4 posture fixer-uppers for reducing everyday back pain and stress

Are you sitting down for this? Because you might wanna stand.

Are you sitting down for this? Because you might wanna stand.

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Bad posture is one of the many causes of back pain, especially for those of us who spend a lot of time bent over keyboards. Although a lot of people would like to improve their posture, it's not easy to say exactly what this means. What's the perfect posture? Should we focus on pulling our chests up or our navels towards the spine? Chin up or chin back? Should we be using standing desks or sitting on yoga balls? 

We put these questions to Stuart McGill, Professor Emeritus in Spine Biomechanics at the University of Waterloo and founder of BackFitPro. McGill's worked for over three decades as a researcher and clinician, published hundreds of scientific papers, and treated everyone from desk workers to athletes whose jobs involve lifting 1000lb barbells. If anyone could tell us how we should be sitting, it's him. 

Well, he can't. At least, he can't without knowing a lot more about us as individuals. We're all built differently, we put different demands on our bodies, and have different pain triggers and sensitivities. "There is no perfect posture," said McGill, "For most people it is a moving target." But that doesn't mean there's no such thing as good posture, which can come with an understanding of some general postural principles and how to properly apply them to your particular situation. 

Posture and stress migration 

When we lift an object, open a door, or simply sit down, our body is subject to various forces or loads which vary in magnitude, duration, and frequency. Lifting a heavier object, holding it for a longer time, repeating the movement - all increase the stress on our bodies. That isn't necessarily a bad thing. All of the tissues in our bodies can bear a certain amount of stress safely, but they also have a tipping point beyond which we're likely to experience pain or damage. 

"Posture change" McGill told us, "migrates stress from one tissue to another." Some body positions distribute stress more safely and more comfortably than others, which becomes more important at higher loads. It's more critical, for example, to stiffen your back and lift with your hips if you're performing a deadlift at the gym than if you're bending down to tie your shoes. "With good posture," says McGill, "you are resilient to much higher loads before you go past the tipping point resulting in pain." 

Bad posture, on the other hand, transfers stress to tissues in such a way that they cross a tipping point into pain or deformation. McGill explained the point in terms of martial arts. "Jujitsu is based on creating extreme bad posture. Joints are taken to the end range of motion. Load is applied and people tap out and submit." Martial arts of all kinds are designed to find and exploit weakened bodily postures where only a small amount of load is needed to bring you across your tipping points. 

The problem with sitting for too long

The same principles apply to sitting at your desk. "It's comical to watch people work. Some people put themselves in those vulnerable positions, unbeknownst to them. They're slouching and they're jutting out their neck to see the computer screen. Their shoulders start to rise when they lift their elbows to type." All of these postural alterations can migrate stress to certain tissues beyond the point that they can bear pain-free. Although the loads involved are light, they accumulate if we spend long periods sitting in the same position.

According to McGill's research,  just sitting with bad posture is rarely enough to push people over the tipping point. "There are a lot of sedentary people who sit all day long and never get pain." While it may seem unfair, he says that people who get up after a day of sitting and go hit the gym are at a much higher risk of back pain. "They train for an hour, but they don't match their training for their sedentary work life. They generally do too much load in the gym, too many bends, they exercise in poor form…. Now when they go back to sitting for eight hours, it becomes a pain generator." Once tissues are sensitized or have accumulated some damage, then sitting can create pain. 

Posture fixer-uppers for everyone

The kind of postural advice McGill would give you depends on a lot of things: the activities you want to do, the natural structure of your body, your personal pain triggers. So, the first step in improving your posture is getting to know how your body works and your personal pain triggers and then devising a strategy to avoid pain triggers while building up the capacity for pain-free activity. McGill's book, Back Mechanic, provides self-diagnostic tests and different approaches to different kinds of back pain. Despite the personalized nature of posture, McGill says there are still plenty of tips that are very widely useful, especially for those who spend a lot of time sitting. 

1. Sit in intervals: Staying in any one position (sitting or standing) can focus stress on one spot and create pain. Therefore McGill advises sitting in intervals. If your phone rings, stand to pick it up. If you're a desk worker, and there are any other tasks that you don't have to sit for, stand up for them. 

2. Change positions/switch chairs: There are lots of ways to sit. Changing postures will move stress around and give certain tissues time to rest. When McGill was still a professor, he would move between three different office chairs throughout the day. Sitting on a gym balls or kneeling chairs or regular desk chairs all have benefits and disadvantages. But switching positions helps to reduce the amount of stress incurred by any single position. McGill advised using a similar strategy on long drives by adjusting your seat position every hour or so. 

3. Pay attention to pain: "When you get pain, that should be your trigger to act appropriately," McGill says.  If you're uncomfortable, that's a sign something could be better. Learn your pain triggers and make posture adjustments to migrate stress away from them. 

4. Don't slouch: Good posture varies with context, but slouching, said McGill, is almost always bad. Bending your spine forward transfers stress to the back of the disks which can lead to strain and if you have a bulging disk, it will make it more angry. Try to maintain a neutral spine (the natural s-shape), especially when under heavy loads. This helps the back muscles and hips take the loads instead of the spine. 

Clifton Mark writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and other life-related topics. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.


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