Back to basics

Posted on September 8th, 2015 by James Luckhurst

Backache

IT’S IRONIC that we all still look forward to collapsing onto the sofa or into an armchair at the end of the working day and taking the weight off our feet, yet most of us will have spent nearly all of the day sitting down at work. According to the stats, the average British adult spends between 50% and 70% of their day sitting down, and it’s not doing any of us any good. World Health Organisation figures show that physical inactivity has been identified as the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality, causing an estimated 3.2 million deaths globally.

The main concerns are: Obesity and Slower Metabolism, leading to cardiovascular issues and diabetes in particular; Cancer and Heart Disease, an increased risk of 60%; and Rheumatic Disorders due to wear and tear to joints caused by a lack of activity and sitting badly.

But the biggest issue we face from our sedentary life is back pain, and apart from the desk job and leisure time in front of the TV, it’s the car that’s at the heart of the problem. In a recent study of business car drivers, at least half had suffered from lower back trouble in the last 12 months, and leisure drivers are similarly afflicted. It is essential as drivers that we note this and take care of our backs, in order to make ourselves safer, better focused and more comfortable behind the wheel.

Sitting Time Bomb
Bryan McIlwraith, an Inverness-based osteopath and an expert on car ergonomics, writes: ‘Ask an anthropologist and he will say that man is essentially a hunter-gatherer; we are designed to be up and about all day, trotting around looking for things to eat. Instead, modern man sits at a desk during the day, slouches in front of the TV at night, and in between may drive for several hours a day. When we use our backs in such an inappropriate way, is it any wonder that they fail?’

Almost 31 million days of work were lost last year due to back, neck and muscle problems, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), and this is in spite of the fact that the country’s workforce has largely swapped heavy manual labour for sitting in offices.

As Prof Steve Bevan, director of the Centre for Workforce Effectiveness at the Work Foundation, bluntly puts it, ‘Sitting is the new smoking. The more sedentary you are, the worse it is for your health.’

Desperate Driving
Sitting puts 50% more pressure on our lumbar discs compared to standing, and then combine it with the bumps and shocks from the road surface, the use of the pedals to brake and operate the clutch, not to mention the twisting when looking around, and it’s surprising we can still walk when we get to our destination. Of course the increasing stress of modern driving and living is a growing problem, but then there is the seat we’re sitting on – the car seat is far from ideal.

There have been great strides in the design and manufacture of modern car seats to adjust in accordance with the great variety of body sizes and shapes using them, but they are compromised by cost, space and the other safety and driving paraphernalia surrounding them. As Dr Graham Cox, an author on the subject (and inventor of a simple device to improve driving posture – the ‘SHOFT’), writes: ‘Most seats are designed so that our knees are above the level of our hips, which is good for safety but poor ergonomically. When driving we need to extend our legs asymmetrically to move the pedals, turn the steering wheel, change gears and constantly be on the lookout for danger.

‘Though we often start out well and with due consideration for back health when driving, it is not long before we are slouching or slipping down into the danger zones.’

As soon as your bottom moves forward and a gap between the back of the seat and your own lower back appears, or between your shoulders and the top of the seat, then it is a sure sign that your spine is in the wrong physical shape and certain areas of the spine are taking excessive strain. What’s more, the vibrations and bumps also dehydrate the spongy discs that sit between our vertebrae and allow us movement, and act as shock absorbers – the less fluid, the less they work. The point to remember is that you need to sit well back in your seat so that your back is in contact and supported from top to bottom.

Less Pain, More Gain
According to the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP), the essential thing to keep in mind is just to keep your back moving throughout the day. If you are sitting, whether in a car or at a desk, get up and walk around for at least five minutes or so every hour – ‘movement is medicine’ is their motto; keep your back moving to keep it flexible. They have a useful simple leaflet (check out csp.org.uk/publications) for desk-based workers with examples of stretches that can help drivers, too. The more we abuse this incredible part of our body’s architecture, the more we will suffer throughout every part of our physical and mental being. Take care of it and it will take care of you.

Being fit and healthy, and free of pain, can only make us all better, safer and happier drivers. Back pain can ruin your day, but as a dangerous distraction behind the wheel, it can all too easily ruin the lives of others, too. GM