Sit less, stand more! (Photo courtesy of Phoebe Lapine)
We’ve all heard that sitting is the “new” smoking. Sitting too much has been linked with a whole range of health issues — even early death! — and the way we hunch over our desks can also spell back pain.
This was the inspiration for Phoebe Lapine — food writer, chef, and creator of Feed Me Phoebe — to spend the month of May tackling the source of her chronic back pain, and making a point to sit less and stand more. It’s part of her year-long “Wellness Project,” where she takes on a new health- or beauty-related challenge each month. (Read about her month without alcohol, sugar, and caffeine and what it was like for her to go without a microwave.)
Yahoo Health caught up with Phoebe to learn more about what she did to accomplish her wellness goals for May:
Yahoo Health: This month, you challenged yourself to stand up more regularly. You did this by setting a kitchen timer to go off every 45 minutes — but then you realized that this was actually really disruptive! So instead, you made a point to regularly drink water as a way of forcing yourself to stand more — how so?
Phoebe Lapine: As you can imagine, a loud startling ring every hour got really old, really quickly. But I couldn’t find another way of timing myself that didn’t make me a basket case. So after a few days, I started using another passive technique that harnessed the power of one of my other wellness experiments: hydration.
I haven’t been necessarily making all of the experiments I’ve undertaken for The Wellness Project cumulative. But after last month’s water challenges, I’ve been trying to continue drinking half my body weight in ounces every day.
As it turns out, drinking a boat load of water throughout the day pretty much necessitates getting out of your chair once an hour to either a) refill your glass or b) pee. Focusing on keeping my water bottle full had an awesome halo effect on my movement habits, and was a whole lot more enjoyable than watching the clock or literally jumping out of my chair at the sound of a loud alarm.
YH: When you were still using the timer, did you just get up and move for a few minutes and then go back and sit? Or did you use that as a time to switch over to standing for awhile?
PL: It was mostly just a reminder to get up and take a lap around the room. When you sit all day, gravity puts enormous pressure on your spine. It also shortens the muscles on the fronts of your hips and the backs of your legs. When we get up, our body continues to subtly hold that unnatural chair-like shape. And if you sit for more than an hour straight, the brain starts registering that chair-like position as the norm.
Unfortunately, even the most intense Barry’s Boot Camp class can’t begin to undo the damage of remaining in a sitting position for most of the day. There’s something to be said for simple diversity of movement at a regular frequency. Sure, it would have been great to do five squat thrusts on the way to the bathroom. But for most people, just remembering to get up is half the battle.
PL: I wouldn’t say it was hesitancy as much as laziness. I got a cheap standing desk that sat in my front hallway, unopened, for a few months. During this experiment, I finally got around to unwrapping it, and worthy of the price, it was a total pain in the ass to set up.
I’m embarrassed to say that I still haven’t used it. Perhaps because it’s a manual system, I’m worried about the annoyance of switching back and forth from standing to sitting. I think I’ll just have to find a second work area and leave it up. My standing desk brain trust (i.e. my friends who have them at their offices) has warned me against ever putting the desk down, as it can stay there for weeks.
YH: Your other “challenge” for May was to tackle your back pain by regularly doing a series of exercises— pelvic floor exercises and supported bridge pose. How did you find that these helped you? Did you notice a difference in strength in your body?
YH: The first part of my back rehab was about sitting less. The second, was about strengthening.
I don’t think that movement alone could have fixed my problems. After seeing an integrated body worker and getting my alignment back to normal, it was clear that one of the root causes of my chronic back issues was a crisis of weakness.
If your sacrum is off, it’s the first thing that needs to be fixed. But if you don’t have a strong core, there’s nothing to prevent it from shifting right back out of place. Your pelvic floor is at the base of your spine and will support it in a way that a lot of other stuff won’t.
Even once my pelvis was realigned, the surrounding muscles were so unstable that the smallest movements could throw it back into turmoil.
To get my strength back, I started doing pelvic floor exercises. Every morning, I woke up and did supported bridge pose for 5 minutes. While my pelvis was chilling on the yoga block and easing into proper alignment for the day, I did these kegel-like pulses of muscles in my nether regions. You can also do some squatting exercises that combine pelvic floor work with glute-strengthening.
YH: You also mention that you did Pilates to help strengthen your core. Had you done Pilates before? How did it help you?
PL: My back journey has been underway for years and I’ve tried a lot of different methods and practitioners to get it back to normal. Last fall, I started Pilates, and coupled with my integrated body work, it’s been incredibly effective at rebuilding my core.
The problem with my crisis of weakness is that it made a lot of forms of exercise virtually impossible. Every time I tried something gentle, like yoga, I would leave in a lot of pain. In group classes, I tried to bend myself into positions that were stressful on my rickety spine. But with Pilates, the slow and targeted movements helped me isolate my problem areas and rehabilitate them. I started working with an instructor one on one, and now that I know the best practices, have since moved on to group mat classes.
If you work with a good teacher, Pilates can be a really effective form of physical therapy. Strengthening across the board is important, but not if the exercises you’re doing create more imbalance in your body.
In general, one of the biggest causes of back pain is muscle imbalance. There are many things in modern life that can cause our alignment to get out of whack. High heels force your center of balance to shift forward, straining your lower back and causing your calf muscles to shorten, leaving you misaligned when you’re walking around barefoot. Sitting is, of course, another big one. But there are also plenty of athletes and incredibly fit people who create their own imbalances by working certain muscles repeatedly without focusing enough on their counterparts.
A good Pilates instructor will look at your body and how you’re using it. They’ll see where you’re lacking support and work with you on strengthening specific muscles to stabilize your core.
My most recent back crisis was back in November. Once I finally got up off the floor, instead of going to the chiropractor, I went directly to my Pilates teacher. She helped stretch me out, but also made sure I was working muscles to counterbalance the issue. I left her studio with a much better range of motion, for half the cost of a doctor, with the tools to continue improving.
YH: So after implementing these two things — more movement, and building core strength — do you plan to continue doing these in the future?
PL: If your back is a problem area, like mine, it’s going to take more than a month to solve it. The month of May was more about committing to the work more than anything. No matter whom you work with (a chiropractor, body worker, physical or message therapist), if you’re not willing to take responsibility for your body and your habits on your own time, the changes are not likely to last.
Luckily, putting in the work on the strengthening front has helped me get to a much more stable place. Now I just have to continue putting in the time to stay there.
The hardest habit to break was sitting. As a writer, I’m required to sit on my butt for a lot of the day. When I’m on my best possible writing tear, I will lose hours concave over my screen. And on those precious productive occasions, the last thing I need is an alarm breaking my train of thought every 45 minutes. So I think the solution really is to figure out a standing desk situation that doesn’t make me any less productive. I’ll have to keep you posted on that!
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