Despite the incredible engineering of the human body, bad posture can lead to back pain. The human body has evolved very little in the last million years, and is basically constructed for the way humans lived prior to the industrial age. When the body is allowed to function as it’s been designed to, movement is abundant, joyful, easy and natural. When we spend too much time hunched over a computer screen or sitting in traffic, pain and discomfort can result, often in our backs and hips.
It's estimated that about 70% of people will have back pain at some point in their lives, and one theory is that back pain is prevalent because of our modern lifestyle. Long hours of sitting and compressing our spine are the opposite of what the spine was designed for. It was made to MOVE! To run, walk, climb, twist, turn, reach, bend — these are the actions of a healthy back and neck.
While daily movement and a strong core are key to maintaining a healthy muscular-skeletal system, posture is also an important player.
Here are some things to consider so you can avoid back, hip and neck pain and keep your body happy:
1. Become aware of your posture.
Your posture, how you align you body and use your muscles to keep you in certain positions, is an important consideration in every activity you do including sitting, standing and sleeping. Good posture maximizes your respiratory capacity, allowing other systems, including your digestive and circulatory systems, to work effectively. As you move throughout your day, think about how you are holding your body.
2. Practice good posture while you sit.
Besides laying down to sleep, sitting is the posture humans find themselves in most often. When we sit long hours, our core — the muscles around our middle going along the front in our stomach area and behind in the low back — act like a girdle stabilizing the vertebra, and other structures of the low back and hips. With prolonged use, these muscles become fatigued and we start to slump, which generally leads to the exhaustion of other structures.
Position yourself as ergonomically as possible. Your hips, knees and feet should be at 90 degree angles, your chair should provide support to your low back, and the distance to your work station should be comfortable without placing strain on your body.
3. Don't neglect your balance.
Maintaining your sense of balance becomes more difficult with each passing decade. Taking some time to develop your balance will go a long way toward engaging your core muscles and helping the brain-body connection remain strong, ensuring that when you need to recruit the muscles needed for core stabilization, the message can be transmitted from the brain to the needed muscle groups in nanoseconds.
When you're engaging in physical activity, think about doing specific exercises that target balance and strive to make those activities more challenging over time. Pilates and yoga are great activities for developing balance.
4. Think about your clothes and accessories.
Of course everyone wants to look his or her best. We feel better and more positive when we like what we see in a mirror. However, certain styles can be quite detrimental to the body. Wearing high heels or poorly supported shoes places the spine and hips out of alignment, making it more challenging for the spine to function as it was designed. Placing a heavy hand bag on your shoulder, or carrying a heavy backpack causes torque to that part of the body, requiring the muscles to adapt. This places strain on the muscle and all of the support tissues, including ligaments and tendons, eventually causing difficulty for the joints.
If you have to use a purse or a backpack, consider purchasing ergonomic ones and rotating their use from one arm to the other, or placing it with even distribution on the body.
5. Monitor your stress.
Humans don't always realize when and how the body is responding to its environment, but the body does this all the time. As signals and information hit our senses, the brain and body respond accordingly. When stress is the signal coming in, the body often responds by preparing to fight or flee; this causes muscles to tense up, shoulders to rise (somewhere around our ears), and blood to leave the digestive process in preparation for a stress response.
When we're under a continuous stress that does not result in fighting or fleeing, but rather is just a feeling of upset, the body often stays in a state of tight muscles, causing pressure on the entire muscular skeletal system. When you're feeling this way, make it a habit to move your body often and breathe deeply. Deep, diaphragmatic breaths are a signal to the brain that all is OK and the body can relax. Moving will help recruit other muscles, allowing those that have been used extensively to recuperate a little.
6. Make time for exercise and movement every day.
Developing and maintaining your muscles and core strength is your greatest weapon against back and neck pain. Because the body is so exquisitely designed for movement, it is quite simply a requirement for health and wellbeing. There are so many options for movement; walking, hiking, Pilates, yoga, group fitness classes such as spinning, recreational teams such as men's volleyball, and countless others. Find an activity that you enjoy doing and practice it regularly.
Think about creating a fitness plan that includes the four key areas of movement including (1) cardiovascular strength, (2) core conditioning, (3) flexibility and (4) resistance training. Once you start feeling the benefits of movement and deep breathing, they will become non-negotiables in your life and practices that you look forward to each week. Consider working with a personal trainer to begin so that you can get a program that you're ready for, but can be altered as your conditioning improves and you're ready for greater challenges.
7. Stretch every day.
Including flexibility exercises such as yoga in your routine is important to your overall level of fitness. However, most people with back, neck and hip discomfort benefit from regular, daily stretching. Take a few minutes (or more if you can), to stretch your entire body, one muscle group at a time.
Lay, sit or stand on a comfortable mat and stretch the muscles in your legs; hamstrings, calves, quads and your feet, stretch your lower back, mid back and shoulders, include your arms; biceps and triceps, and don't forget your neck. Do this slowly and with intention. Listen to the messages your body is giving you — what does it want more of, less of, and respond.