Why is slouching bad for us? Could walking be the treatment?
Being told to sit up straight is something that the vast majority of us will have been told at some point in our lives, but is slouching actually bad for you? This is something that scientists have investigated for years and recent research has delivered some interesting findings.
When we slouch our backs get stretched. Our chest comes forward, our shoulders become rounded and we lose the natural concavity in the lower back. This position compresses the discs in the lower part of our spine to a greater degree than if we sit upright or stand. Standing can result in less stretching of the ligaments and joints of the spine and lower compression of the discs of the lower back. If we stand still for prolonged periods this necessitates a constant low level of exertion of the spinal muscles as they are forced to hold the spine in the same position without opportunity to relax. This is why taking regular breaks to walk around is important so that the spinal muscles can contract and relax and don’t “seize up”.
What the science says
Studies have shown that 20 minutes of slouched sitting causes the abdominal muscles to be less active, even when tested 30 minutes after we stand up from the slouched position. Interestingly, supported sitting resulted in increased abdominal muscle activation compared to slouching but not as much as unsupported upright sitting.
So in theory in order to keep our abdominal muscles working (which we know is important to giving support to the spine) you would think that sitting on a box or a Swiss ball in an upright position would be best. The problem is that other research has shown that after 1-hour people report more discomfort when sitting on an exercise ball as compared to being sat in a supportive office chair. It was also noted that by the end of the hour sat on an exercise ball people tended to slouch.
Muscles and reflexes
So what happens to our back muscles when we slouch? After 2 hours of slouching, spinal reflexes that are required to rapidly “switch on muscles” are impaired. These reflexes are needed for various kinds of normal day-to-day movements of the spine. The interruption of these reflexes is thought to make the spine more injury prone, because the support network that the spinal muscles provide is temporarily impaired. This effect can last for several hours, depending on how long we have slouched for, or if we repeatedly go in and out of a slouched position during the day. The reality is that we all slouch sometimes but slouching regularly for any length of time may have detrimental effects.
Let’s now look at the subject of sit-stand workstations. A paper published in 2017 showed that being able to sit or stand at your workstation may reduce lower back discomfort. This was a meta-analysis combining lots of data from more than a dozen research studies that had examined the effect of sit-stand desks on back pain. The conclusion from this paper was that sit-stand desks do help reduce back discomfort but overall only by a very small amount. Another study examining the effect of standing at work suggested that standing for 45 minutes induced back pain in 55% of their study group (who were back pain sufferers). In these people 15 minutes of sitting every hour was not enough to relieve this back pain. Some patients who find sitting aggravates their back pain do report a significant benefit from using a sit-stand desk. These people are likely to be the ones who use a sit stand desk correctly and regularly change from sitting to standing throughout the day.
Walking is something that has been the topic of much recent public health advice. Campaigns to get people to do 10 000 steps a day have been very effective at highlighting the benefits of walking. We know it can help reduce our risk of heart attacks and strokes, we know being outside in the fresh air (and if possible around nature) is good for our psychological wellbeing. What about back pain? Well actually it’s good for our backs too. That seems to be true if we are someone who gets short lasting episodes and for those with persistent and long term back pain.
So can we draw any conclusions from this web of information?
- Having a good supportive office chair will help you maintain a better posture and put less stress on your spine than if you slouch.
- Ensure that you stand for 10 minutes of every hour at work.
- Using a sit stand desk may help; the benefit is only likely to be felt if you frequently change from sitting to standing during the course of the day.
- If you do get back pain then speak to a healthcare professional, they can examine you and make appropriate recommendations for your specific needs and problems.
- Go for at least one 15-30 minute walk every day in addition to your normal commute. It could really help your back pain and it will beneficial to your health in many other ways too.
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