I experienced terrible back pain during my first year of law school from sitting all day in class and at home looking down at my casebooks or laptop. Sitting all day for many hours with minimal movement made my muscles tight and movements painful. I was more prone to pulling muscles and spasms. This all made it very difficult to concentrate on my work.

1. Sitting and Back Pain

The proclaimed negative health effects of sitting for too long are not new. Academics, physicians, and physical therapists alike are sounding the alarm. Varidesk, a maker of standing desks, has recently stated in its ads that doctors are calling sitting the new smoking. These are profound claims given that 80 to 90 percent of lung cancer deaths are caused by cigarette smoking, according to the CDC.

season 7 pain GIF

Given my background for upper back pain and the recent upswing I have seen in advertising for standing desks, I thought I would do my homework and see what the experts are saying and try out some of today’s top methods.

I have been doing yoga several times per week for about a year and a half, which has also made a big improvement in my back pain, but I still feel tightness from sitting frequently and looking down at my laptop and books. Anything to help me out there in addition to yoga is welcome.

More: Making your home yoga practice habitual

2. Standing May not be the Answer

One study conducted by the University of Waterloo revealed that standing for even two hours per day at work was associated with worse back and body pain than sitting for some individuals in one study. Another review of the medical research conducted in 2007 concluded that sitting by itself has not been shown to cause lower back pain. The study found back pain was most associated with sitting for long periods in conjunction with other factors, such as sitting at an awkward posture. The highest low back pain in the research I reviewed was caused by those who sat for long periods in awkward positions. 

More research needs to be done on whether standing alleviates some of the negative health consequences recently associated with sitting.

Experts suggest that performing a resting deep squat, consistent exercise, and stretching may be some of the best methods to help alleviate back pain. Remaining seated in an ergonomic chair at a proper neutral position and getting up periodically to stretch and decompress the spine may also be beneficial. Sitting on a medicine ball instead of a chair at work is also less passive than normal office chairs and may not be subject to many of the same issues as sitting.

3. Deep Squat

One researcher has called the deep squat movement as “a toothbrush for our joints, ensuring they are all moving without any sticky or restricted areas.” In apaper published in the Journal of Evolution and Health titled As Essential as Brushing Your Teeth: The Deep Squat, Georges Dagher, DC, CSCS, touts the numerous benefits of the deep squat resting position.

The article defines the deep squat as:

[A] position of rest, wherein one places their hip joint as close to the floor as possible limited by active end range flexion of the knee, while the entirety of the feet are in contact with the surface. In this position, the spine and upper extremity should have the ability to flex, extend, and rotate.

Dagher, 2 J. Evol. and Health art. 15 (2017).
This is just adorable squatting right here

Dagher suggests that standing may be “akin to putting on a patch, a short upright static solution that eventually, if maintained beyond the connective tissue capacity, is a common provocative source of lower back pain (LBP).”

Dagher proposes people incorporate the deep squat, as a strategy to increase range of motion (ROM), thereby managing lower back pain complaints. Dagher saw patients whos increasing hip mobility alone resolved their chronic LBP complaints. If we stand for a period of time that exceeds our connective tissue capacity, Dagher suggests we should enter the deep squat or work toward entering the deep squat.

4. Additional Thoughts

No researcher is currently proposing that the deep squat is an absolute solution and cure to lower back pain.

Positional changes as a strategy to empower the back pain sufferer to manage their complaint has been researched in detail and published via Cornell University in the United States, and the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.

The study from Cornell suggests we should cycle between sitting for 20 minutes, standing for 8 minutes, and stretching every 2 minutes every half hour, known as “Hedge’s 3s ideal work pattern.” University of Waterloo suggests standing just as long as we sit, or more, from a 1:1 to 1:3 sitting to standing ratio.

I have recently made it a goal to attempt a squat instead of looking for a chair recently when I am tired of standing. There are several 30-day challenges out there. Some challenge 10 minutes of deep squatting per day, others more.

Instead of putting a hard and fast daily time goal on deep squatting, I have been trying to incorporate the squat with a loose Cornell University method where I cycle between sitting (mostly), standing for a short period, followed by squatting for a short period.

Me squatting next to my brother and strangers

For me, the most important thing is listening to my body. If I start to feel more than slight discomfort in any position, I will switch to the next position. I give my shoulder and back muscles a stretch when I stand as well because they get tight while I am looking at a computer or book.

Frequently resting in a deep squat has also been a great addition to yoga for opening up my lower body and decompressing my spine. I’ve noticed that after a long day of sitting in a chair that squatting can help open the muscles in my back and legs. Squatting has given me a greater range of motion, more flexibility, and I now experience less back pain than before.

The linked video describes the psoas muscle and benefits of strengthening and stretching the psoas muscle. The deep squat may be a way to help open the psoas and other muscles in the hips and legs.

Author: Ryan Ullman

Ryan Ullman is an associate attorney at Spence | Brierley in Baltimore, Maryland, a boutique firm that assists its clients in all manner of civil litigation. He is particularly interested in technology, productivity, peak flow states, music, and the outdoors.

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