Sitting and Your Spine Health

It’s among the most passive activities we can do, so how can sitting be dangerous?

Especially for people who battle chronic back pain, it can seem like sitting down and resting should help. After all, when someone is dealing with an acute injury in another part of the body, like the knee, the first treatment recommendation is often rest. Though such guidance may be advised for the immediate period (24-48 hours) after an acute orthopedic injury, it doesn’t necessarily hold for people who sit a lot and experience back pain.

So why is sitting such a bad thing for spine health (overall healthy really, but we’ll touch on this later)? To answer that question, we should consider the anatomical design of the human spine. The spine functions best when it is elongated. Elongation of the spine helps the body deliver oxygen, blood, and nourishment to the surrounding muscles, vertebrae, and discs. Sitting is not a spine-elongating activity. The body in a seated position causes compression of the spine or makes it shrink in on itself. The spinal compression can often lend itself to poor posture – especially while sitting. I bet just reading that sentence made you straighten up if you were sitting down. Slumping or slouching is simply what most people do when seated.

While sitting might seem like a passive, relaxing activity, it isn’t. Extended periods in a seated position put loads of unnecessary stress on the spine, especially in the lower back muscles. That unnecessary stress doesn’t only affect the spine. The pressure placed on the back by sitting down for too long has a negative avalanche of other health consequences. Tight hip flexors, sore buttocks, and constricted blood vessels that don’t move blood as efficiently as they should are a recipe for a total health meltdown.

As it turns out, the proper function of the spine directly affects many other bodily structures, muscles, ligaments, and joints. In other words, when your spine health is compromised, the entire body can bear the negative brunt. The good news is this – sitting is a modifiable spine health risk factor. Modifiable means changeable, and it indicates that we have control over it.

We don’t have control over many health factors, including our genetics, the part of the world we were born in, or the family we were raised by, and these factors play a significant role in our ultimate health outcomes. Still, there are plenty of other lifestyle choices we make daily that also have a considerable impact on our health throughout a lifetime.

If prolonged sitting is the enemy of excellent spine health, then movement is the remedy. Movement is essential for adequate spine health; it is crucial for overall health and wellbeing. Additionally, countless studies have shown the benefits of gentle movement to reduce symptoms in people with back pain. Especially if you sit for work, you could unintentionally invite spine problems when you don’t move around enough throughout the day. Even if you need to set the alarm to hold yourself accountable, make sure you’re up and moving your body (stretching, walking around) after every 30 minutes of sitting. This goes for your time at home as well. I know that might sound like a bummer for the four-hour Netflix marathon you were about to go home to, but in all seriousness, the way you care for your spine matters.

When I write for the public, I’m not particularly eager to use fear as a means of scaring people to action. However, study after study has recently suggested that sitting can be worse for our overall health than smoking. Some experts have even likened it to a disease that can cause premature death. Those statements feel simultaneously compelling and ridiculous to me. It’s SITTING. So, now that you’re armed with the knowledge that prolonged sitting is terrible for our backs and the rest of our bodies – let’s take a stand against it.


Neel Anand MD