You might think that taking a total break from exercise is key to repairing injuries but there are those who claim that staying still can actually make aches and pains worse. Here’s why you might want to stay active and how to do it safely when carrying an injury.
The past year has seen us living cooped up indoors, working from laptops on kitchen counters or on sofas and making do with what’s available. Most people can’t afford the luxury of a proper desk set up in their homes. One of the (many) knock-on effects of the pandemic is an increased reporting of general back pain, as well as hip, neck and shoulder niggles.
This is partly due to makeshift office setups – and more significantly, I think, to the reduction in overall movement lockdown has caused. Pre-pandemic, we’d wrack up thousands of inconsequential steps a day commuting, seeing people and doing things. For a lot of people, even with their daily walk or jog, they’re not moving as much as before – particularly over winter, when the effects of lockdown have hit the hardest. We sit, motionless for hours at a time. And then the pain creeps in.
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Too much sitting
I asked muscular-skeletal clinical specialist and senior lecturer in sports physiotherapy, Gaby Pimentel (@gabriella_pimentel_physio), why the pandemic has hit our bodies so hard. “2020 threw a curveball into work environment ergonomics.” She says. “A lot of people now find themselves crouched over small webcams at their kitchen table, sat crossed-legged on a stool – and working a lot more hours.
“Another issue, on the other end of the spectrum, is our recreational exercisers who have completely changed their normal exercise routines during the pandemic. I’ve seen a fair few hip and back complaints as a result of a variety of variables.” These include things like ramping up the intensity and frequency of exercise just to get out of the house, a sudden change in type of exercise (think living room HIIT and running instead of the lower-impact strength work they were doing in the gym) and doing little in lockdown before returning to pre-pandemic training as soon as the gyms re-opened.
Many of my own friends complained of their knees hurting in the first lockdown after doing a certain living room PE lesson with their kids every day, having not done any jumping around in years. Our bodies need time to adjust to new stimuli and rushing into something new too hard and fast is a sure-fire way to cause yourself some problems. On top of all these pandemic-triggered pain-problems, there’s this common misconception that pain is a normal part of ageing. You hit 30 and it’s all downhill, with an array of joint problems, backaches and sore hips.
It doesn’t actually have to be that way. But that is how things have been set up for us – at least in the UK, where our productivity is often seen as more important than our health. This is reflected in how much longer a lot of people’s work days have become in lockdown. We should have had more time for resting now that the commute is gone but instead, we’ve got more time to sit at a computer.
Rest isn’t the answer
The problem compounds when we take the common pain recovery advice to rest. Our backs hurt, so we stop using them. Our knees hurt so we stop bending them. We see the pain as something to avoid rather than as a warning. Not moving can actually make things worse. It leads to a weakening of the muscles, tendons and ligaments, and this is as true when you’ve got general pain as when you’ve done something to cause an injury. The remedy lies in the load and intensity of the movement you do to manage the problem.
Gaby says: “A key conversation I frequently have with patients is about not being afraid of pain. Pain is a normal element of life and we have to learn how to interpret it and work with it - not completely avoid it. Quite often, pain is associated with either weakness or restricted movement and tension, depending on the pathology. Therefore, avoiding movement actually exacerbates the problem.”
World-renowned coach Ben Patrick (@kneesovertoesguy), agrees. He says: “Rest is an important part of the process but prolonged rest to handle pain often makes things worse because the muscles and tendons responsible get even weaker. So you rest for the pain… and return for major injury and surgery.” Surgery would obviously be a worst-case scenario but can be where the dominos lead if you keep ignoring a problem.
Time to get up
Hopefully, by now, we know that sitting all day isn’t great. It’s not that sitting in a particular position itself is detrimental, it’s that we’re spending more time sitting in the same position than ever before without moving out of it - and without assistance from the ergonomic desk set-ups that we might have back in the office. If we don’t move out of a position, our body learns that it doesn’t need to be able to – and that’s where problems start to come up. Ben agrees: “Sitting all day shortens the hip flexors which is linked to back pain, neck pain, shoulder pain, and even knee pain.”
The solution is simpler than you might think: get up out of your chair and move around.
It doesn’t need to be anything particularly structured or strenuous. Research shows just moving out of a position every 30 minutes is enough to make an incredible difference to your health – not just in terms of pain, but cardiovascular health too.
The NHS recommends adults set a timer for every 30 minutes to get up and move around for a minute or two. Move your body, have a mini dance party (personal fave!), focus on some more specific joint articulation or mobility work, or even just take a walk around your home. Honestly, dance parties are a great place to start. 60 seconds of jumping up and down, wiggling your body, moving however feels good and boom: you’re working on your mobility. “Mobility is the range a body can express with its own volition,” Ben explains. “Both weakness and stiffness repeatedly show in studies to make us vulnerable to injury. So theoretically, the greater range of motion we have strength through, the more ‘bulletproof’ we become.”
Ben is using bulletproof metaphorically here – exercise won’t turn you into Luke Cage (i.e a superhero), but it will help you build tendons, ligaments and muscles that are able to cope with life as a human who does things. Some great exercises for undoing all the sitting focus on creating opposite shapes and strengthening those positions. For example, hip flexors are short in a seated position. Doing moves like ATG split squats or rear foot elevated split squats work well to stretch the hip flexors back out, while building strength.
The NHS recommends that we do 150 minutes of exercise a week in order to “reduce our risk of ill health from inactivity”. This isn’t just to minimise pain but to also take care of your body on the whole: your muscles, your heart, your lungs, your brain – all of you benefits from going out for a walk and moving your body. Inactivity has been linked with having obesity, type 2 diabetes, some types of cancer and premature death.
“Taking a 20-minute lunch-break walk, seven days a week,” explains Gaby, “not only stops your back, hips and neck from stiffening up, but you’re also doing a whole lot of good for your health as a whole. Simple.” She also recommends that people who have a sub-optimal working station invest in a proper desk setup – if they can afford it/have the space to do so. “Think how much time we spend there,” she adds. A cheaper option for those not able to invest in a fancy setup is to place a box on your dining/kitchen table and create a makeshift standing desk. Before my bookcase became full, I’d use one of the shelves in this way. It’s actually an excellent trick for increasing creativity, as it allows you to walk around while you’re thinking. This seems to create better content than sitting does (it’s not just me, there’s actually a study from Stanford University that found walking boosts creative output over sitting!).
HOW TO GET MOVING
If you’re ready to try to break free from the aches and pains that plague you, I’d recommend starting with a daily walk and setting up your timer to get up out of your seat. Once you’ve been able to establish those as habits, introduce some strength work two or three times a week. Strong bodies tend to hurt less than weak ones. Think about what you want your body to be able to do and build those capabilities.
It’s worth pointing out that if you think you’ve developed an actual injury then you may want to consult your GP or physio. Obviously, if you’ve rolled your ankle or pulled a muscle, no one is suggesting that you train through the pain. We’re talking about aches and pains here that have largely developed as a result of lifestyle issues but it is also worth saying that some fitness-related niggles can be soothed by gentle movement too. Simple stretches and walks are enough to keep your limbs and ligaments loose.
5 tips for reducing aches and pains
- Take regular movement breaks (get up from your desk once an hour)
- Increase your range of motion (start stretching!
- Strength train (two-three times a week)
- Take a daily walk (20 minutes every day)
- Adjust your desk set up (get creative or invest in better)
Have a go stretching out those tight hip flexors and hamstrings with a walkout into world’s greatest stretch. This compound stretch is a warm-up favourite because it’s so good at working into muscles that suffer the most when sat at a desk for nine hours a day.