By Alicia Potter
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Are you sitting up straight? Super -- because if you slump, slouch, or hunch through the day, you may join the 80 percent of Americans who will suffer from back pain at some point in their lives. Recent research confirms that what you do every day can trigger soreness or spasms. So whether you're at home Googling for a great deal on Jimmy Choos or sashaying down the street in those heels, you can save yourself some discomfort by babying your back. Here's how.
Forget the salute
"Good posture is not standing like a soldier at attention," says Arthur White, M.D., a renowned back surgeon and author of "The Posture Prescription." That General Patton stance puts pressure on the spine. Instead, White recommends standing in a relaxed, balanced manner. And you should check your stance throughout the day --when you're waiting for a latte, say, or an elevator -- and adjust as needed. That's what Jean Schatz of Wrentham, Massachusetts, started doing after severe back pain threatened to end her dental-hygienist career. "When I reposition myself, it always feels better," she says. "I've actually had people tell me that I look taller."
Put your feet first
High arches, flat feet: These foot problems, among others, can sabotage your posture and lead to an aching back. Women are particularly vulnerable; they suffer from four times as many foot ailments as men. And narrow, ill-fitting high heels are enemy number one. But doctors agree that custom-made corrective shoe inserts (orthotics) can improve most of these troubles. There are even "dress" orthotics for your pumps. "Orthotics can tilt the alignment into balance and relieve back stress," says Robert Shmerling, M.D., a Harvard Medical School associate professor. They can be expensive, though -- $250 to $400 -- and generally aren't covered by insurance. But moderation can help, too. Wear those Choos for meetings and parties, but for extensive walking, slip on comfortable shoes (heels no higher than 1 ½ inches, or 2 inches for wedges). (Health.com: Exercises that strengthen your core )
Walk this way
Studies show that walking relieves back pain. But if your posture is poor, you may be taking a step backward instead. Bearing weight on one side or hunching as you walk may cause you pain over time. Sherry Brourman, a Los Angeles, California-based physical therapist who specializes in "gait training," healed her back problems by making a habit of walking the right way. Her advice: Unlock your knees and concentrate on keeping both your ribs and your pelvis "stacked." Relax your buttocks and pull your stomach muscles into a "soft hold" (no clenching). Your feet should roll from heel to ball. Think balanced, not rigid, and don't put too much pressure on your heels. Brourman recommends practicing four times a day for five minutes until the stance feels natural. (Health.com: Take that -- the latest on over-the-counter pain remedies )
Lighten your load
Chances are one side of your body does double duty, from carrying a toddler around to schlepping your laptop home. And playing favorites throws off your posture, which can really strain your muscles, says Daniel Mazanec, M.D., head of spine medicine at the Cleveland Clinic Spine Institute. The best solution: Switch shoulders or hips periodically. Duh, right? But breaking this habit is not always that easy. Try resting your purse on your left shoulder on the way to work, then shifting it to your right shoulder on the way home. Also, whatever you're carrying, be sure that you keep it as close to your body as possible. (Health.com: 3 herbal fixes for back pain )
Slump less, break more
Between work, Web surfing, and TV watching, you probably spend most of your day sitting, which is murder on your back. Throw poor posture into the equation, and look out. A landmark Swedish study shows that sitting upright increases the force on the spine by 140 percent, compared with standing; slump, and that number rises to 185 percent. Rules to sit by: Line up head over shoulders and shoulders over hips, rest on your "sitz bones" (the two bones in your rear end), and place feet flat on the floor with legs at a 90-degree angle. And don't just sit there; take breaks every 45 to 60 minutes to prevent strain, recommends Norman J. Kahan, M.D., director of Sports and Occupational Medical Associates in Cupertino, California. He advises getting up and stretching. Neck rolls, chin tucks, and bending back with your hands on your hips can unkink muscles.
Freelance writer Alicia Potter lives in Boston, Massachusetts.