The Doctor is in | Watch your back! (especially when studying)

Sitting for long hours to study can be stressful on our bodies. Being mindful about how we sit can promote healthier study practices.


Ryan Adams/The Daily Iowan

Photo illustration by Ryan Adams

The World Health Organization estimates that 60-70 percent of people living in industrialized countries will experience back pain at some point during their lifetime. Research has found that major risk factors contributing to this pain are excessive sitting and sedentary behavior. Coincidentally, these two risk factors characterize the college experience of many undergraduate and graduate students.

Poor sitting posture can cause back pain because of the strain that can be put on the muscles and other structures of the back. The hunched-over posture that is common when sitting generally consists of a: rounded back, forward shoulders, and forward head position.

This classic posture causes a weakening of muscles in the back, tightening of muscles in the chest, and puts excessive strain on the neck. Additionally, leaning the neck forward makes the head feel a lot heavier than it is. In fact, leaning the head forward just one inch can increase the weight of the head, and consequently increases the load on your neck muscles, by about 10 lbs. Over time, this posture can lead to back pain.

Here are three tips to assume a healthier sitting posture:

  1. Think about sitting tall — this is an easy way to ensure you line up all your joints and decrease the work your muscles have to do
  2. Place a small, rolled towel between your lower back and chair — this can help you keep a good spine position
  3. Keep your feet flat on the floor — this helps with stability and takes pressure off your thighs

Here are two simple exercises and stretches that can help correct bad habits and prepare you for new good habits:

Chest stretch

  1. Place one arm on each side of an open doorway with elbow and forearm lying flat on the doorframe
  2. Step one foot forward and hold the stretch for 30 seconds, repeat with other foot

Chin tuck exercise

  1.   Sitting tall, pull your head and chin straight back (make a “double chin”)
  2. You should feel a stretch in the base of your head and neck (hold for 30 seconds)

Research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association has shown that sitting for 10 or more hours a day can greatly increase the risk for developing cardiovascular disease. Notably, these deleterious health outcomes occur even for people who routinely exercise but sit for long hours of the day. Decreasing sedentary behavior during the day can look different for everyone. Here are a couple tips to get you started:

  1. Try using a standing desk. You can buy one, or a cheaper alternative is a large cardboard box that you can fold up and put away when you’re not using it.
  2. Stand up and walk around every 30 minutes. This helps increase blood flow and breaks up sedentary behavior.

Studying can be stressful enough. Improving our sitting posture and reducing sedentary behavior are necessary habits to continue sitting comfortably through college and avoiding back pain later on in life. You can learn more about proper sitting posture and reducing sedentary behavior by checking out the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans at

  • Ben P. Martin, Doctor of Physical Therapy Student, Class of 2022
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