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While working at a computer or sitting for prolonged periods of time, the body can experience stress in the form of back and neck pain. Traditional advice focuses on ergonomics and posture to help reduce back and neck pain.
However, exercise research points to another alleviating strategy - taking short breaks throughout the day to engage in movement, which can reduce pain by releasing tension in the body. The release of hormones caused by emotional and physical stress can produce muscle tightness and tension - but exercise can counter this response by increasing blood flow to muscles, tenson, and ligaments - while also sending nutrients to the spine’s joints and discs.
Movement breaks can also provide broader health benefits, including improved cardiovascular health, reducing all-cause mortality, halting muscle loss, and reducing stress.
NASA has developed a set of one-minute exercises that can be performed at a desk to prevent pain. These include standing calf raises, push ups with hands on the desk, seated marches, standing leg curls, and stretches for the neck, shoulder, & back.
Here are 5 movement “snacks” from the NASA program which can alleviate neck and back pain.
Place your forearms on the desk with your hands touching and relaxed. With your toes on the floor, extend your legs. Contract the abdominal muscles. Ensure that you maintain a straight line from head to toe without sinking your hips. Hold this position for 10-15 seconds.
Stand in front of the chair with your legs shoulder width apart. Squat down like you are about to sit on the chair, but without touching the chair. Continue to maintain a proper position: back straight, weight on the heels, knees above the feet. Straighten your legs to go back to the starting position. Repeat the movement 10-15 times.
Clasp your hands together above your head. Keep your palms facing up towards the ceiling. Stretch upwards by pushing your arms up. Hold this stretching position for 10-15 seconds while taking deep breaths. Perform 2 sets.
Sit on the edge of your chair, and lean forward while keeping your back naturally arched. Your palms should be facing each other. Raise your arms straight out from your sides. Pause, and then slowly return to the starting position. Repeat the process 15 times
Clasp your hands behind your lower back. Push your chest outward and raise your chin. Hold this stretch for 10-15 seconds with deep breaths. Perform two sets.
Next, hold your arms out straight in front of you, with your palms facing down. Lower your head in line with your arms, and round your upper back while looking down towards the floor. Hold this stretch for 10-15 seconds with deep breaths. Perform two sets.
With your arms by your side, sit on the edge of the chair. Extend your right leg out straight and flex your foot so only the right heel is on the floor (keeping your foot flexed engages the muscles in the shin and ankle). Lift your leg up as high as you can without rounding your back. Hold for two counts, and then lower. Repeat this process with the other leg. Perform 10 repetitions for each leg.
Stretch your arm out in front of you. Slowly point your fingers down until you feel a stretch. Use your other hand to gently pull the stretched hand towards your body. Hold this position for 5 seconds.
Next, point your fingers upwards towards the ceiling until you feel a stretch. Use your other hand to gently pull your raised hand towards your body. Hold this position for 5 seconds.
Repeat the above steps with your other hand.
This stretch can be repeated twice in each direction.
Sitting for excessive periods of time can negatively affect your health from head to toe.
Head: Prolonged sitting can result in Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) which can travel to the brain and ultimately cause a stroke.
Neck: While sitting, excess fluid can collect in the legs and find its way to your neck during the day. This can contribute to sleep apnea, and your neck muscles getting stressed and tight, resulting in pain.
Lungs: You are more likely to develop a pulmonary embolism (PE) if sitting most of the day.
Heart: Individuals who live a sedentary lifestyle are twice as likely to develop heart disease(s) and diabetes compared to those who move frequently during the day.
Arms: Prolonged sitting and reduced physical activity can result in high blood pressure. High blood pressure can contribute to a variety of chronic illnesses, and has the potential to impact bone quality.
Back: Excessive sitting can place increased pressure on the spine, and ultimately lead to compression of the disks in the spine. This amplified pressure on the spinal muscles results in muscle tightness, increasing their susceptibility to injury.
Stomach: Enzymes in our muscle’s blood vessels which are responsible for burning fat cease to operate due to excessive sitting. This disrupts the body’s ability to metabolize fuel, and can contribute to colon cancer and obesity.
Legs: Consistent and elongated sedentariness can lead to fluid accumulation in the legs (edema), which can increase risk of blood clots, high blood pressure, respiratory problems, and sleep apnea. Standing and ambulating (walking) during the day can help this fluid circulate in the body and prevent it from collecting in the legs.
Feet: Sitting for excessive periods of time can cause pressure on the nerves or damage to the nerves, resulting in paresthesias. Numbness in the foot can also be caused by poor fluid circulation caused by prolonged sitting.
To circumvent the above complications associated with excessive sitting, NASA research recommends the following: