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Back Pain Relief and Prevention: How Movement Helps: Shots

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Back and neck pain from screen use is common. Researchers say breaking up the workday with short bursts of exercise can help.

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Back and neck pain from screen use is common. Researchers say breaking up the workday with short bursts of exercise can help.

Cha Pornea for NPR

After staring at a computer screen for hours on end, the body usually gives us a clue that it is stressed: nagging neck and back pain.

To fix the problem, you may have been advised to focus on posture or ergonomics, but exercise research also points to another strategy – doing short movements throughout the day to release tension and stress in the body.

“As a society, the assumption is that we have pain because of poor posture and slouching,” says Kieran O’Sullivan, associate professor of physiotherapy at the School of Allied Health at the University of Limerick in Ireland. “But [the issue] it’s not as clean and tidy as we thought. We’ve been trying all these fixes [with ergonomics] and it definitely didn’t solve the problem. I think it’s more about the need for breaks from the workday with… movement.”

See how researchers think that quick strokes of motion—sometimes called exercise “snacks”—may help prevent pain. When the brain senses physical or emotional stress, the body releases hormones that make the muscles tight and tight. Exercise counteracts this stress response by increasing blood flow to the muscles, tendons, and ligaments and sending nutrients to the joints and discs in the spine.

Fitness experts at NASA, an agency where people work in high-stress sitting positions, developed a set of 20 one-minute pain-preventing exercises that anyone can do at their desk. We’ve selected five here for you to try.


Standing table plank: Place your forearms on the table, hands touching. Extend your legs with your toes on the floor. Contract your abdominal muscles. Keep a straight line from head to toe without lifting or sinking your hips. Hold for 10–15 seconds. Rest and repeat.

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Standing table plank: Place your forearms on the table, hands touching. Extend your legs with your toes on the floor. Contract your abdominal muscles. Keep a straight line from head to toe without lifting or sinking your hips. Hold for 10–15 seconds. Rest and repeat.

Cha Pornea for NPR

Movement is also hydrating for connective tissues and joints, reversing the stiffness that comes with too much sedentary behavior, says Dr. Helene Langevin, director of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health at the National Institutes of Health, which has recently funded more than a half-dozen studies on connective tissue and pain.

“Taking short breaks and moving throughout the day… keeps your body from ‘freezing up,'” says Langevin.

Motion snacks may also have broader health benefits. Brief movements, from gentle to vigorous, repeated several times a day, can improve cardiovascular health, stop muscle wasting, reduce all-cause mortality and reduce stress, physiology and movement experts say, citing a growing body of studies. doctors.

Stretch, flex, or even wiggle

Any type of movement works – from yoga poses to brisk walking across the room or climbing several flights of stairs.

The NASA program included seated marches, standing calf raises, hand-on-table pushups, leg curls, and neck, shoulder, and back stretches.


Sit and Stand Chair: Stand in front of a chair with your legs shoulder-width apart. Squat down as if you were sitting in the chair, but without actually touching it. Keep your back straight, keeping your knees above your feet, weight in your heels. Straighten your legs to return to the starting position. Repeat 10–15 times.

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“Your body is always talking to you,” said Marceleus M. Venable, a personal trainer in Washington DC. and co-author of the NASA exercise program. “Your hand cramps, you have hip pain and neck pain…it’s saying, ‘hey, can you stretch me?’

No set of exercises works for every body. Instead, people should focus on movements that challenge areas of weakness, strengthen multiple body parts at once, and that they enjoy, says Katy Bowman, a biomechanics from Carlsborg, Wash., and author of the book move your DNA.

“It’s not as simple as, everyone with back pain, doing these four [abdominal] movements,” says Bowman. “It’s like diet nutrition. Just like you need a spectrum of dietary nutrients, you need a spectrum of movement that makes your body strong from head to toe.”


Sitting ceiling reach: Bring your hands together above your head with your palms facing the ceiling. Push your arms up, stretching upwards. Hold this stretch for 10 to 15 seconds while breathing deeply. Do at least two sets.

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Sitting ceiling reach: Bring your hands together above your head with your palms facing the ceiling. Push your arms up, stretching upwards. Hold this stretch for 10 to 15 seconds while breathing deeply. Do at least two sets.

Cha Pornea for NPR

Bowman advises setting a timer for every half hour or hour, then doing whatever you can to change your body positioning. Make movements that vary the loads placed on the spine and muscles. For example, if you’ve had your hands on the keyboard for a while, take a minute to reach your arms above your head and stretch. Then stand up and take the spine through its ranges of motion: forward and backward, side to side, and left to right rotations.

“I’m a big advocate of restlessness,” she says. “Keep repositioning yourself — you can’t really sit and not move for hours and hours a day and expect your body to be happy about it.”

Active breaks can help with the pain

A large-scale study of Danish workforce health promotion programs found that those who took breaks from activities, compared to those who did nothing, were less likely to need multiple sick days due to illness and pain. .


Seated Reverse Shoulder Fly: Sit on the edge of your chair and lean forward, keeping your lower back naturally arched. Your palms should be facing each other. Raise your arms out to your sides. Pause and then slowly return to the starting position. Repeat the exercise 15 times.

Cha Pornea for NPR


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Cha Pornea for NPR


Seated Reverse Shoulder Fly: Sit on the edge of your chair and lean forward, keeping your lower back naturally arched. Your palms should be facing each other. Raise your arms out to your sides. Pause and then slowly return to the starting position. Repeat the exercise 15 times.

Cha Pornea for NPR

Many of the employees in the study, including office workers, used resistance bands for 10-minute exercise intervals three times a week. They did exercises like putting the bands between their hands, opening their arms and squeezing their shoulders together. Employees can take breaks using the bands at their desks or get together with co-workers to exercise together.

Stretching the resistance bands with your hands can counteract sloppy, forward movement of your neck and shoulders when working at a computer. It can also help muscle fatigue from sitting at a desk for long periods of time by strengthening your back muscles, says Lars L. Andersen, professor of musculoskeletal disorders at the Danish National Research Center for the Work Environment and lead author of the study.

The study demonstrated that “active breaks are good for the body and mind and help with pain,” says Andersen.

Langevin at the NIH is a fan of using yoga stretches for motion snacks because they help maintain connective tissue flexibility. The gentle movement of the practice can also encourage the body to relax and reduce the risk of worsening back pain.

In July 2020, the NIH published a video of Langevin demonstrating some of the movements she recommends, including making a large smooth circle with one arm, while stretching your neck in the opposite direction and repeating the movement in the opposite direction and on the opposite side.

Even if you’re sore, gentle movements can be soothing. “For musculoskeletal pain in general, movement is a very good thing,” she says.


Seated Chest and Back Stretch: Bring your hands together behind your lower back. Push your chest out and lift your chin. Hold for 10-15 seconds, breathing deeply. Then stretch your arms out in front of you, palms facing down. Lower your head in line with your arms and round your back as you look down. Hold for 10-15 seconds, breathing deeply. Do at least two sets.

Cha Pornea for NPR


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Cha Pornea for NPR


Seated Chest and Back Stretch: Bring your hands together behind your lower back. Push your chest out and lift your chin. Hold for 10-15 seconds, breathing deeply. Then stretch your arms out in front of you, palms facing down. Lower your head in line with your arms and round your back as you look down. Hold for 10-15 seconds, breathing deeply. Do at least two sets.

Cha Pornea for NPR

Included exercises and legends are adapted from NASA’s DeskFit Programcreated by NASA Headquarters Fitness Center team Tanya Johnson, Marceleus Venable and Kimber Williams.

Bara Vaida is a Washington, DC-based freelance health journalist and yoga teacher.