Getting Rid of Back Pain and Stiffness Caused by Prolonged Sitting

back pain caused by prolonged sitting

By 9 AM, I’m sitting in my office chair. That’s usually where I stay until about 5 PM, with only a few breaks and under an hour on my feet during the work day.

We’ve all heard the go-to advice: try working at a standing desk, take frequent breaks and go for walks during the work day, or sit on a balance ball all day. 

That advice is fine, and if it works for you… great! Do it! The problem, in my experience, is that it is far from universal advice. 

Personally, I have so many meetings or need to be heads-down on projects during the work day that I don’t often get the chance to take walking breaks. And my standing desk space has such abysmal lighting that it doesn’t work well for Zoom meetings. 

In lieu of the same advice we’ve all heard over the course of the pandemic, here’s the strategy I’ve developed to help keep my back and hips in check and pain-free. 

Why Sitting Leads to Back Pain

In recent years, there have been dozens of inflammatory headlines about how “sitting is the new smoking” and that sitting for prolonged periods of time would become one of the greatest detriments to public health for adults in the United States. 

Whether or not these headlines are true, most of us who work office jobs have experienced some negative effects from prolonged sitting. At one end of the spectrum is stiffness and weight gain and at the other end of the spectrum is severe chronic pain and cardiovascular decline. 

For most people, discomfort associated with prolonged sitting is most likely a byproduct of one or a combination of the following: 

Anatomically, our bodies are better suited for standing upright or walking than for sitting for prolonged periods. Sitting in chairs is a relatively new development in human evolution, and it causes our spines to compress in ways that aren’t inherently aligned with how our muscles, bones, and joints are best suited. If you’re like me and frequently sit with your legs crossed and your hips angled, it can lead to an even more unnatural posture, causing even greater discomfort. 

Strategies for Preventing and Relieving Sitting-Related Back Pain 

I’ve had the best results with mitigating my back pain by taking a three-pronged approach to pain relief and mitigation: stretching, strengthening, and focusing on mobility. 

Stretching to Prevent and Relieve Back Pain

Stretching is a form of physical exercise that helps improve muscle control, flexibility, and range of motion. It can also help alleviate cramps and improve function in daily activities by increasing range of motion.

Often, people report finding significant benefits in developing a stretching routine first thing in the morning. It helps them to wake up, integrate low-impact movements, and feel more limber going into their day. I am not a morning person, so I prefer to stretch either on my lunch break or at night. When you stretch matters much less than if you do it consistently. 

What Stretches Help with Back Pain?

You can do plenty of stretches and yoga poses to help release tight back muscles or pinched nerves. A few of my favorites are: 

  • Supported Bridge
  • Child’s Pose
  • Cat-Cow Stretches
  • Lying Windshield Wipers with Bent Knees
  • Static Sumo Squats
  • 90/90 Hip Stretches
  • Knees to Chest/ Happy Baby

Strength Training that Prevents Back Pain

There must be some give and take when it comes to back pain and strength training. Overtraining or using the incorrect form will increase your risk of back injuries and can make existing back pain more severe. If you’re going to use strength training to appropriately prevent pain and risk, then using correct form and prioritizing high reps at low weight (at least, at first) is ideal. 

I’ve written about training my back for posture improvements and pain reduction before, but as a quick recap, here are the exercises I have found most beneficial in reducing and preventing pain. 

What Strength Training Exercises Help Prevent Back Pain?

My go-to back pain-reduction routine includes performing high rep, low weight sets of the following exercises:

  • T-bar rows
  • Back extensions
  • Resistance Band Shoulder External Rotations
  • Face Pulls 
  • Dead Hangs (note: if you have a stiff back, especially in your lower back where your spine meets your hips, dead hangs are especially good at getting it to pop and release)

Mobility Training for Back Health

Mobility training is all about learning to use the full range of natural movement in a given joint or muscle group. Generally, the ankles, hips, and shoulders are the areas best suited for mobility training since using the full plane of movement in these joints may not come naturally to everybody. For a lot of men, the hips, in particular, are likely fairly tight and can be a major contributor to back pain associated with prolonged sitting. 

Consistent stretching is one way to improve mobility, particularly when you’re intentional about engaging in stretches across each plane of movement that’s appropriate for a given joint or muscle group. 

Additionally, adding variety to your workout routines so that you train your body in new ways can help as well. For example, I swap out my high-weight, low-reps leg day once a month for a more calisthenic-focused lower body workout. Box jumps, step-ups, pistol squats, knees-over-toes lunges, and side lunges work together to create a pleasingly challenging workout and to get me moving my hips in ways I don’t typically move them on a daily basis. 

The Obvious Prolonged Sitting Advice Still Applies

As mentioned at the start of the article, I didn’t want to regurgitate the same “take walking breaks and use a standing desk” advice I’ve read a million times over. 

Still, I wanted to give credit where credit is due and say that both items are good advice if they’re applicable to your situation. 

If walking breaks and standing desks are within reach for you during the work day, you should take advantage of them. In my experience, walking breaks with coworkers can be a great way to clear your head but also to bond with folks you might otherwise not have a close relationship with. 

Standing desks are awkward if you’re just getting used to them, but it's quite enjoyable once you’re in a habit of working from your feet. 

Walking, standing, and preventative training can all work together to keep your back strong and pain-free, no matter how long the work day drags on. 

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