Modern offices can look like jungle gyms these days. Some people balance on brightly colored medicine balls while others work standing up at desks elevated on stilts.
That may be because 80 percent of Americans experience some kind of back pain before the age of 40, says Ochsner Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation's Dr. Christine Keating. Sitting all day in a desk chair only makes it worse. "Sitting is one of the hardest things on our back because it puts more pressure on our discs," she says. "So in general we have more disc disease and more back pain as a society because most of us spend time sitting."
Stand-up desks and medicine balls are two ways desk workers are attempting to combat the degenerative effects of sitting. Sitting prevents us from strengthening important back muscles, Keating says, which is why many people opt for chairs that will force them to exercise their back and core muscles on the job. Brittany Purdy, director of Belladonna Day Spa and a former massage therapist, says the medicine balls are great for practicing better posture. "You have to sit straight up, otherwise you're going to fall off," she says.
Stand-up desks are another alternative, but Charles H. Archer IV, D.C., a chiropractor and the owner of Archer Chiropractic Center, says most people can't stand comfortably for eight hours a day. "Stand-up desks are great," he says, "but I don't know if I'd want to stand up for eight hours if that was my job."
Medicine balls are available at most sporting goods store, and stand-up desks can be ordered online or easily constructed with simple objects.
Both Archer and Keating recommend frequent breaks from the desk to stretch and walk around. Archer suggests getting up every 30 minutes or so to break the monotony of sitting and repetitive movements.
There also is a proper way to sit, so you're not slouching over your desk or craning your neck to look at the monitor. Your feet should be flat on the floor and a shoulders' width apart. You need some lumbar support for your lower back. Keating says either a pillow or a rolled up towel will do the trick.
"A lot of people, when they sit, they tend to get into a C-posture where the head is forward and their back makes a C into the legs," Keating says. "You want to sit upright with your head above your spine." She also recommends not crossing your legs. "You're not going to hurt yourself by crossing your legs every now and then," she says. "But when you're sitting at a desk all day, you don't want that to be your normal posture. When you cross your legs, you lose that curve in your lower back."
Archer calls proper posture the rule of 90's. Elbows should be at a 90-degree angle on the desk and the neck should create a 90-degree angle with the shoulders. Good posture can depend on how a person's desk is set up. "I raised my monitor up about 6 inches," he says. "And that allowed me to be able to look straight ahead." He says you shouldn't have to look up, down or to the side, since that puts unnecessary strain on the neck.
Repetitive motions also can put a lot of pressure on the spine. "Even the location of the printer," Archer says. "If someone is printing constantly, all day long, and the printer is behind them and they have to constantly twist to one side to get the paper out, that can have effects on the spine."
Archer also points out that it can be hard to treat the long-term effects of sitting with bad posture, so desk workers should do all they can to prevent slouching before back pain becomes a chronic issue.
"I found that the X-rays I've seen [belonging to] people who work desk jobs usually have the most arthritis in their spine," he says. "Even more than a construction worker." A recent Cornell University Study found that women who sit for prolonged periods die earlier than their active counterparts.
Purdy believes it will be harder to move once you've stayed still for too long day after day. "I wouldn't say that sitting is going to take years off your life, but I'd definitely say that if you don't move your body, then your body is going to just stay stagnant, and when you try to move again, it's going to be harder," she says.
Keating says exercise is a key element of prevention, and yoga is a great way to get your posture in check and strengthen the core muscles involved in sitting up straight. "You've got to do the strengthening as well as the stretching," she says. "Exercising really is the closest thing we have to the fountain of youth. Getting more active, doing things to stay moving. Our bodies want to move."
If your back hurts, Keating says it's important to remember that back pain isn't an inevitability of getting older. "It's not a matter of age," she says. "People who are 18 already have changes to their spine. People always have such terrible posture."
The most important thing is to be proactive about pain. Purdy recommends a massage or seeing a chiropractor, and Keating says that if pain continues after making adjustments, see a doctor. First, however, take a look at your posture; that might be the place to start.