6 Easy Ways to Improve Posture and Relieve Low Back Pain at the Office

Who hasn’t had back pain before?

If you’re lucky, it goes away on its own, but for many people it becomes a chronic, lingering discomfort that always seems to act up.

In fact, back pain is the number one cause for missing work and the number one reason for visiting the doctor.

You would think for something so common, there would be a cure-all pill, but in truth, pills and pain medications do a very poor job of relieving back pain and often lead to undesirable and dangerous side effects.

Even more frustrating, because there are so many pain generators in your back such as muscle, bone, nerves, and discs, your doctor often can’t identify which is the actual cause of your pain.

The chronic suffering, poor information, and limited treatment options can really take its toll physically and mentally.

Fortunately, all types of back pain have common risk factors. Easy modifications to your posture and implementation of simple exercises can boost your back health and reduce your pain.

Excited to learn more?

What are common causes of low back pain?

You are what you repeatedly do.  Without realizing it, you can change your body’s structure and movement patterns without any repercussions until one day a strange ache or tweak appears.  

You might assume the aches and pains are a part of aging, but they are actually a physical manifestation of what many call the Terrible Three:

  1. Poor posture
  2. Chronic muscular imbalances
  3. Poor mechanics

Why does low back pain seem like part of the aging process?

Often times, because you don’t clearly recall one specific incident that caused your back pain, you attribute it to “wear-and-tear” from aging.

However, back pain isn’t necessarily always due to aging, but rather due to hours and hours of sitting slouched in a chair, walking a million steps in worn out shoes or high heels, or months of sleeping in a poor position.

Your body is resilient and can counteract your bad habits for a while, but eventually your back succumbs and you feel pain.

What habits lead to lower back pain?

Think of your daily habits and where you spend a lot of time:  How is your posture when sitting in the car and in the office? In what positions do you sleep? How do you stand? How is your posture when looking at your phone?

These are the most common activities that contribute to poor postural position.  These positions pull our necks forward and round our backs as we look at the computer screen or down at our phones.

Prolonged sitting relaxes some muscles while tightening others, which results in permanent changes that are terrible for your posture. In fact, excessive sitting is a risk factor for premature death!

Understanding the body and your back pain

The pelvis is the centerpiece of the body. Literally, it is where your center of gravity is located.

Because of its central role, it makes sense that any abnormalities in pelvic positioning will cause a ripple effect of discomfort up and down the body.  

The pelvis can be pulled into what is known as pelvic tilt, an unhealthy lean of the pelvis either forwards, backwards, or twisted, where one side of the pelvis is in front of the other.  

Picture the pelvis as a cup. Any tilt of the cup causes the contents of the cup to spill forwards or backwards. In the body, this tilting doesn’t cause water to spill, but rather leads to low back pain.  

Now that you understand the importance of your pelvis, you can begin to make adjustments to eradicate your back pain.

How to straighten your pelvis and improve your posture?

The issues brought on by abnormal pelvic alignment progress in a cascading fashion. This means that bad pelvic position leads to bad posture, which leads to chronic muscle imbalance, which causes improper movement mechanics.  

Fortunately, defeating low back pain is also a cascading operation.  

Addressing any pelvic and postural issues will make it easier to rebalance your muscles and improve your mechanics. So, fix your pelvis and in turn you’ll fix your posture!

This is not as simple as standing up straight and puffing your chest out.  There are vital steps to assuming and maintaining the proper alignment that will help lead you to a pain-free life.  

Try this exercise

  1. Roll shoulders back and slightly draw shoulder blades together
  2. Lightly contract your butt muscles like your trying to hold a dollar bill between your cheeks
  3. Maintain a light contraction of your lower abdominal muscles, like you are trying to pull your belly button up towards your chest and in towards your back.  

Tips

  • The combination of flexing your butt muscles and your lower abs will hold the pelvis in the neutral position
  • Try to hold proper position for 60 seconds
  • Practice in front of a mirror to give you a visual check on your alignment

Expedite the Process  

While fixing your posture and aligning your pelvis will begin to chip away at your bad habits, you can support the process by adding in some stretching and strengthening.

This office-based program is designed to be completed quickly and in the tight confines of an office space. Each stretch should be held for a total of 60 seconds, in any variation you’d like.  

One minute is the minimum time needed to create a lasting adaptation in the elasticity of a muscle fiber.  Anything less will not create enough stimulus to signal the need for a permanent change within the body.

Prior to performing these stretches, make sure you walk around the office for a few minutes to warm up your body. Stretching when your muscles are cold and tight can actually do more harm than good.

The Low Back Discomfort Cure

Hip Flexor Stretch

Your hip flexors are responsible for the movement of pulling your knee to your chest. The hip flexors are a group of muscles that run from your mid to lower spine to the top of your thigh bone (femur).

Too much sitting in the standard slouched position can cause your hip flexors to shorten and and pull on the lumbar vertebrae, which could potentially wreak havoc on your back.  

This compromised position is known as anterior pelvic tilt and it can put a serious strain on opposing muscle groups, most notably the muscles trying to maintain a neutral pelvis.  

Here is how to release the hip flexors with a stretch suitable for an office setting.

Technique:  

1) Drop your left knee to the ground and place your right leg in front of you with the sole flat on the ground. Your knee should be bent to 90 degrees. You may already feel a stretch in the front of your left hip if your hip flexors are really tight.  

2) Keeping your torso upright ensuring not to lean forward, push your hips forward over your left knee

3) If you need more of a stretch, extend your right foot further out in front of you, leaving the left knee in place, and lean into the stretch, remaining upright.  

4) Hold for 1 minute, focusing on your breathing

5) Repeat on other side

Hip Flexor to help relieve back pain

 

Cat and Cow Alteration

This movement has roots in yoga and is a powerful tool against chronic back pain.  It will both open and strengthen the muscles around the back.

Focus on holding your cow pose for the majority of the time only moving into cat pose for a quick rest.  Try for 20 seconds in cow pose with 10 seconds in cat pose. Do this combo at least 3 times, for a minimum of  60 seconds

Technique:

1) Sitting in a chair, move to the edge, sit up straight with feet firmly planted on the ground

2) Place both hands on your knees and allow your arms to remain relaxed

3) Start by squeezing your shoulder blades together tightly, pulling back on your knees and keeping elbows close to your body.  

4) Move into cow position by arching your back and looking up, flexing your spinal muscles and lower back. Hold this position 20 seconds.

5) Move into cat pose by relaxing from cow pose then rounding your shoulders forward and allowing the elbows to move away from the body.

6) Lean forward to stretch out the lower back then flex your lower abdominal muscles. Think about trying to tuck your belly button up and in to activate the lower abdominals. Hold this position for 10 seconds then repeat at least 2 more times.

 

Low Back Hang

Often times the feeling of “tightness” is not actually a result of the muscle being tight but rather triggered by a muscle being stretched too far or for too long. This causes the muscle to be weakened as it fights against the pull of more powerful muscles.  The hamstrings are a classic example of this phenomenon.

Instead of strengthening the hamstrings to help them regain some fight against the pull of an anterior tilt, our instincts tell us to stretch them for temporary relief from the “tight” sensation.   While this may provide instant relief, it does not address the underlying cause.

This stretch gets its roots from yoga and will help you regain some strength while also providing relief with stretch. Note: The goal is not to stretch, but to strengthen. If you begin to feel a stretch in your hamstrings, then bend your knees more. The aim of this exercise is to loosen the lower back and strengthen the hamstrings.

Technique:  

1) From a standing position, move your feet shoulder width apart with your moderately bend your knees

2) Maintaining a flat back lean down and place your hands either on your knees, shins, or the ground depending on your level of flexibility.  

3) Relax your back and allow it to round so you can hang comfortably while you stretch

4) Grab either your knees, shins, or heels to pull yourself inwards to feel a deeper stretch in the lower back then hold for 60 seconds.

4) To recover to a standing position, regain a flat back and slowly stand up, engaging your core muscles

Hamstring Activation Curls

Technique:

1) Using an object to maintain balance, stand up straight and assume a good postural position

2) Lift the heel of your right foot and bring it as close as you can to your buttock, holding at the top for five seconds

3) Slowly lower your heel back to the ground and repeat with the other leg

Figure 4 Stretch

This stretch is designed to address any flexibility issues you may have in your hips.  

Technique:

1) Sitting on the edge of a chair with an upright torso, plant both feet firmly on the ground with your knees bent to 90 degrees.

2) Bring the ankle of your right leg over the top of your left thigh so that your lower leg is perpendicular to your thigh, creating a number 4.  

3) Maintaining an upright torso and flexed right foot, begin to lean forward to feel a stretch in the outer portion of your right hip.

4)  Add in a twist to get an extra stretch of the lower back by rotating the right shoulder towards the engaged knee. <Describe further what you mean by “engaged knee” and specify how long to hold>

5) Repeat on other side

Quad Stretch

The quadricep muscles are a powerful group of muscles that run from your hip down the front of your leg, attaching at the knee. They are responsible for flexing the lower leg.  

Due to their everyday use and ability to generate large amounts of force, our quadriceps can become tight over time and actually overpower the corresponding hamstring muscles.  This imbalance contributes to anterior pelvic tilt.

Pair this with too much sitting and the shortening of the hip flexor muscles and you will have a very stubborn case of lower back pain! Luckily, this stretch is simple and effective and can be done without having to stop work.

Technique:

1) In a standing position, bring your heel to your butt and into your hand.  Use the back of your chair to maintain balance.

2) Keeping shoulder and hips square and facing forward begin to kick into your hand to feel a stretch

 

Child’s Pose 

This yoga pose is a great way to get a focused stretch on the lower back.  Relax and breath in this pose, this should be a comforting back release.

Technique:

  1. Sit on the floor with shins on the ground and your buttock resting on the back of your lower leg
  2. Spread your knees slightly and allow the hips to sink in between your legs
  3. Lean forward over your knees and reach your arms overhead, stretching as far as you can reach.
  4. Pull your hips back towards your heels and sink in to the stretch.
  5. Move your arms to either side to hit different muscles of the back. Hold for 60 seconds

If this causes any discomfort in your knees modify the pose by putting some books, a block, or some pillows underneath your buttocks to relieve any knee pressure.

Final Thoughts

The lower back and pelvis are complex areas that take a beating as we pile on exercise, work, and all that comes with life.  But armed with your new strategy, a pain-free low back is just around the corner.

Be sure to practice your posture daily and perform these exercises at work.  You and your back deserve it!

*Please note, if the pain you are experiencing is associated with any tingling, numbing, or feeling of weakness, then seek evaluation by a qualified healthcare professional as these symptoms can indicate a serious condition.