Improve your posture to reduce back pain

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An x-ray of someone sitting at a desk with a red coloured spine, illustrating back pain

Back pain is a blight on British business, as well as being a danger to the beleaguered leader. But two methods of improving your posture, one famous, one much less so, could soon have you finding a successful stance, says Louise Chunn

Being at the head of your business can be a struggle in so many ways. There’s the worry over finances, staffing, sales, marketing, regulation… But there’s also the fact that so much comes down to you. You need to stay in reasonable shape, to look and feel the part physically, as well as on the spreadsheet. According to Steve Tappin, author of The Secrets of CEOs, the job should come “with a health warning. In many cases people get burned out and stressed [with] very low energy. People assume CEOs are superhuman but they’re grappling with a really hard job.” It’s only very recently that leaders have started to notice the connection between the health of their business and their own wellbeing. Once they are waylaid by illness or accident it may even be too late.

One key area of weakness in health in the UK is in our posture, specifically our spines. Nearly 10 million working days in the UK are lost to back pain, of which almost 40 per cent are in the 50-64 age group. Shockingly though, there are signs that people are turning to osteopaths and physiotherapists at a younger and younger age. One side effect of technology is that we all sit far more than we used to. Office workers in the UK spend 75 per cent of their waking hours sitting down. Email rules the modern workplace, so there’s a lot less casual moving around for everyone, including the boss. Outside of work, we’re crouched over our phones, causing additional pressure on the neck, leading to degeneration, possibly even surgery.

We may try to keep fit with vigorous exercise, at the gym or by running marathons. But that’s not necessarily the answer: my last course of physiotherapy – for a herniated disc in my lower spine – was brought on by tennis, which I play to keep healthy while I build my business, welldoing.org. So, how to prevent yourself becoming one of the walking wounded?

My physio prescribed Pilates, a holistic exercise system designed to elongate, strengthen and restore the body to balance, by building a strong core. Designed by Joseph Pilates, a German fitness instructor who moved to the US in the 1920s, it’s long been popular with ballet dancers, but these days all sorts of people are signing up at Pilates studios –  such as Ten Pilates and NY Pilates – as well as seeking out professional teachers operating in gyms. There are different ways of practising: either you sit or lie on spring-assisted equipment or you can simply use a mat with a few pieces of kit. I’ve done both and the equipment classes, which have fewer people and a more hands-on teacher, are the more effective, though considerably more expensive. You can also get one-on-one sessions.

Pilates in practice

What does Pilates do for me? Teamed with a daily dog walk of a mile or two, it has done away with the lower back pain that would too often take me to the physiotherapist’s couch. It brought my shoulders down from my ears, it made me aware of my seated posture, and makes me feel physically ready for whatever my business can throw at me. Culturally it’s quite a change from loud, sweaty power-pump classes in a city gym, but many Pilates studios have noticed that more men in middle age are joining them. NHS Choices recommends it, but points out that more robust research is still needed to prove its value in reducing lower back pain.

There is a more leftfield way of offsetting the trials of being a chief executive, though: Rolfing, named after Ida Rolf, an American medical researcher who discovered that she could change people’s posture by manipulating the body’s myofascial system (the web of connective tissue that surrounds every muscle, bone, nerve blood vessel and organ). She called this ‘structural integration’ – a holistic system of soft-tissue manipulation and movement education that organises the whole body in gravity to ease pain, address chronic stress and improve performance in daily activities. 

For the past five weeks I’ve been seeing certified Rolfer, Nico Thoemmes. He works out of a light-filled room in London’s Primrose Hill, where, for around an hour, he presses, strokes and pulls at me as I lie on a massage bed. The idea with Rolfing is that you have seven to 10 sessions, each of which focuses on a different part or parts of your body. I’m well aware that this may sound somewhat bizarre, but the effects are deep and lasting; I literally feel transformed when I leave his care. As Thoemmes says:
“I see time and time again how stressed-out bodies can change and decompress through the process, making a real difference to a person’s posture and how they feel in their body.”

I also think there is something of the therapy session about Rolfing. When chronically tight connective tissues are released, so are some of your emotions, worries and inhibitions. It can have a strong effect on some people and, for beleaguered business leaders, it could be just what they need.

5 methods of reducing back pain through posture

Walk as much as you can instead of driving or taking a taxi

In the office, don’t sit at your desk for longer than an hour at a time without getting up to move around

Consider using a standing desk, for at least a few hours a day

Adjust your posture in the mirror: shoulders back, chin in, your weight evenly distributed; imagine a thread from the top of your head

Carrying excess weight will also affect your posture, so keep an eye on what you eat and drink

Louise Chunn is the founder of find-a-therapist platform welldoing.org

About author

Louise Chunn

Louise Chunn

Louise Chunn is the founder of Welldoing.org and former editor of Psychologies magazine

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