Generally our bodies have to shout pretty loud to get our attention. We’d sooner service the car than look after our own body.
Pain, though is one of the attention-grabbing ways our bodies get our heads to listen.
Back pain is really common. Most of us – 4 in 5 – will have it at some point. It’s one of the problems I’ve seen most frequently in my osteopathic consulting room over the years.
People often describe a minor event that caused their back ‘to go’. Flinging the duvet over the bed, twisting in the shower to get the shampoo, reaching forward for the kettle… Non-events really, when you think what effort and load our backs are capable of accepting.
But unpick the history and get the back story (pun absolutely intended) of life, work and the individual’s social situation, and it’s quite quickly clear that the back pain had a long gradual climb, of aching and twingeing that waxed and waned, over weeks and months. Then, suddenly, there’s a non-event that tips it over from a grumbling ache to a screaming pain that is finally impossible to ignore.
And all too often it hits during a really busy week at work, the day of a big presentation, or when there are staff shortages or work reshuffles. Our bodies are not designed to fail, but overloaded, overstretched and under-rested, and they will.
Some people take a few days off work, some limit what they do, or avoid things, or seek help. But for most life limps on, as it must. And for the vast majority, by necessity, normal duties resume as soon as the pain is just low enough to tolerate.
But ranging from inconvenient, unpleasant to utterly unbearable, back pain is an effective way our bodies tell us to enough is enough. The white flag is up.
Stress, basically. Overload.
So what to do?
Perversely, we should look at back pain as an opportunity.
It helps you make changes to your habits. Because the pain is now something you can’t ignore, it’s going to let you know what helps and what doesn’t get it better and prevent it occurring again.
Habit change is needed.
And it’s a bit of a project at first, which needs a combination of awareness, effort and repetition. Habits, whether they are patterns of movements, thoughts, or ways of communicating, are automatic. We think no more of them than an experienced driver thinks about changing the gears, or steering the wheel. But, like anything, it gets easier with practice.
Let’s consider one thing:
Do you sit too much?
Sitting, in ‘western’ culture, is a chronic habit that we are taught early. We go through life sitting. We go from car seats, prams, push chairs, pre-school, chairs at school, college, university and work. Our evenings are spent on the sofa and our main leisure activities are done sitting. It’s a well-ingrained habit that our bodies have grown up with.
So getting up and moving about is going to involve a massive mental and physical shift. Now you have to convince yourself that loss of concentration, fidgeting, and aching are signs that you need to move about!
Let’s look at four keys:
- Getting active.
It’s good for you. It will help concentration, blood flow and musculoskeletal-skeletal health. It is critical when you have back pain, as it helps your back recover more quickly. If you sit too long you’ll get stiff, and if you move about it will ease.
- Simply start taking frequent breaks. A two-minute move-about every half hour is ideal. Walk to your colleague across the room to speak to them about something, rather than sending an email and blocking up their inbox.
- Have standing meetings. At a workshop about creating healthy workplace cultures, that we ran in a not-for-profit organisation recently, we saw that if the team had a ten-minute standing meeting once a day they could cover 80% of the bla bla that was whizzing between them all day. The ten-minute meeting itself created a pause point to break up the prolonged sitting. So a win-win situation.
- Working together.
Getting into new habits can take several months of concerted effort. So many New Years resolutions are shelved around mid-March because the effort still exceeds the apparent benefit. Working together helps. Set up reminders and prompts using apps or post-it notes, or just use helpful nagging to each other to get up! If everyone is up and about it becomes workplace habit.
- Being mindful.
Changing a habit needs awareness. If you don’t know you’re doing something it’s not likely you’ll change it. So, like moving a file to another folder on your laptop, habits need to be dragged and dropped from unconscious automatic activity, to conscious awareness.
Being aware that moving helps your body and mind, now and in the future, helps you get up and move. Do a quick body scan three times a day, asking yourself ‘what’s tight and aching and when did I last get up?’
- Have purpose.
We work much better if we know the purpose. So remember that you are moving around to improve health and prevent things like back pain. Walking to get something is easier to integrate into your day, than just standing to wiggle about, and is more motivating and engaging. And the more engaging the activity is the more likely you are to do it.
And there you have the virtuous circle that makes the new moving-about habit stick.
The more we do it…. the more we can do it.
Mia Lederman is an osteopath and founding partner at Living in Flowmotion
We will be running a series of courses for businesses in the coming months, on the Four Keys to a Healthy Workplace. For details and to register your interest, please email us. We will design a package to suit your needs.
You can find out more about how we can help you create a healthy workplace at livinginflowmotion.com