Sit up straight. Don't slouch. Lift with your knees, not with your back.
We've all heard these tips to avoid wrenching our backs, but given the pervasiveness of chronic back pain among Americans, we clearly aren't following these instructions.
"One number I always like people to know is the number 80 percent because that's approximately how many people will experience back pain at some point in their life," doctor of chiropractic Josh Zumstein says.
In the U.S. alone, he says back problems cost the health care system $5 billion and are the reason for 93 million missed work days a year. Part of the problem is that many people don't go to see their doctors until after the problems start - which means longer recovery time and more difficulty preventing the problems from recurring.
Though Zumstein has treated collegiate and professional athletes, he says the average person often hurts his back doing the simplest maneuvers, twisting and turning ourselves in just the wrong ways that break down ligaments over time.
"Eighty-five percent is the estimated number of back injuries that are simply caused by repetitive misuse," the Marquette graduate says. "It's basically things like getting up from sitting the wrong way, sleeping the wrong way, getting in and out of your car the wrong way."
But Zumstein, who is also the founder of the Back Safety and Wellness Consultants, says there are ways we can stop the pain even before it starts. He offers up dozens of tips in his new book, Secrets to Preventing Back and Neck Pain: 60 Ways to Protect Your Spine.
Get up, stand up.
Zumstein says people typically use their lower back, rather than their legs, to stand from a seated position. But this puts stress on the lower back. Instead, you should scoot all the way to the edge of the seated surface your sitting on and get up using only the legs. Don't use your hands on your thighs for leverage.
Get up off of that thing.
Who knew that by simply sitting, you could be hurting your back? Zumstein says excessive sitting (50 minutesor more) is the number one harmful thing that everyone does. Studies have shown that excessive sitting is more harmful to your spine than physically demanding tasks.
"More low back disorders occur from this excessive sitting than anything else you're doing to your body," Zumstein says. "Get up and stretch."
And he says it doesn't take much stretching at all, just 30 seconds to a minute, to undo a lot of the harm you've done with the previous hour of sitting.
Sit down, sit down, sit down, you're rocking the boat.
Of course, too much of anything is a bad thing, and that goes for standing, too. Zumstein says you should sit down for two to three minutes if you've been standing for a long period of time. For those who can't sit down on the job, he suggests alternating your weight from one foot to the other, for five minutes at a time, before returning the weight to both feet.
"You want to move around," Zumstein says. "You want to stretch your body. It's a dynamic thing. It doesn't like to be one stuck position all the time."
Let's twist again...or not.
Zumstein says twisting by itself is not harmful, but you want to avoid adding weight - what Zumstein calls "twisting torque." And it doesn't take much weight at all to compound the effects of twisting - something as light as a broom can create this extra strain on your back.
Instead of simply twisting with your upper body, Zumstein says, twist your entire body and move feet.
There's a wrong way to breathe?
Believe it or not, Zumstein says there are ways to breathe incorrectly. When our lungs expand as we breathe, our stomachs naturally stick out. But some people will instead lift their shoulders, creating stress and tension.
"A lot of people with headaches and shoulder pain are found to be chest breathers or shoulder breathers instead of stomach breathers," he says.
There are a variety of exercises you can do, such as planks and bridges, to help build the muscles that stabilize our spines. Those muscles help our backs to endure the stress of day-to-day activities and give you a better chance of not having back pain at all.
Sleep well...and right.
For most of his life, Zumstein says he would wake up with neck pain and often had headaches. After talking with his colleagues, he realized his stomach sleeping was to blame. Sleep on your side or your back to prevent pain - and be careful not to twist when getting out of bed in the morning, he says.
Stand up straight!
Zumstein says there is no better way to reduce stress on your back than by changing your posture. So stop slouching - and get to it!