It’s been established that prolonged sitting can be bad for your long-term health, findings that impact a good portion of today’s modern workforce. You can thank people like Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic, for instance – a researcher who was quoted as saying “Excessive sitting is a lethal activity”— for the general acceptance of stand-up desks and walking lunch meetings.
It stands to reason, then, that people whose jobs require them to stand throughout the day, while certainly more fatigued after a typical work day, must have it made health-wise, right? Not so fast. Being on your feet all day – especially if you’re ill-prepared to do so – can lead to an all-too-common problem of its own: back pain.
“The pressure constant standing puts on our spines can lead to a host of painful spinal conditions from bulging disks to spinal stenosis to sciatica,” states an article on PutMeBackTogether.com, an online community for physical therapy professionals. “Health care professionals, along with teachers, wait staff, construction workers, bank tellers, retails clerks and anyone else who is on their feet for hours are susceptible to back pain.”
In fact, according to one study by the biological sciences department at Quebec University in Canada, nearly one in four workers who spend most of their days standing suffered from lower back pain.
“When you stand up, your center of gravity shifts to your lower spine, and the weight of your torso goes to your lower back,” said Jill Gamlin, a consulting physiotherapist based in Cambridge, U.K. “If your abdominal and back muscles aren’t particularly strong, your lower spine will start to slump, and this will tug on ligaments and muscles [which] can cause pain.”
Such pain has the power to disrupt lives as well as the strength of a workforce. Lower back pain, after all, causes more disability than 300 other conditions worldwide, according to new research. One in 10 people in the world suffer from an aching lower back, and back pain is responsible for about one-third of all work-related disability.
It is possible to stand up to your back pain, however – to be proactive about protecting your body from the rigors of spending hours on your feet. Here’s how:
Practice Good Posture
Mom was right – posture is important. Good posture keeps you alert, and it can help alleviate back pain. But what constitutes good posture? According to the Mayo Clinic, when standing, it’s important to keep your shoulders back and relaxed; pull in your abdomen; keep your feet about hip-distance apart; balance your weight evenly on both feet; and let your hands hang naturally at your side.
Mind Your Feet
Good spine health starts with the feet, and your shoes play a significant role in determining the amount of support your spine gets every day. According to the Workers Health and Safety Centre in Toronto, Canada, proper footware will support (not change) the natural shape of your foot, have enough space to wiggle your toes, have shock absorbing cushioned insoles and have heels no higher than 2 inches. Also, when possible, opt to stand on flooring or cushions that provide flexibility, such as wood, cork, carpet or rubber.
A good mix of standing and walking is ideal. But if your walk-around time is nil, you can still find relief from more subtle movements like shifting weight from foot to foot, standing up on your toes, lifting your legs from the floor (knee to chest or heel to butt), and doing bends both backward and forward. Such movement stretches the muscles, can provide relief to the spine and can keep you more alert throughout the day.
Improve Your Work Area
When you can, take steps that can and will improve the space within which you work. Such steps can include adjusting your work surface to avoid unnecessary bending; allowing room for changing body positions, stretching and bending; providing rests and/or supports for feet, arms and elbows than can aid in the performance of certain tasks; and obtaining a stool or seat for occasional resting.
For additional tips on preventing back pain and other common health-related consequences of long-term standing (e.g., sore feet, swelling of the legs, stiffness in the neck and shoulders, general muscle fatigue), consult your person physician or physical therapist.