Steps to save your back from the damage done by long hours at a desk

Desk-bound workers need to get up and move to stay healthy and ache-free, writes Abi Jackson.

Desk workers need to build movement into the day. Picture: Thinkstock/PA

LONG hours at a desk are taking a toll on the nation’s backs — — but you can take steps to offset the damage.

We’ve all seen the headlines denouncing long hours spent at a desk every day as the root of many modern ills — but how bad can it really be?

“It’s a huge problem,” says physiotherapist and osteopath Tim Allardyce.

“It is one of the major reasons why back pain is so prevalent, and increasing year on year. Sitting at a desk for long periods encourages us to adopt a forward postural position, where our backs round and become what is known as ‘kyphotic’ (a forward rounding of the back). Increased kyphosis in the spine is often a sign of poor posture and is directly related to rounded shoulders.”

It’s not just about back pain either. A recent University of Edinburgh study found many office workers spend more time sitting than the over-75s, and sedentary lifestyles are linked to higher rates of major conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

But, if quitting the office isn’t an option, what can you do about it? Quite a lot actually — although you have to be willing to make some changes...

Ditch al-desko lunches

“New research shows two out of five people are so glued to their desk, they even eat their lunch there,” says pain psychologist Dr Anna Mandeville. “It’s a very bad habit that’s reinforced by our work culture in combination with high workloads. Moving regularly so we don’t ‘overdo’ one behaviour — for example, sitting — has been shown to reduce pain and improve mood.”

Your lunch break’s probably your best opportunity to have a break and get out to stretch your legs and get blood pumping through those veins — even go for a swim/jog/gym class, if circumstances allow. Even a 10-minute walk round the block will make a difference.

Move it

Ideally, Allardyce says you need to “get up and move every 30 minutes”. “Maybe just a two-minute walk to a colleague,” he suggests. “Don’t spend more than 30 minutes at any one time sitting at your desk.” We owe a lot to modern technology — but it’s also made us lazy. So next time you need to ask a colleague a question, rather than adding to their inbox clog, consider getting up and having a quick chat with them instead.

Get a stand-up desk

Research has found that using a stand-up desk can burn an additional 50 calories per hour. Also, when standing, blood doesn’t pool in the legs like it can when sitting for long periods, which is good news for health all round. Stand-up desks can also encourage you to move more frequently, which may help keep stiffness and aches at bay. Some designs — including the Varidesk Pro Plus — enable you to alternate between sitting and standing to suit your needs.

Stretch it out

There are plenty of simple stretches and yoga moves you can do at or near your desk to ward off aches, get that blood pumping — and, as an added bonus, even help reduce stress.

Try these five suggestions:

1. Forward fold

“Set an alarm every hour on your phone and dedicate two minutes to a forward fold — just hang there!” says yoga instructor Julie Montagu. Stand up and, bending at the hips not the waist, let your head hang downwards. If you need to, bend your knees and rest your hands on your legs for support and only go as far as is comfortable.

2. Seated back twists

This one will stretch and twist your spine, and you don’t even have to get up. “Cross your legs and twist round, holding the back of your chair and the opposite hand to knee, and hold for a minute before switching sides,” says Montagu.

3. Eagle pose

This one’s good if you’re prone to hunching. “Put your arms into eagle pose (wrapping the arms around each other and raising upwards towards the ceiling), and lift your chin up, looking towards the ceiling,” says Montagu. “Hold for a minute and then lower the arms, chin to chest and hold for a further minute.”

4. Dynamic chest stretch

Fitness instructor Rick Smith recommends this exercise as another easy one. He explains: “Stand or sit up tall in your chair with arms stretched out straight in front of your body with palms together. At a steady pace, move your arms out to your sides and rotate palms upwards, pushing the thumbs as far back as is comfortable, hold for 10 seconds. Return to start position and repeat three to five times.”

5. Seated easy side bend

Angela Ioannou, a personal trainer, says this is good for stretching the neck, shoulder and obliques too. “Turn your chair so your desk is parallel on your right-hand side,” she says. “Next place your right forearm and elbow on the desk and reach your left arm up to the sky. Relax your shoulders and reach your left arm over to the right, sliding your right arm away from your body to increase the stretch. Focus on your breath as you hold the deep movement.”

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