Many of us work at computers. You might be at one right now. An unfortunate byproduct of working at a computer is the inevitable slouching posture.
Our modern lifestyles, spending hours slouching over a computer, are having serious impacts on our health. We are seeing an increasing number of young patients attending their doctors suffering from back pain — unfortunately, I must include myself in that number. Here I want to discuss why we are seeing this trend and how I turned my situation around using a simple postural improvement program.
The effects of bad posture
The amount of time we spend in the sitting position has increased over of last few decades. This appears to be correlated with the increased ownership of computers and other screen based activities, e.g. watching TV. In 1997 the average amount of time spent in front of a monitor was 5.9 hours. By 2013, this had increased to a whopping 14.6 hours. There is a long list of the reported negative effects of bad posture, but I will summarise a few here.
- Excessive neck bending, as occurs when sitting in front of a monitor, causes upper cross syndrome, characterised by a weakening of the neck muscles resulting in neck pain. This can also result in reduced range of motion within your shoulder girdle as well as referred pain to your arms.
- A slumped posture eliminates the correct curvature of the spine and increases pressure on the intervertebral discs. This can result in disc herniation, which can press on spinal nerves and cause substantial pain.
- The slump position is linked with low activity within your transversalis muscle (more on that later). This position can have a negative effect on your respiratory function by reducing the movement of your diaphragm, making you rely on your accessory muscles for adequate respiration.
- The slump position is often the result of a loss of your lumbar lordosis (the curvature to the lumbar region of your spine). Interestingly, it has been shown that this position can have a severe impact on the range of movement of your shoulder girdle.
- Back pain is one of most common reasons for taking opioid analgesia. These analgesics are highly addictive and it can take as little as 2 weeks to become hooked on these substances.
If you are interested in reading more on the problems associated with sitting and bad posture you can find a full systematic review of the literature here.
How you can fix your posture
It’s not all doom and gloom. You can fix your posture with as little as 10 minutes conditioning a day — I did.
I, myself, have recently suffered with bad posture and back pain, despite being in my 20’s and a frequent gym attender. Working as a Doctor, I spend a surprising amount of time at a computer and some years ago noticed a deterioration in my posture. This was a wake up call for me and I decided to do something about it. After researching the causes of my poor posture and back pain, as well discussing with senior physiotherapists, here is the simple program I used to transform my posture and banish my back pain.
The Good Posture routine
The gluteus maximus is the largest muscle in the human body. And no, that’s not to make it comfy to sit on. It’s main movements are external rotation and extension of the hip.
It is this extension of the hip action which makes it tremendously important when maintaining a good posture. Bridges are an exceptionally good exercise to improve the strength and stability of your gluteus maximus muscle.
If you work at a desk, you need to be doing Supermans. This exercise is perfect to help with your lower back pain.
Supermans target your posterior chain, in particular your back extensors, spanning the lumber region of your spine (the most common location of back pain).
3. Abdominal Draw-In Manouvre
An important component of lower back strength is your core strength. If you think of your abdomen, the only bones providing support in this region is the spine. Therefore, the vast majority of your strength in this region comes from a thick layer of muscle (actually multiple different muscles) that wraps around your abdomen like a weight’s belt. If this belt is weak, then your posture will suffer.
The transversalis muscle (as mentioned in the effects of bad posture) is a large muscle that wraps around both anterior and lateral aspects of your abdomen and plays a key role in core stability. A strong core = good posture. I suggest performing this at the end of your posture routine, once you have partially exhausted your gluteus and extensor muscles.
The exact routine you perform doesn’t matter too much, the key point here is that you improve. So, if you did 8 superman’s for 3 sets on Monday, try doing 10 superman’s for 3 sets on Wednesday. Don’t go to failure on these exercises, or else you risk injury, after all, we’re after strength, not hypertrophy. I would suggest performing this routine 3–4 times a week, either first thing in the morning, or in a spare 10 minutes at the office.
Other useful tips
1. Use Lumbar Support
Although researchers disagree on the perfect sitting position, all agree that lumbar support is integral to maintaining the lordosis curvature within the lumbar spine. Providing lumbar support also has positive effects on head posture and the position of the pelvis, both of which have important implications in slouching related back pain.
2. Use a standing desk
I love a standing desk. Whenever I have used one I have felt stronger, more engaged, and more energetic than when I have had to sit at a desk for a long period of time. Standing also has a positive effect on your metabolic rate. A recent study showed that on average, standing burns an extra 0.15 calories a minute when compared to sitting.
If you don’t want to stand all day at work, I get it, you work hard and you deserve a sit down. Why not get a desk that can act as both seated and standing.
A popular option is a desk convertor. These can be placed on top of your existing desk and convert it into a standing desk. While relatively expensive, for the health of your future back, I think it is worth the investment.
3. Tech that can help your posture
Another tool which I have noticed increased popularity over recent years is the Upright Go. It helps you to maintain good posture by informing you when you’re slouching. It does this with a small sensor placed at the top or your back which vibrates when you slouch. Is it annoying? Yes! Does it work… well, the team at Upright Go state that 8 out of 10 users report an improvement in their posture of greater than 92% (as measured by their associated app). I can’t find any formal research on the use of these devices, but as I said, they appear to be popular with users.
Something I really like about the Upright Go is its personalised training programme giving you daily goals to achieve. This gamifies the experience, making training your posture a little less… dull.
While this tool is not essential, if you you want to double-down on your postural transformation, then it may be worth the investment.
It is undeniable that poor posture and sitting for prolonged periods is having a severe impact on our health, both in regards to its direct impact and the pharmacological and social impact of a life taking prescription analgesia.
However, if you start following the advice laid out above, you can transform your posture in a short period of time. Ensuring you maintain good posture and back health long into the golden years of your life.