be standing on anything. You are coming down in your squat, but you are not coming down so far that your tail starts to tuck.
Another piece of the sitting-and-back-pain puzzle has to do with your upper body. I suggest you find a wall to stand against with cactus arms. (Please see the video for how to make cactus arms.)
Your first goal is to have your elbows on the wall. Next, try to get your watch on the wall. And then try to get your wrist a little more on the wall. And then how about the back of the palm on the wall.
Finally, you may try to get your fingers on the wall. It’s not an easy task to get the back of your hand and fingers on the wall without lifting your ribs off the wall. Do not force it. Trying this exercise will help you gain a greater range of movement over time. Switch to the other side.
Remember that lifting your rib cage is an enticing cheat that we do not want to do. Also, remember to breathe. You may feel the line of tension running through all the fascia from your dominant hand all the way up to your shoulder. That is very normal.
My last tip is set your phone to alert you every 20 minutes, or if you must, 30 minutes. When it goes off, I want you to take a walk around your room. Walk around the house. Give yourself at least 60 seconds of walking, before you sit down, and if possible, try to find a different seat or position.
Lastly, enjoy slowly distributing the load off your low back to more places in your body!
How often do you find yourself sitting down? Is it for longer stretches of time? Have you tried putting the load off of your bum? What strategy works best for you? Do you have an adjustable desktop to use at different height settings throughout the day?? Please share your tips and thoughts in the comments below.