As a private chef and professional in the food industry, having a bad back is more than just an occupational hazard. The first time I threw mine out, I wasn’t carrying groceries or lifting a heavy skillet — two daily activities I often blamed for my chronic back pain. I was simply putting on my pants. And a piece of advice: if you ever throw out your back, hope that you do it when you’re not partially naked.
Over the years, I funneled a significant amount of my earnings into massages and other therapies to limit my ongoing pain. But after I threw out my back for the second time in a matter of months, I knew it was time to start making some changes.
There are a million products out there — from magnetic belts to anti-inflammatory creams — that promise to cure your back pain. But I’ve found that tweaking my daily habits is what really made a last difference, and many of these changes are free.
1. Don’t sit for more than 45 minutes at a time.
Over the past few years, "sitting is the new smoking" has become a viral health mantra. The gist is that our increasingly sedentary life is killing us more so than virtually all other man made poisons and infectious diseases.
For caveman, life was more up and down. But today our daily routine takes us from bed to chair to car to chair to couch. When I first started learning about the perils of sitting, I assumed that a moderate exercise habit would counteract some of this sloth-like behavior. But a recent study by Cornell suggests that the hours spent sitting are really the prime indicators of mortality, not how many days a week you go to Soul Cycle before an eight-hour shift at your computer.
When the body is in a stagnant position for more than 45 minutes, your brain is recognizing that position as the one to hold. Sitting causes some of your muscles to shorten, and if that posture becomes “locked,” it can make your whole alignment shift into a crooked, bowed mess once you’re standing.
So set a timer on your phone and try to get up and walk around the room once an hour. It’s a good excuse to refill your water glass.
2. Build a better workspace for your back.
One of the best things I’ve done for my back so far is swap out my awful bucket chair for a fancy ergonomic office model. I dragged my feet for a while on this switch because a) most back-friendly desk chairs are not the most aesthetically pleasing and b) you pay a premium for function over form. But I ended up spending less on the chair than I did at the chiropractor, so it was a good return on my investment.
Standing desks are also having a moment right now. You can find some cheaper makeshift models that sit on top of your desk and allow you to manually adjust from sitting to standing throughout the day.
Keep in mind the angles of your body; your arms and legs should be at 90 degrees, and your line of sight should be straight in front of you, not angled down. Most people need to raise their monitor and lower their keyboard. If your chair is too high with these adjustments, you can always put yoga blocks under your feet to compensate.
3. Strengthen your pelvic floor.
Your pelvic floor is at the base of your spine and will support it in a way that a lot of other things won’t. Pilates is a great practice that targets a lot of these pesky muscles that can otherwise go unworked. Strengthening your core is the best way to keep your spine in proper alignment. If you throw your back out constantly, this may be an area to start dedicating some time to.
4. Sleep on your back.
There’s a clear hierarchy in sleep positions in terms of how they contribute to your back health. Stomach sleepers have it the worst. There’s no support, especially with a soft mattress, and gravity pulling down causes your spine to bow. Sleeping on your side is slightly better, especially if you have a pillow between your legs. But the best position for your alignment, by far, is sleeping on your back.
Put a pillow or a bolster underneath your knees and relax your arms by your sides, or rest them on your stomach. This takes some time getting used to. But at the very least, try to fall asleep in this position and then give yourself the freedom to move around in the night.
5. Limit high heels.
As a woman, I know it’s not realistic or culturally acceptable to wear orthopedic shoes at all times. But we could all probably benefit from limiting high heels to more targeted occasions. Not only are they hard on your poor feet, but they cause your center of balance to shift forward, straining your lower back.
Overwearing heels can also cause your calf muscles to shorten, leaving you misaligned when you’re walking around barefoot or in running shoes.
If you wear heels at the office, try switching to flats when you’re sitting at your desk and when you’re traveling to and from work.
6. Move with soft knees.
Locking your knees reduces blood flow to your legs, and causes your muscles to tighten. When you stand, try making a slight adjustment and allowing your knees to be soft. This is something you can carry through while walking and exercising.
Dr. John Sarno has written extensively about the effect your mind has on your back. Unconsciously when we experience stress, it causes us to tighten various parts of the body. If you’ve been experiencing back problems and have been simultaneously faced added anxiety in your life, it might be worth exploring meditation or other relaxation tools to help release some of that internal tension.
The Wellness Project is a year-long blog series (and upcoming memoir) about how to find the balance between health and hedonism. To find out more about the inspiration behind the project and to get the monthly theme schedule, click here. For the list of upcoming experiments, check out my plan and follow along!