Sedentary lifestyle contributes to back pain.

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Back pain. It’s a familiar malady these days, affecting 8 out of 10 people at some point in their lifetime, according to the National Institutes of Health.

While genetics may account for some of this, its prevalence is linked to an increasingly sedentary lifestyle.

“The body loves movement,” explains Dr. Mary Ann Wilmarth, chief of physical therapy at Harvard University, who is a board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist and spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association. “When you’re in one position for a long time, your back doesn’t get the full range of motion.”

Sitting also puts more stress on your back than standing, says Wilmarth. When you’re seated, your spinal column has to hold 140 percent of your body weight. When you’re standing, this decreases to 100 percent. The extra stress when sitting can strain muscles and cause disc problems. Combined with prolonged poor posture — hunching over your computer for hours at a time, for example — you’re bound to feel some aches eventually.

Feeling the pain? The good news is that it’s treatable. First, ensure that you speak with a physician or physical therapist if your pain is caused by a specific condition like stenosis or a herniated disc, or if your pain radiates to other body parts, recommends A. Lynn Millar, professor of physical therapy at Winston-Salem State University.

For nonspecific pain, the key is to get moving. Experts recommend standing every 30 minutes and stretching, extending arms upward while gently arching your back. You don’t have to stretch for long periods to feel relief. “Just standing up for a minute or two puts the muscles in a different position, increases blood flow and relieves some of the stress on your body,” Millar says. Consider setting a timer for yourself in case you forget.

When you can’t avoid sitting for extended periods, it’s critical to choose your seat wisely. “Make sure you have some support, such as a lumbar cushion, and hold good posture to maintain a neutral spine position,” says Wilmarth, noting that your ears, shoulders and hips should be all be aligned when seated.

Regular exercise is also critical. Wilmarth recommends individuals perform both aerobic and strengthening activities to get their bodies in the best shape possible. This doesn’t mean you have to go from couch potato to marathon athlete overnight. “Walking is a highly underrated exercise for back pain,” says Wilmarth. “It’s low strain and puts your body in neutral spine position.”

Increasing your range of motion is key. If you sit at a desk, you need to perform standing activities. If you walk often already, consider an exercise with a different motion, such as bicycling.

Other stretches and strengthening activities can engage and strengthen your core abdominal muscles, which help keep your back aligned. Just ease into any routine slowly with transitional stretches, Wilmarth recommends. She suggests yoga poses as a first step. The cat/cow pose, for example, allows you to arch your back from a tabletop position (on hands and knees), alternating between rounding your spine to the ceiling, then lifting your chest and hips. A child’s pose can also provide a low-impact stretch. To strengthen your core muscles, consider the triangle pose, which requires a pelvic tilt, or the plank position, which engages many different muscle groups. (Check out these yoga moves and others at sites like

Millar recommends focusing on total-body strengthening, as some research suggests that conditioning all muscle groups, not just the core, is essential to back pain reduction. Moves like squats and lunges can strengthen the backs, abs and hips.

You don’t need any fancy equipment or an expensive personal trainer to reduce back pain. Just remember that your body needs to move in many different ways to stay healthy.

“It all comes down to being imbalanced,” says Wilmarth. “Don’t stay in any one position too long.”