Nearly 80% of people in the U.S. complain of back pain. Most cases are mild and unrelated to injuries such as herniated disks or arthritis, but they can still turn a desk job or road trip into an uncomfortable experience. One expert, Tony Delitto, a professor of physical therapy and dean of the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh, explains why touching your toes isn’t a good idea and what is the best way to get out of bed in the morning.

Disk Jockeying

Americans sit on average for 6 hours to 13 hours a day, depending on which study you read, says Dr. Delitto. Being sedentary for long periods has been linked to an increased risk for heart disease and other life-shortening illnesses. But one of the biggest problems arising from prolonged sitting is pressure between the disks of the spine, he says.

“When you’re standing, the small of your back has a natural curve,” says Dr. Delitto. “But when you’re sitting, the lower back hunches the other way. That will lead to a low-grade pain.”

Stretch to Success

There are ways to improve the quality of sitting time, including using a lumbar support or towel roll in your car seat and adjusting your workstation so the mouse and computer force you to sit with better posture. Still, standing up and stretching is by far the best way to reduce low-back pain, Dr. Delitto says. Every hour or two, he says, everyone should stand up and put their hands on their hips, bend backward and repeat that five times, holding the bending position for three seconds each time.

“It gets your spine in the most extended posture instead of being flexed,” he says. “We find it helps relieve stiffness, but it also helps alleviate some of that intradiscal pressure.” He cautions that this isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, since elderly people who suffer from stenosis (a narrowing of the spinal column) shouldn’t bend backward at all. “If you have stenosis, you’d feel pain, numbness or tingling below the knee right away.”

Another helpful move is to raise the hands above the head, clasping one hand to the opposite wrist and stretching up, he says. “That realigns the spine beautifully.”

Cracking one’s back has never been shown to relieve or increase back pain, says Dr. Delitto. “I don’t have an ounce of good evidence to prove my theory, but I don’t think that this sort of self-adjustment is good for people to do,” he says. And, he says, the more people crack their backs, the more they seem to need to do it.

Another movement whose benefit isn’t proven involves lying on your back, pulling up the knees and twisting side to side. “There is no literature that I know of that says that twisting is any more helpful than simply bending backward while standing,” Dr. Delitto says.

He also doesn’t recommend bending forward and touching your toes. “Some people have really tight hamstrings, and they may compensate by bending at the back, which can overstretch it.”

For long drives, Dr. Delitto tells people to park as far from the rest area as possible so they’re forced to walk a little bit and get the back into proper posture. He also suggests pulling the car over to do the backbend stretch every hour.

At work, Dr. Delitto says he uses a bathroom two floors up so he has to walk farther. “I also wear one of those activity monitors that buzzes every 45 minutes and tells me to move,” he admits, since even a back specialist can get into bad sitting habits.

Good Morning

Dr. Delitto gives nearly every patient a morning ritual called the hand-heel rocking stretch. Before climbing out of bed, people should get onto all fours and rock back and forth four or five times to get into the child’s pose, a yoga position in which the knees are tucked on either side of the chest while the shins rest on the ground, he says. “I’m not sure if this ritual is preventative, but it does help to release morning stiffness and low-grade pain considerably.”

Dr. Delitto believes nearly everyone should take yoga or Pilates, but he recognizes this may be impractical at times. “There just aren’t a lot of people that will go into warrior pose at work,” he says. Instead, people should just stand up and stretch backward, which should bring immediate relief. “It’s pretty simple to do, and it will improve your posture and the feeling in your back for the remaining 59 minutes of the hour,” he says.

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