7 tips to protect your back

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First of all, let me just say that I am writing this standing up. I will stand up for the whole time I am researching and writing this post. At the end, I will let you know how long it took and how it felt. Read on, you will see why.

Again, this is a reply to a fellow translator’s request for suggestions on how to protect our backs. After my posts on 10 things freelance translators should do every day (parts 1 and 2), he realized how time consuming that might be on top of our translation work and asked me for some tips on how to reduce and prevent back damage.

Interestingly, the first piece of advice I found in my research was in the NY Times blog here and it was making the case for standing up. In essence, the post shows how many health problems, such as obesity, back pain and even some types of cancers, are associated with sitting down for most of the day, even if you exercise daily!

In addition, your back is not the only part of you that suffers! According to an article by a fellow blogger, Mark Sisson, sitting shortens and tightens your hip flexors, lengthens and weakens your hip extensors, stretches out your hamstrings and simply renders your gluteal muscles inactive. In layman terms, we are overusing some of our essential drivers of movement and underusing others. In the long term, this imbalance may have serious consequences to our ability to move effectively, i.e. to walk, bend, squat, etc. Here is a very informative chart by Medical Billing and Coding showing the detrimental effects of sitting down on your health.

So how can we protect our backs, hips and all other movement muscles and still manage the 8-12-hour (sometimes longer) daily workload? Here is the best advice I found.

1. Stand-up: challenge the common notion that because you are working in front of your computer you need to be sitting down. Find a place in your office or home, where you can place your computer and comfortably stand (watch not to hunch) while typing. I have a kitchen bench that is just the right height, but if you don’t have that you may need to be creative, use maybe a step on your stairs, a stool with some books piled up on them… You do not need to work standing up all day, but the longer you manage the better for your overall posture and long-term health.

2. Get up every hour or so and move. I found this advice on several websites, essentially suggesting stretch routines, squats, etc. If you like your stretches, 5-minute abs, and other quick exercise routines, find a source on fitness advice that you trust on and follow that routine. I read recently that our brain functions in 90-min concentration slots, after that we lose concentration for a while. So why not use that break to move around a bit? I have not been able to exercise much recently, so what I try to do is fit my house chores, e.g. hanging the washing up, ironing, cooking, etc., in between my “concentration slots”. I try to make housework part of my plan for the working day (a prerogative of  working from home!), so that although my day may be a little longer, when I switch off my computer there is (hopefully) little left to do. This is your time anyway and you are freelancer, so be creative and use it however you like. If you want to go out and play with your children for a few minutes or have lunch with friends, do so without guilt, because ensuring your long-term health will ultimately ensure that you can keep working.

3. Sit properly. Our bodies naturally tend towards comfortable positions, which usually means slumping, hunching, laying or sitting on fluffy pillows, a nice couch, etc. If you had a regular office job, that might not be an option, but working from home, it becomes extremely tempting to work from your bed, your couch or anywhere where you happen to be and feel most comfortable.  There are times when you will need and should take advantage of that freedom, like when you are doing creative work, or maybe just leisurely studying your topic of specialization, but try not to spend most of your time in those positions. The correct sitting position, according to the Gokhale Method, is sitting upright, with your bottom slightly behind your spine, rolling your shoulders back a couple of times to position them and then relaxing your shoulders. This is not a comfortable position to begin with, but it puts the least strain on your back and you will eventually get used to it to a point that hunching your shoulders will actually feel uncomfortable. Allow your back muscles time to strengthen to support this position; you may consider working your back and abs out to speed up this process.

4. Position your computer properly. This varies from person to person and I really cannot tell you what the exact best position for you is. However, the best way to determine where to place your computer is to watch your posture. Most people find that when their computer is at eye level they don’t hunch as much, and it is easier to maintain an upright back and neck. That works for me too! Experiment with where you put your computer or how you position your chair until you find that position that makes it easiest for you to remain upright (including your neck).

5. Mix and matchAny position that you assume for too long will put a strain on your muscles and bones, so the key here is to change your position. So during your working day, work standing up for some time, move around, sit down properly, and then allow yourself some time for relaxation. By not putting your body through a constant routine of always being in the same position, you will also stimulate your brain to keep alert and this will ultimately improve the quality of your work.

6. Exercise. Exercising has a million benefits, which are all over the Internet and I am certainly not the most qualified person to list them all for you.  It is common knowledge that if you work out the muscles that support your spine, i.e. upper and lower back, chest and abdominal muscles, it will be easier to maintain your posture as they get stronger. I am not expert though and I will not go into details here, if this is something that interests you, feel free to look around for advice and please share your findings with me in the comments. All I can talk about is my experience, and exercising daily has not just made me happier, but has also improved my posture a lot. Certain types of exercises, like Yoga and Pilates, are particularly great for your posture.

7. Do things that make you feel good about yourself. Exercising is good, but you know what else is great for your posture? Feeling good! When you feel good, knowing that you are taking care of yourself, you stand and sit a little taller. Confidence has a dramatic impact on posture and vice-versa. If you do not believe me, hear it from the experts, the social psychologist Amy Cuddy has a very enlightening TED talk about the topic!

Helping a charity, spending time with your loved ones, doing work that you enjoy, they all make you stand and sit taller. Our posture greatly reflects how we feel. We instinctively know that, so much so that sometimes our first impressions of people are based on their posture. Hence, a very good advice for protecting your back is protecting your mind, and making sure that you are doing the things that make you happy and confident!

Now over to you, I do not feel particularly qualified to tell you what to do when you already have a back pain or condition, but some of you out there may have some good advice both to protect and to improve our backs. Please share it in the comments.

PS. I have now been standing for two hours, it felt a little uncomfortable at first, and I kept meaning to sit down, but I am OK now and actually feel a lot more focused, because focusing on my posture is forcing me to focus on my work as well. I guess I should take a break and move around a bit now. :)

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