Once a condition reserved for the retired set, back pain has become increasingly prevalent among the young and healthy. In fact, 25 percent of people between 18 and 44 have experienced low back pain in the past three months, according to an American Academy of Pain Medicine report.
The rising epidemic that may be the root of the problem for many of us: desk bod, which is just a fancy name that describes the many consequences of a desk job: tight hip flexors, low back pain (arguably the most common symptom), weak glutes and rounded, sore shoulders. Even if you haven’t suffered an injury, if your gig requires you to be desk-bound, there’s a good chance these symptoms are manifesting in the background, waiting to strike you down.
Desk bod isn’t just a superficial thing or something that can increase your risk for injury, either. It’s a serious health issue. “Sitting all day is considered by many to be the new smoking, with research showing links from prolonged sitting to obesity, diabetes, cancer, and heart disease,” Piya Tony Vacharasanee, NASM, ACSM, of Body Space Fitness in New York City tells us. “Finding the balance between meeting professional obligations and taking care of your body is an unfortunate circumstance that plagues modern society. It’s not easy to come to equilibrium, but it’s possible.”
Moving more at the office and adding protective exercises into your workout routine are, according to Vacharasanee, the two best ways to fight back. “Walking around every 30 minutes is ideal. In less time than it takes you to take a bathroom break or walk to the water cooler, you could be preventing pain and disease,” he says. As for the exercises, Vacharasanee recommends sprinkling the six moves that follow into your regular warm-up routine to increase mobility and reduce the trauma of sitting. You don’t have to do each exercise every day, but you should aim to do two or three each time you break a sweat.
Upper Back Foam Rolling
To begin, place a foam roller under your upper back. Your feet and butt should be on the floor. Place your hands behind your head and bring your elbows as close together as you can in front of your face. Allow your head to drop to the floor and try to “wrap” your neck around the foam roller. Repeat this motion a few times and then return your head to a neutral position. Then, begin to roll the foam roller up and down your upper back, searching for tender areas. When you find one, lift your head up and dig your back into the roller to increase the pressure. Lay your head back down and continue searching for additional sore areas on your shoulders and back.
Why It Works: “Sitting can result in increased looseness of the spinal ligaments. Foam rolling helps to improve the quality of the muscle tissue, or fascia, which helps ward off and eliminate pain,” explains Vacharasanee.
Scapular Wall Slides
To begin, stand with your backside, shoulders and head against a wall. Your knees should be slightly bent. Place your forearms on either side of your head. The back of your hands should be on either side of your face, actively pressing into the wall. (The position is similar to the “It’s good” signal used by football refs.) From there, move your arms up above your head, like you’re making a snow angel on the wall. While doing this movement, be careful to keep your fingers, back, butt, and head against into the wall. If you lose contact, you’re not doing the exercise properly. Repeat the movement 10 to 15 times.
Why It Works: “Sitting at a desk causes the shoulders to round forward, resulting in tight chest muscles and weak shoulder muscles. This exercise helps you restore the alignment of these muscles,” says Vacharasanee.
Prone Y Position
Lie on your stomach on a mat and put your hands above your head in a “Y” position with your palms facing down and your legs outstretched behind you. Next, simultaneously pull your shoulder blades back and down, rotate your hands toward each other and lift your chest and legs a few inches off the ground. Hold this position for 5 to 10 seconds. Slowly lower yourself down to the starting position. Repeat for a total of 5 to 10 repetitions.
Why It Works: “This exercise helps strengthen the lower trapezius muscles. These muscles pull down and stabilize the shoulder blades, preventing them from rounding forward,” Vacharasanee explains, adding, “Over time, this exercise can also help eliminate the pain associated with lifting your arms overhead.”
Hold a PVC pipe in front of you with an overhand grip. If you’ve never done this exercise before, start with a wider grip. As your flexibility improves, you can slowly move your hands closer together. Slowly lift the PVC pipe in front of your chest, then over your head and behind your back, until it hits you in your backside. Slowly return to the starting position. Repeat for a total of 10 to 15 repetitions.
Why It Works: According to Vacharasanee, shoulder dislocations can help ward off shoulder and neck pain by increasing shoulder joint mobility. Other benefits: “The rotator cuff muscles get a lot of love when shoulder dislocations are able to be done with straight arms. The scapula also learns how to move with deliberate intention, as opposed to compensating for a lack of mobility, stability, or strength,” notes Vacharasanee.
Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch
Kneel on a mat and bring your left knee up so the bottom of your left foot is on the floor. Next, extend your right leg behind you so the top of your foot is on the floor. While keeping your lower back neutral and locked, shift your weight forward until you feel a stretch in your hip. Hold for 30 seconds then repeat on the other side.
Why It Works: “When you sit all day, the hip flexors get very tight and pull your lumbar spine and pelvis forward. This prevents you from activating your glutes and working them to their full potential. This exercise helps to loosen the hip flexors, bringing the lumbar spine back into place,” Vacharasanee tells us.
Forward and Sideways Leg Swings
Find something to hold onto for balance and stand with the left side of your body facing the wall. Swing your right leg backward and forward as high and as far back as you comfortably can without sacrificing your posture. Complete 20 swings and then spin around so your right side is facing the fall and your left leg is away from the wall. Repeat the swinging motion with your left leg. After you’ve completed swings on both sides, turn and face the wall. Swing your right leg out to the side as high as possible without sacrificing your posture and then in front of you towards your left leg. Perform 20 swings and then switch legs.
Why It Works: “Similar to the hip flexor stretch, leg swings help loosen up the hip flexors, allowing the lumbar spine to shift back into its proper place,” Vacharasanee says.
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