Freelance writers: How do you avoid back pain from sitting?

By Katharine Swan On Thursday, July 09, 2015 At 3:00 PM

I saw this story recently on NPR:

Lost Posture: Why Some Indigenous Cultures May Not Have Back Pain

It made me think about how writers, as well as other office workers who are stuck at a desk all day, often suffer back fatigue from sitting so much.  Ergonomic chairs and other approaches only seem to help so much.

The article itself is interesting (and if this doesn't seem to have much to do with writing, humor me).  It hypothesizes that the basis for back pain in Western cultures is actually the way we carry ourselves.  Adults correct our posture all the time when we're children, when actually they may be making things worse for us.

If you look at an American's spine from the side, or profile, it's shaped like the letter S. It curves at the top and then back again at the bottom.

But Gokhale didn't see those two big curves in people who don't have back pain. "That S shape is actually not natural," she says. "It's a J-shaped spine that you want."

In fact, if you look at drawings from Leonardo da Vinci — or a Gray's Anatomy book from 1901 — the spine isn't shaped like a sharp, curvy S. It's much flatter, all the way down the back. Then at the bottom, it curves to stick the buttocks out. So the spine looks more like the letter J.

"The J-shaped spine is what you see in Greek statues. It's what you see in young children. It's good design," Gokhale says.

So where does this leave writers, or others who sit at a desk for long hours?  Well, maybe trying to sit up straight isn't the best thing for us.  The NPR story includes tips for reducing back pain, and she says point-blank not to try to sit up straight.  Instead, she suggests a shoulder roll:

Americans tend to scrunch their shoulders forward, so our arms are in front of our bodies. That's not how people in indigenous cultures carry their arms, Gokhale says. To fix that, gently pull your shoulders up, push them back and then let them drop — like a shoulder roll. Now your arms should dangle by your side, with your thumbs pointing out. "This is the way all your ancestors parked their shoulders," she says. "This is the natural architecture for our species."

Another suggestion is lengthening your spine:

Adding extra length to your spine is easy, Gokhale says. Being careful not to arch your back, take a deep breath in and grow tall. Then maintain that height as you exhale. Repeat: Breathe in, grow even taller and maintain that new height as you exhale. "It takes some effort, but it really strengthens your abdominal muscles," Gokhale says.

Compared to a lot of people I know, I seem to suffer much fewer back problems.  My back doesn't get fatigued as quickly when I'm standing or sitting for a long time, and it never has.  The biggest difference I see is that I don't try to sit up straight when I'm at my desk.  I've never felt comfortable in that position so I've never gotten into the habit.  I'm much more likely to sit with one or both legs tucked up, to lounge against one armrest, or -- to be perfectly honest -- to slouch.  And actually, one of the reasons I love working from home so much is that I'm much more comfortable if I occasionally move to my bed, the couch, or an armchair or rocker, and work in a slightly reclining position with my laptop on my lap.  That's the way I'm most comfortable.

I have a somewhat related article that I'll share soon, so stay tuned.  In the meantime, what are your working habits?  Do you stay in a chair all day long, or vary your working location and position?  What do you find seems to relieve or contribute to back fatigue and pain?

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Katharine Swan is a full-time freelance writer with more than 5 years of professional writing experience. In addition to maintaining several personal blogs, she writes a variety of online marketing materials for clients, including company blogs, articles, and press releases. In her free time, she spends time with her horse, reads, and writes fiction.

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