Back pain: The Sedentary Worker

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Back pain is one of the most prevalent musculoskeletal complaints we get as physiotherapists. In many circumstances, the causes are lifestyle factors. A big contributor to this can be your occupation. As the typical person spends around 40 hours at work in a given week, what you do during this time can have a large impact on your overall health and more specifically, your back health. It is also what we don’t do that can a strong effect. That is, being sedentary for prolonged periods is simply not very good for us – we are made to move!

Our backs are remarkable, robust structures. They are able to withstand heavy loads, and allow us to move and function in a variety of ways. While resting is certainly important, our backs generally do not respond well to long periods of inactivity. In general, inactivity causes our muscles to feel tight, joints to become stiff and pain to become more pronounced. Unfortunately many occupations do require us to remain still for hours. Below are some handy tips on how to combat this issue.

Regular breaks

It sounds simple but many people don’t implement regular breaks into their routine. It’s easy to get stuck into a task and forget that 2 hours have passed. A break doesn’t need to be long. Even if you are able to take 1-2 minutes every half hour, this will allow you to get a bit of movement and move your back and legs.

Seated exercises

Even if you can’t get away from the tasks you are performing, you can perform some light activity at the desk. Try some seated marching (lifting one knee, followed by the other), or some seated heels raises (lifting your heels off the floor, then lowering them back down), static glute contractions (squeeze your bottom muscles and hold for 3 seconds, then relax), as well rolling your shoulder back in a circular motion.


Keep a water bottle handy. This will ensure you stay hydrated, as well as forcing you to go to the toilet more often. Now you have a good excuse to get up and stretch your legs more often!


If you’re somebody that can’t seem to automatically remember to take regular breaks, don’t leave it to chance. Set a regular alarm and make sure to go for a short walk before resuming your activity.

Standing desks

These have become fashionable in work places as of late. Although they do not fully resolve the issue of inactivity – after all, standing still does not count as movement, unfortunately – they do provide an option to adjust your position. Keep in mind that standing for long periods can lead to its own set of problems, putting pressure on your back, hips, knees and ankles. For that reason, an adjustable desk is recommended, so you can spend some time standing (even just 15-30 minutes) before returning to a seated position.