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How To Work At A Desk Without Destroying Your Neck And Back

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Illustration by Lindsay Hattrick

The short- and long-term negative effects of spending your work day seated are real

Let's face it: "Tech neck"—as well as tech back, and all the other aches and pains we associate with a long day spent glued to our desks, staring at a computer, for hours on end—is real.

It's not news that being sedentary isn't good for you. While we might be active on our off hours, when we spend a good portion of our waking hours sitting at our desks five days a week, there are bound to be some not-so-pleasant effects. Stress aside, jobs that require us to be in a seated position for the majority of our workday, whether it's eight, 10, or even 12 hours a day, can affect our bodies physically, too, and in more ways than you're probably already aware of.

We chatted with the experts—from chiropractors and physical therapists to yogis—to break down how you can make your nine-to-five much less stressful (and painful) for your body.

What is my desk job doing to my body?

According to physical therapist and yoga instructor Lara Heimann, the physical risks that come with a desk job can lead to physical risks that include (and aren't limited to), "lower back pain, forward neck syndrome, sciatica [pain that radiates from the lower back through the hips, buttocks, and legs], decreased blood flow and circulation in the lymph system, carpal tunnel syndrome, plantar fasciitis [heel pain], and general grumpiness."

Pain and strain aside, there are some scarier risks involved. According to Heimann, sitting is essentially the new smoking, due to the negative long-term effects. "When the muscular skeletal system is impaired or limited in any way, it compromises the ability to move well—and movement is the essence for all well-being," she says. "When you move, you circulate blood better, breathe better, and heal better, because your immune system will work better in addition to many other positive benefits that keep us healthy and happy for years. If you're chronically sitting, the opposite is true. You're at a greater risk for musculoskeletal disorders, cardiopulmonary deficiencies, and lowered immune system."

As Dr. Tracy Peruch, chiropractor and NMD, explains, sitting for prolonged periods of time can lead to heart disease and an over-productive pancreas (which can lead to diabetes and other diseases). "There have even been studies that have linked sitting to a greater risk for endometrial, breast, and colon cancers."

Okay—hope we didn't entirely freak you out, as these are the worst-case scenarios. Regardless, it's pretty obvious that sitting all day, hunched over a keyboard, is not the healthiest thing you can do for your body and usually doesn't feel very nice. But, don't worry, there are a ton of ways you can alleviate and prevent the aches, strains, and other not-so-lovely products of a desk job (including the scarier, more serious risks).

Change up your desk space

In many cases, switching up your desk—whether the kind of chair you sit on or the position of your computer—can make a world of difference. Vivian Eisenstadt, physical therapist and postural specialist, breaks down some of the best alternatives to your classic cubicle setup.

Yoga balls: Rather than your basic desk chair, sitting on a yoga ball will help keep your pelvis in the proper angle while sitting, in addition to other benefits. "A yoga ball also allows you to bounce, creating what is called imbibement of your discs, which means they are filling up with fluid in a good way," explains Eisenstadt.

Standing desks: Standing desks are a great way to put less pressure on your spine, but it's important to make sure your computer is at an ergonomically correct position when standing. "If you have a desktop or you can be ergonomically looking straight ahead while having the keyboard at elbow length, you're good to go," she says. "The challenge is when you're constantly looking down at your laptop. So, the standing desk is good for your lower back, but if you're looking down all day, you're compromising your cervical spine.

Bicycle desks: Bicycle desks are pretty much what you would imagine them to be: stationary bikes with a desk aspect. They're good for avoiding the whole sedentary aspect of sitting at a desk all day. "Anything that creates blood flow and circulation, can increase your focus, and promotes health, I'm a fan of," says Eisenstadt. Again, however, the position of your computer and neck are also important to how effective a bicycle desk can be. "If you can create an environment where you have a desktop and the keyboard can be placed at elbow height, then it's a great device." Additionally, you are still in a seated position at a bicycle desk, which allows for spinal compression—so make sure you get up every so often.

Treadmill desk: Again, a treadmill desk is exactly what it sounds like. Eisenstadt highly recommends them, as they reap the cardiovascular benefits of the bicycle desk sans the spinal compression of sitting.

There are a number of special products that you can use at your desk to help improve posture. If you need help sitting correctly, you can purchase a bottoms-up posture seat to place on your chair, which helps to support correct posture. Braces and belts can also be worn to help add extra support, such as a clavicle brace or a rib belt.

Work on your posture

Not trying to invest in new desk furniture? A solution can lie in how you sit. "An idea I tell many of my patients is to sit on the edge of the front of the chair, where it seems like you may fall off," suggests Peruch. "This causes you to place much of the weight out through your feet, as well as improves the curve in your lower back, which can relieve the muscle burden."

When it comes to good posture while sitting, Gehrman suggests subscribing to the 90-degree sitting rule. This means that, while seated, there should be a 90-degree angle from your ear to your shoulder, your hip to trunk, at your knees, and from your ankle to foot.

We get it, though—it's hard to not automatically slump in our chairs as soon as we get into the zone. But, we can try to train ourselves to improve our posture when sitting, thus preventing the pains associated with a slumped or hunched position.

"The problem with poor posture is that we aren't getting the necessary feedback from the brain when we are out of alignment," explains Heimann. The solution? Seeking reinforcement and feedback from other sources, like a wall. "Stand up against a wall and try to move the back of your skull, the back of your shoulder blades, and the back of your sacrum (the area above the tailbone) to press into the wall simultaneously. See if you can get all of those areas to touch the wall, and when they have, walk away from the wall and attempt to maintain that upright position.

Sure, your coworkers might be confused to see you pressing your body against the wall every couple of hours or so, but your back will thank you for it.

S t r e t c h

There are a number of stretches and exercises for the neck, shoulder, chest, and spine that can help alleviate the pain associated with hunching over your computer for hours on end. Don't just save them for the end of the day, give yourself breaks throughout the day to reap the benefits of these stretches mid-crunch time.

We outlined a few stretches recommended by Peruch, below (though, there are plenty more to find and try, thanks to the internet):

For the neck: To alleviate neck pain, Peruch suggests trying a number of neck-release exercises, from slowed-down nods and side-to-side shakes to rolling your neck slowly from side to side.

For the shoulders: Peruch suggests shoulder shrugs and backward shoulder rolls to help release tension situated in the shoulder area.

For the chest: For muscle tightness centered in the chest area, Peruch suggests a chest opener stretch, which involves pulling arms and shoulders backward and down while keeping the chest and gaze upward.

For the back: To alleviate back and lower back pain, Peruch suggests stretches that focus on the spine, such as a seated spinal twist—which you can do in your office chair!

As Dr. Rudy Gehrman, chiropractor and founder-executive director of Physio Logic, explains, you basically want to exercise the opposite motions and positions of how your body is positioned while sitting. "Your musculoskeletal system is like clay; it will mold into whatever position you hold it in for an extended period of time," he says. "If you are in a flexed position for an extended period of time, you should offset that with mirror-image exercises that correct it through extension."

Try a holistic approach to pain

If you're currently suffering from the pain associated with prolonged sitting, there are a number of holistic approaches you can take during your time off. For Gehrman, that's getting needled by an acupuncturist, getting a deep massage by a licensed massage therapist, getting your back adjusted by a chiropractor, and just getting some exercise.

Another approach? The ever-buzzy ingredient of the moment, CBD. Dr. Steven Schwartz, chiropractor of ChiroCare of Florida, is all for cannabidiol products. "I would first recommend a topical salve or cream that can be massaged into the muscle, as well as an ingestible remedy, such as a tincture that works from the inside out," he says. "Using both is beneficial as topicals penetrate the muscle to relax it, and the tinctures also work to promote anti-inflammation and to help alleviate stress and promote better sleep. I see a marked difference in using CBD products from a muscular standpoint—they're much better than many over-the-counter products that just temporarily numb the pain. CBD is long-lasting and much more effective."

Of course, you'll want to do your research on whatever brand you choose to ensure that it's clean and sustainable. Schwartz recommends Veritas Farms.

Reach for an anti-inflammatory lunch

Is it crunch time, and you find yourself sitting at your desk for hours on end, late into the night, finishing a project? Try to opt out of the pizza order (though, we know, it's tempting) and reach for wholesome, healthy anti-inflammatory foods. "The most important thing you can do to right problems that build from sitting in an office chair all day would be to eat an anti-inflammatory diet," says Peruch. "This would mainly consist of proteins and vegetables. Avoid the main causes of inflammation [inflammatory foods], and you'll be way ahead of the rest of the office."

Get up

However, the consensus from most experts is to simply get up—simple, right? As Heimann explains, it's not really about the sitting, but more about the lack of movement. "The best thing to do is get up as frequently as possible and change position often," she says. "Stress accumulates when movement isn't happening."

So, simply put by Peruch, "get off your ass and move around." And do so, often. "Set a timer at least every hour and get up and move around, or take a walk. Get the blood flowing to pump out some of the stagnation of sitting immobile." So go outside and take a walk, go up and down the stairs, or do some side lunges and stretches around your desk area. "This will give you more energy, and that's what you can explain to your boss if they wonder why you're getting up so much," says Heimann. "But, again, to reiterate, stress in the body occurs when movement isn't happening. So, move frequently and sitting won't be the devil."

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