Is your lower back pain killing you sitting at your desk? Do you have to keep getting up to get comfortable? Or are you constantly having to straighten up in your chair and rub and stretch your sore neck? You’re exhausted by mid-afternoon and your production sucks. Is there anything you can do can do to change your workstation up? Try a standing desk or treadmill desk. If you move and stand at work it can help reduce your lower back pain and neck pain.
Sitting and being sedentary causes lower back pain and neck pain
Sitting for prolonged periods of time at work is a major risk factor for causing low back pain and neck pain. (1, 2) When you sit for long periods of time you put your spine into a forward flexed position (hunched over). This forward posture puts stress on different parts of your spine like the muscles, ligaments, discs (cushions between the spinal bones), and nerves. The repeated and prolonged stress on the ligaments, muscles, and discs causes small tears in them. Your body has the innate ability to heal itself like a cut on your skin and heals the tears with scar tissue. Scar tissue isn’t as flexible or as strong as original tissue and is also more pain sensitive. The scar tissue just keeps building up layer upon layer the more often we sit for prolonged periods of time. This stiffens your spine up, creates more damage in your spine (disc degeneration and arthritis), and makes it more pain sensitive.
The forward flexed posture with sitting also prevents optimal brain function. You won’t be able to process things as efficient and you won’t be as alert versus when you stand and walk. The brain and nervous system require consistent movement of the body and proper body alignment to work optimally. When you load the spine properly (standing, walking, running) versus sitting, more nerves in the spine turn on and “feed” the brain. The spine isn’t loaded properly when you sit and the nerve signals required to “feed” and keep the brain “charged” are dampened.
Our ancestors moved and were healthier
Our ancestors of over 10,000 years ago were not sedentary like we are today. They moved around all of the time. Anthropological studies of our hunter and gatherer ancestors indicate they were lean, fit, and robust. The same is true for modern day hunters and gatherers. They are free from chronic inflammatory disease and superior to us in every measure of health and fitness (body mass index, blood pressure, insulin sensitivity, oxygen consumption, vision, and bone density). While it’s true our ancestors had shorter lifespans on average it was because of higher infant mortality rate, warfare, trauma, accidents, exposure to harsh weather, and lack of emergency medical care. What they didn’t have or die of was chronic inflammatory illness like cancers, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, or gout.
Humans aren’t designed to sit and be sedentary. We’re designed to weight-bear on our feet and move (run and walk). We’re designed for strength and to be able to push, pull, and lift objects. Our genes haven’t changed much in the last 10,000 years. When our environment (e.g. sitting, poor diet, lack of physical activity) doesn’t support our genes we end up with a genetic mismatch. This mismatch results in declining health including back and neck pain. So wouldn’t it make sense to simulate our ancestors lifestyle as much as possible?
Move like our ancestors
Of course it’s going to be hard to simulate our nomadic ancestors in an office setting. In general, I recommend you shoot for standing or walking about 50-75% of your working day. Here are some suggestions to help you with the process:
This would be the ideal situation as walking at a slow pace for long distances is something we are adapted to do genetically and physiologically. Studies of traditional hunters and gatherers have shown they averaged about 10,000 steps a day and modern day hunters and gatherers anywhere from 7,000 – 13,000 steps per day. (3, 4) Keep in mind all of this walking is scattered throughout the day. Don’t think you can walk your 10,000 steps and then sit for 6-8 hours straight. It won’t have the same benefit.
Standing desk benefits
If a treadmill desk is not in the budget the standing desk would be the next best option. We’re not designed to stand for 8 hours straight either, but it’s better than sitting. Work up to standing at 50% of the day. Here are some of the benefits of a standing desk:
- Strengthens your core and postural muscles
- Increases energy expenditure
- Burns 75% more calories than sitting
- Increases alertness and brain function
- Increases work production
There are other factors to consider when you purchase a standing desk:
- Make sure you get an anti-fatigue mat with it.
- Wear good flat shoes or in your socks.
- People with flat arches should be wearing custom foot orthotics as flat arches create extra stress on the feet, knees, and low back.
- If you have a significant shorter leg length (due to a bone length difference) you will likely have a tilted pelvis (one hip lower or higher than the other). If you stand for long periods of time with a tilted pelvis this will create more stress on the knees and lower back. So you likely need a heel lift that fits into your shoe. You will need to get that assessed by someone who knows a lot about posture.
Here are a couple of recommendations for standing desks we use at our office:
Varidesk. Robust hardware and comes preassembled. It’s very easy to lower when you want to sit and raise when you want to stand. However, even though the monitor is on a higher platform than the keyboard you can’t adjust the height of the monitor and keyboards separately. It’s more expensive and takes up more room than our counterpart below.
Anthrodesk. Lighter and takes up less room. There is some assembly required , but it’s easy to set up. The feature I like better about this standing desk converter is that you can raise and lower the monitor height separate from the keyboard height. So from a posture and ergonomic standpoint it’s more flexible.
I can’t comment on how each of these hold up in the long run. Varidesk is more robust for sure, but also has more complex hardware that may break down in the long run. Anthrodesk is lighter, not as stable, but has less complex hardware. At the time of this writing, a single monitor standing desk convertor from Varidesk will run you about $500 Canadian versus the Anthrodesk which retails at about $180.
From a cost benefit ratio I would choose the Anthrodesk to start with. For more information about their products: AnthroDesk: Standing Desk in Canada
Here’s a specific link to the model we use at our front desk: AnthroDesk: Sliding Standing Desk Converter (Black)
Walk or bicycle to work. If you think it is too far, consider driving part way and walking or bicycling the rest.
Take the stairs instead of the elevator
Take a standing, walking or stretching break 20 minutes every hour. This may seem unrealistic because when you get into the zone with work you don’t want to get disrupted. This is another reason I’m a big advocate in standing or walking while working. However, if you have to sit, taking mini breaks like this can make a big difference. If you have trouble remembering, set your alarm on your phone or use apps like Workrave (Windows) or Timeout (Mac).
Stand up at meetings. Use the “I’ve got a bad back” excuse if you need one.
Choose active sitting to regular sitting. If you need to sit, consider sitting on a yoga ball or a Sissel Sitfit. These force you to make posture adjustments while sitting and you will be actively using your muscles and burning more calories than just sitting.
Prolonged sitting and being sedentary could be one of the main causes of your low back and neck pain. Fortunately, there are innovative ways you can get your body moving more to make your body and brain stronger. In doing so, not only will you have less low back and neck pain, but you will become more productive as well.