Working From Home Wrecking Your Back? Say "Bye" to Back Pain with These 5 Mobility Moves

At the beginning of 2020, many of us who are fortunate enough to work from home viewed the initial Stay At Home orders as an opportunity for a mini Stay-cation. What could be so bad about wearing sweatpants all day and possibly taking an afternoon power nap in our own bed for a few weeks?

But, when that initial lock down transformed from a few weeks into a few months and will most likely continue on to hit the one year mark, many of us realised that our homes were not designed to be offices. There is a physical price to pay for sitting down and working from a computer all day and that price is usually in the form of tightness, discomfort and pain.

A paper from the World Health Organisation shows that the lifetime prevalence for LBP (low back pain) is between 60% and 70% for the general population in industrialised countries. While there can be acute types of back pain caused by accidents or injuries, the most common type of LBP is caused by repetitive movements, or lack thereof, that place chronic stress on the musculoskeletal system. For example, if you work in a warehouse lifting heavy boxes all day or if you are sitting at home staring at a computer all day. When we are sitting down for eight or more hours a day, there are two main postural malalignments that contribute to LBP.

The first malalignment is generally referred to as rounded shoulders, known as kyphosis. Our upper spine has a natural curve but when we sit hunched over a desk staring down at a screen, that natural curve becomes unnaturally exaggerated, which places stress on the neck, shoulders, and spine.

The second malalignment that contributes to LBP stems from the lumbo-pelvic-hip complex. When you are sitting down, your hips and lumbar spine are placed in a state of chronic flexion. When we hold static positions for a long time over our lifetime, we cause tightness of the muscles, stiffness of the joints, and a weaker neuromuscular connectivity.

So, How Do We Correct and Prevent LBP?

The most important thing you can do for LBP is to move your body. If you are dealing with acute (sharp and sudden) pain, it is best to first lay down and relax until the pain minimises before you perform any mobility movements. If you face sharp pain on a consistent basis, be sure to consult your doctor. However, if you are dealing with nagging chronic pain (which will be the majority of us who work from home) the best thing you can do is to stretch, move, and get your blood flowing. Set a reminder for every 90 minutes or couple of hours and get up, walk around your house, your block or perform the mobility movements for your hips and shoulders listed below.

Note that these clips are GIFs which are not reflective of real time movement (they are sped up). Please move slowly and with awareness, especially when trying these (or any movements) for the first time. If done all together, this mini routine will not take longer than ten to fifteen minutes. The more frequently you practice mobility movements, the more effective they become and the better results you will see. Try and do this routine at least three times a week, though ideally you want to perform them every day when working from home or sitting for prolonged periods of time.

Seated Figure Four

Important cues: keep feet flexed, sit up tall, draw in navel, try and press your top shin down so it's parallel to the floor.

Reps and Sets: Relax and then resist your knee using the heel of your hand. Repeat for 10-20 repetitions. On the final repetition, resist and hold for a minimum of 30 seconds and maximum of 90 seconds. Repeat on both legs for one set.

To make this move harder, you can lay on your back and perform the figure four with one leg straight up in the air.

Table Lifts

Cues: keep your core tight, lift hips as high as they will go with the goal being shoulder/knee height, keep your shoulder blades pinched together, keep toes facing forward.

Reps and Sets: set a timer for 60 to 120 seconds and perform as many conscious and concise repetitions as possible. Do not go fast and rush through the movement but do not stop moving until time is up. Perform for one set.

Advanced Table Lifts with Forward Shift

If you have a mobile upper back and felt as if the table lifts were not challenging enough, make it more challenging by turning your hands to face your sit-bones. If you can get your hips shoulder/knee height, pinch the shoulder blades and gently shift the knees forward over the toes. Perform same repetitions as above.

Cat to Seal Waves

Cues: try and articulate one vertebrae at a time as you smoothly transition from Child's Pose, through Cat Pose and finish in Seal Pose. In Seal, make sure to push your chest forward and pinch your shoulder blades together, squeeze your butt and press your hips down toward the floor. You should not feel this in your lower back, this is targeting your Thoracic (upper) Spine. If you feel discomfort in the low back, make sure you are pinching your shoulders back while engaging your core.

Reps and Sets: set a timer for 60 to 120 seconds and perform as many conscious and concise repetitions as possible. Do not go fast and rush through the movement but do not stop moving until time is up. Perform for one set.

Deep Squat Hold

The deep squat is extremely valuable for your lower body mobility and spinal health. It is a natural resting posture for children. Deep squatting is also a good movement to use as a tool to check your progress if you are working to improve your mobility.

Cues: feet should be hip distance apart, your toes should angle out slightly (whatever feels natural), your knees should be in line with your second and third toes, keep your navel drawn in to your spine, keep your shoulders engaged in your back, sit butt back and lower down as far as possible.

Reps and Sets: set a timer for 60 to 120 seconds and sit in the squat until time is up. Perform for one set. Gradually over time, increase your sets or set time to accumulate five to ten minutes of deep squatting a day.

Modified Deep Squat

If you have very tight hips or any issues with your knees, you can modify the deep squat by using yoga blocks, books, pillows or any other prop to assist you in squatting as deeply as you can manage.

Keep in mind that holding a deep stretch, especially one that is helping to correct posture through targeting the connective tissues and joints will not be comfortable. It should feel challenging. However, if there is any shooting, searing, burning, or sharp pain please use props to modify.

A good rule of thumb is to use your breathe as an indicator of tolerance. You should be uncomfortable but able to maintain deep conscious breathing. If you are panting, holding your breath or experiencing pain, modify and over time, increase your level of challenge.

Pancake Good Mornings

Cues: sitting in a straddle position, lengthen the spine as tall as possible, draw in the navel, keep sit-bones grounded on the floor, keep elbows wide, pinch shoulders together, hinge as far towards the floor as possible, keep quads and feet actively engaged and do not let your knees rotate forward as you hinge, knees should face the ceiling the entire time.

**The most important aspect of this movement is that you DO NOT allow the back to round. You want to hinge from the hip towards the floor so resist the urge to round your shoulders forward to get the illusion that you're close to the floor. If you cannot perform this movement with your back as flat as mine in this clip, look at the modified video below.

Reps and Sets: perform 10 repetitions and on the final rep, hold the bottom position for 10-30 seconds. Do not go fast and rush through the movement. Perform for one to three sets.

Modified Pancake Good Mornings

Unless you can perform this movement on the floor with a perfectly flat spine, elevate yourself on a chair. As you become more familiar with the movement and can perform it with ease, you can progressively lower the apparatus you are using to modify. Go from using chair, down to several yoga blocks stacked on top of one another, down to one or two blocks and then eventually down to the floor.

Once performing these on the floor with a flat back, work on increasing the distance between your legs to make your straddle wider and the movement more challenging.

In the words of an ancient Yogi saying, "you are as young and healthy as your spine is strong and supple." Our modern lifestyle was designed around productivity and convenience not around health and well-being. It's important to add in these simple movements to your daily routine and make them as important as brushing your teeth or taking a shower. You only have one body and if you want to say "so long" to back pain, stiff joints, and tight muscles, this is a great place to start!

Be Well!

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