Back to health

Dr Patrick Sim, National Board Director of the Chiropractors’ Association of Australia (CAA), shares his top tips to help you care for your spine.  

Words: Helen Hawkes

Staying mobile is essential to a healthy spine. Our joints are genetically designed to move – yet, unfortunately, many of us simply sit too much.

When our bodies adapt to constant sitting over an extended period, we become less skilled at basic functions that require co-ordination and balance, such as standing, walking, running and jumping. We also feel stiffness in our muscles, and we might feel pain in our lower back, legs, neck and hips.

Sitting for long periods can lead to increased stress on the discs between the vertebrae, as well as inflammation and weakening of the core stabilising muscles in your back.

Get moving

As hunter-gatherers, our ancestors were believed to have walked up to 15 kilometres a day. That’s what we should be aiming for, too, but even starting with a short walk and building up your fitness over time will produce results.

When you’re on the go, try to move your whole body and swing your arms to get more movement in the upper spine. For those looking to build bone density, it can be useful to carry a backpack while walking.

Swimming is also a good way to exercise without much impact, but I would advise avoiding breaststroke, because it can cause lower-back and pelvic problems.

Pilates can help you build core muscles and provides stability and protection for your spine. Similarly, yoga will help you develop good balance, flexibility and strength.

Speaking of which, strength training is valuable for the spine, and using your own body weight is generally sufficient. Squats, lunges and press-ups can increase strength and endurance and help improve your posture.

In the workplace

For those who have a sedentary job, such as working at a computer, you may think that sitting for long periods is unavoidable during the day. But there is a solution – a height-adjustable desk that will allow you to stand some of the time. You can use a height-adjustable chair, too, so you can sit when necessary.

Another good suggestion is to take a break once an hour. Get up, go for a drink of water and move around for one minute. When you stand, imagine your head is being stretched upwards and feel the gentle stretch through your back.

You can also stand up every time you’re on the telephone – and never cradle the phone between your neck and shoulder.

Sit on the front edge of your chair sometimes, too. You will find that your shoulders automatically come back and you sit more upright.

On the home front

Try introducing a new routine at home to get you moving more. Instead of watching television, go for a walk or play a ball game; join an exercise class after work; or install a treadmill or an exercise bike in your living area.

Diet also plays a part when it comes to looking after your spine. Fresh fish, high-quality protein and lots of fruit and vegetables will help keep your back and spinal column healthy.

And while you sleep

First, a good mattress and pillow is a worthwhile investment for your spine. Then you need to think about how you sleep. Your best option is lying on one side with your knees slightly bent. Your pillow should be placed in a position that allows the arm that you’re lying on to sit in front of the chest.

If you sleep on your back, you tend to rotate your head too far one way or the other. And sleeping on your stomach is the worst position of all, as it rotates your neck and often over-extends the joints. People who are stressed may find they naturally fall into this position. But putting a pillow against your chest should stop you from turning onto your stomach.

Of course, it can be difficult to break old habits – particularly those such as sleeping and sitting that are so deeply ingrained in our routines. However, the more often we do something, the better we get at it, so persevere with these small changes and you’ll soon be enjoying the benefits that they bring.

For injuries or ongoing concerns, consult a medical professional for a proper diagnosis. To find a member of the Chiropractors’ Association of Australia, go to
Live better

Spinal Health Week, 19 – 25 May 2014, offers a timely reminder to look at our daily habits and how they affect our spinal health. Research has shown that:

Back pain affects two million Australians every year1.

The direct cost of back pain in Australia has been estimated at around $1 billion annually. But the main economic burden, around $8.1 billion, stems from lost work time2.

Up to 80 percent of Australians will experience back pain at some point in their lives and 10 percent will experience significant disability as a result3.

This year’s theme, ‘Live Better – We’ve Got Your Back’, will see participating healthcare providers and organisations in Australia furnishing patients with important information, tips and tools to help them improve postural fitness as part of designing a longer, healthier lifespan.

To find out more, visit

References: 1 Chiropractors’ Association of Australia, 2 Asia Pacific Journal of Public Health, ‘Low back pain in Australian adults: The economic burden’, July 2003 vol. 15 no. 2 79–87 3 Medical Journal of Australia, ‘Back pain: a National Health Priority Area in Australia?’ 2009; 190 (9): 499-502

Information provided in this article is not medical advice and you should consult with your healthcare practitioner. Australian Unity accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of any of the opinions, advice, representations or information contained in this publication. Readers should rely on their own advice and enquiries in making decisions affecting their own health, wellbeing or interest.