A staggering 80% of Americans complain about back pain, and it remains one of the most common causes for missing work.  Even the words “back pain,” mean vastly different things to different people.  For some, it is a sharp, stabbing pain that leaves the sufferer unable to move; for others, the pain is a dull, constant ache that never subsides.  

Within the National Institutes of Health is the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (www.niams.nih.gov).  They point out some obvious facts, but ones which we all need to remember as we throw ourselves into our workouts.  First, back pain is more common the older you get.  Simply put, as we age, the disks between the vertebrae wear away and shrink.  Second, back pain is more common in people who aren’t physically fit, and being overweight can stress the back and cause pain.  Third, some causes of back pain are hereditary, like certain types of arthritis, and other diseases can cause pain.  (Even smoking can lead to back pain, as the body may not be able to get enough nutrients to the disks in the back if you smoke.).

Countless books have been written to help us aching Americans combat our own back pain, and every expert recommends, of course, that a sufferer first see a doctor to rule out the more serious causes.  Exercise comes next.  Unfortunately, too many people work in sedentary jobs during the week, and then try to push their bodies into vigorous activity on the weekends.  The key is to use the back all week long.

The Wall St. Journal recently ran a piece entitled, “The Price We Pay for Sitting Too Much.”  The story went well beyond back pain, and suggested that sitting for extended periods increases the risk of numerous chronic conditions, from diabetes, to cardiovascular disease, to cancer.  The conclusion from the experts is that both extreme sitting and extreme standing are harmful.  Dr. Alan Hedge, from Cornell University, even suggested a mathematical formula – for every 30 minutes in the office, sit for 20, stand for 8, stretch for 2.  

Many people will find the formula unrealistic.  We can’t all aimlessly drift about the room during a colleague’s presentation.  (Although, I did have an acquaintance in the government who regularly got up to stretch his “tight” back during long staff meetings, and nobody thought twice about it.) But it is absurd to think the whole room will get up and switch places every 20 minutes.

Exercises at the desk at are not uncommon and they are not ridiculous either.  Project Koe offers a Koe Fitness at Your Desk program, but so do many other websites and media outlets.  Even making basic changes, like walking to someone’s office to drop off documents instead of emailing them, can help.  Taking the stairs up or down a few floors for meetings can provide light exercise too.  (I note that some offices have locked stairs for security or other reasons. I am a firm believer that stairs beyond the first floor should be open for all employees.  Ask at work.)  

The most important fitness consideration for back pain? The back does not work alone.  Strengthening your core muscles can help your back stay healthy and operate more efficiently.  By its very definition, core means “a central and often foundational part,” in this case, of your own body.  By upping your core workout, you strengthen your foundation, and lower your risk for back pain.