There are many aspects of my autoimmune disease that have made me feel like 29 going on 90. But more so than the inability to function on less than 9 hours of sleep, having to carry several pill boxes in my purse, and getting winded climbing a simple flight of stairs, the thing that’s made me feel the most terrifyingly old was the first time I threw out my back.
I wasn’t carrying groceries or lifting a heavy skillet—two daily activities I often blame for my chronic back pain. I was simply putting on my pants. And a little piece of advice: if you ever throw out your back, hope that you do it when you’re not partially naked.
Over the years, I funneled a significant amount of my catering earnings into massages. But after I threw my back out for the first time, and then threw it out again a month later, I knew it was time to start finding some more long-lasting solutions. The chiropractor I saw did little to fix the issue. So I began investing in better practices, starting simply with my desk chair, where I spend the majority of my time outside of the kitchen.
In addition to the practical purchases and more new age experiments like cupping and earthing, I started reading about ways I could tinker with my dysfunctional movement patterns and rework my posture through pilates so that by the time I am actually 90, I won’t look like I belong in the bell tower of Notre Dame.
This month I’m going to make good on some of the recommendations I’ve yet to put into practice, including setting up a makeshift standing desk, strengthening my pelvic floor muscles, and trying not to sit for more than 45 minutes at a time.
For more tips, tricks and hacks I’ll be trying this month, read on!
From one healthy hedonist to another,
1. Don’t sit for more than 45 minutes.
‘Sitting is the new smoking’ is one of the most well-loved health mantras as of lately. The gist is that our increasingly sedentary life is killing us–and even more so than virtually all other man made poisons and infectious diseases.
“For caveman, life was more up and down. Get up, make a fire, get breakfast. Today we go from bed to chair to car to chair to couch,” said Jesse Cannone, the founder of The Healthy Back Institute, who I interviewed for Wellness Wednesday last fall.
When I first heard about the sitting issue, I assumed that a moderate exercise habit would counteract some of this sloth-like behavior (not that I have one). But a recent study suggests that the hours spent sitting are really the prime indicators of mortality, not how many days a week you go to Soul Cycle before an 8 hour shift at your computer.
I try to ignore these doomsday type health studies, because for many of us, sitting is a non-negotiable in our professional lives. But I also talked to my fair share of body work professionals, and they seemed to agree that sitting for more than an hour at a time was probably one of the worst things I could do for my chronic back pain.
“When the body is in a stagnant position for 49 minutes or more, the brain is recognizing that position as the one to hold,” said Juliet Maris, one of the back senseis I’ve been working with. Sitting causes some of your muscles to shorten, and if that position becomes “locked,” once you’re standing again, those constricted muscles pull your alignment into a number of crooked, awkward directions.
So for this month I’m going to try not to sit for more than 45 minutes at a time, with the exception of watching movies and traveling via airplane or car, since I could feasibly see Charlie murdering me in all 3 scenarios if I needed to take a lap every hour.
I’m going to set a kitchen timer on my desk, which seems to be my main venue for over-sitting, and try to hold myself accountable that way.
Some articles and such on over-sitting:
* Try getting up off the floor without any help. That simple act can speak volumes about your health according to this article.
* Sitting is the new smoking, unpacked.
* What the amount of TV you watch says about your longevity. More fuel for the standing movement from this study.
2. Build a better workspace for your back.
One of the best things I’ve done for my back so far was swapping out my awful bucket chair for a fancy ergonomic one. I dragged my feet for a while on this switch because a) most “healthy” desk chairs are super ugly and b) they are more expensive than all of the furniture in my apartment combined.
But I also realized that the chair was probably less expensive than ending up in the chiropractor’s office 5 times a year. So I got this handsome model. I haven’t necessarily gotten a full return on investment, but I do think that it was a good place to start in my back friendly office makeover.
Standing desks have come into vogue in the last year. Now all of my pampered friends at tech jobs have them at work. These fancy adjustable models are not exactly accessible if Google or Dropbox isn’t footing the bill. So I went the cheap route and found a desktop adjustable version to convert my current workspace into vertically aligned awesomeness.
However, that standing desk has been sitting in my hallway (lowering both of our mortality rates) for the last few months unused.
My goal this month is to finally set it up, and make other tweaks to my seated posture so that my legs and arms are at a comfortable 90-degree angle. Here’s a great video to understand where your desk posture should be.
3. Strengthen your pelvic floor.
I’ve pointed my figure at a lot of variables over the years that have left me paralyzed on the floor, partially naked, on more than one occasion. There’s the lugging of catering containers across many blocks, and my perch at the keyboard that looks like a freeze frame from the Thriller music video. There’s also what my mom pointed out, which is that as a lanky family, our spines were just not “built to last.” But after working with Juliet for many months, we’ve identified my chief issue as an all-encompassing “crisis of weakness.”
The lack of exercise in my life (and therefore, the increase in hours spent watching HBO marathons on the couch), has left my body in a sad, droopy funk. The problem is, now that I’m in said funk, most aggressive forms of exercise are more likely to land me back in the chiropractor’s office than they are to help.
One of the targeted areas Juliet and I have been working on is my pelvic floor.
As Juliet put it: “If your sacrum is off, you have to fix that first. It affects everything above and below it. 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.”
So what is your pelvic floor? Well, think of your Kegel muscles, and then imagine those same isolated areas up and down your groin. You can strengthen them by doing a modification of Kegel exercises that targets 3 specific muscles in that line at the base of your spine, by your nether regions. You can also do another series of squat exercises that combines pelvic floor work with glute strengthening. Pilates mat classes are a great way to start working some of those core muscles on a regular basis.
As part three of back month, I’m going to wake up and lie in bed for 5 minutes doing my pelvic floor exercises, and try to make it to pilates once a week.
* Here’s more from Juliet on what the Pelvic Floor is.
* The kegel route is a little controversial. In this interview, Katie Bowman, a movement expert who’s done some really interesting work on alignment, suggests that daily squats might be the optimal approach.
I’ll be back with more tips and tricks throughout the month, including why a granny cart may be the best purchase of your life, and why high heels are doing worse harm than just leaving you with blisters all over your heel.
The Wellness Project is now a book! It’s part memoir, part health primer, with 20 inflammation fighting recipes for clearer skin, better digestion, and a thriving thyroid. (Because who doesn’t wake up in the morning wanting a thriving thyroid?!). You can read more and preorder here. To read up on past experiments and get more tips from the trenches, click here.
Love these tips, Phoebe! I do hot yoga 3x per week and find that I’m sort of able to self-adjust my back. Obviously if you have real problems you should consult a professional, but I experience no back pain and significantly higher sleep quality when I’m regularly doing hot or Bikram yoga.
I recently set up a standing desk and moved my workspace to an area with more natural light. I honestly find I think better and feel more productive while standing! A note to anyone switching to a standing desk: make sure you have supportive shoes to wear while standing.
Phoebe Lapine says
great tips Rebecca! Thanks! What brand standing desk do you have?
I had to get up halfway through reading this post because my 45 minutes were up. 🙂
Phoebe Lapine says
Pilates will completely help realign you and “fix” your back. Pelvis, hips, shoulders and core: Pilates will work ’em all and change your back – and your life!
Phoebe Lapine says
yes! I’ve had some great success with pilates. When i throw my back out now, I see a pilates teacher one on one instead of the chiro. It’s still cheaper in the end, and a lot more effective. I usually feel so much better when i talk out of there.
Linda Caines says
Thanks for this Phoebe. I have a degenerative disc in my back which is being very troublesome at present. I seem to be spending a small fortune on things like acupuncture and physiotherapy so this post and your tips are very timely!
I have just started doing yoga in the hope that it will help to make me more flexible and help with the pain. Unfortunately my job is desk based but I’m trying to make sure I get up and move every 30 minutes!
Thanks again x
Phoebe Lapine says
So happy to help Linda! Sorry to hear you’re suffering 🙁 I would try Pilates. Yoga actually strained my low back. Unless you find a teacher who can give you really hands on instruction and be careful of your injury, I find pilates to be easier to navigate. Hope this helps! xo
Linda Caines says
Thanks Phoebe. I did try a one to one pilates session a couple of years ago but I don’t think we were a good fit. Have now had a couple of sessions with a yoga therapist who took a history of my health and back problem and gave me a program of positions and checked my posture and breathing. I will see how I get on and am also checking out pilates again too.
Looking forward to your future tips and wellness project blogs x
Phoebe Lapine says
whatever works for you Linda – all this stuff is so individual. I’m thrilled though that you’ve found something that helps. hope you’ll continue following along! xo
Kathryn mongeau says
I am trying to sign up for your newsletter from the junk in the trunk series
I am at your site and typed in my name and email to sign up for it
There is no place that says submit
So my info is just sitting on the page
How do I sign up ?
Phoebe Lapine says
I added you Kathryn! You just press enter/return and the address will be submitted.