Mysterious aches and pains? The cause may surprise you—plus, easy fixes for back pain culprits.
1. The Habit: Sleeping On An Old Mattress
According to the National Sleep Foundation, a good mattress will last nine to ten years. Haven’t replaced yours since Cheers first aired? Chances are that your spine isn’t getting the support it needs.
The Fix: Replace your old mattress with one that’s not too hard and not too soft—the former won’t allow the curves of your back to sink in, and the latter won’t offer enough support. A memory foam topper can also be helpful because it’ll contour to your body, allowing your spine to stay straight throughout the night.
2. The Habit: Carrying a Huge Bag
If you’re someone who likes to carry around all the essentials and nonessentials in your bag, your back is feeling it. Carrying a heavy load on one side of your body causes your shoulders to become imbalanced, throwing your spine out of balance too.
The Fix: Switch to a lighter bag—the American Chiropractic Association recommends that your purse (with everything in it) weighs no more than 10 percent of your body weight. You can also spread out all of your stuff between a purse and a tote, one on each shoulder, to stay balanced.
3. The Habit: Wearing Stilettos…Or Flats
Heels that are too high for you will force you to arch your back, putting stress on your joints. But flats can also be bad for you, depending on your foot type. Sandals without a supportive back can also do damage, causing your feet to move from side to side and distributing your body weight unevenly.
The Fix: Everyone has an ideal heel height for them (which is why some can’t live without ballet flats, and some claim their stilettos are the most comfortable shoes they own). Find yours with this guide from the Daily Mail: sit in a chair and extend one leg out in front of you. Let your foot and ankle relax and fall naturally, and measure the distance between your big toe and the bottom of your heel—that’s your ideal heel height. If your foot doesn’t angle at all, flats are your best bet.
4. The Habit: Holding a Grudge
Still mad at Susan for bringing three bacon dishes to your vegetarian potluck? Your back may be suffering too. Researchers at Duke University Medical Center found that people who practice forgiveness experienced fewer feelings of anger, resentment, depression—and fewer aches and pains. “Our emotions, muscle tension, and thoughts can directly influence the strength of our pain signals,” explains researcher James W. Carson, PhD.
The Fix: Not only are grudges bad for you physically, they don’t do much for you emotionally either. Start the process of giving up a grudge by setting an intention to do so, encouraging even the smallest feelings of forgiveness, and replacing negative thoughts with reasons to let go.
5. The Habit: Sitting All Day
Bad news for all of us with a desk job—it’s bad for your health… and not just because of the giant candy bowl. Sitting around all day may feel nice, but most of us don’t maintain proper posture while sitting in front of a computer all day, causing back muscles to weaken because of inactivity. Sitting also puts 40 percent more pressure on your spine than standing does.
The Fix: See whether your office would get you a standing desk—they help you keep your core and back muscles engaged all day. If that’s not an option, lean back throughout the day so you’re sitting at a 135-degree angle—it reduces compression of the discs in the spine. Finally, make sure your head is straight, not straining forward, when using the computer. (See: 10 Exercises for Better Posture)
6. The Habit: Stressing Out
When you’re stressed out, your whole body is too—including the muscles in your neck and back, which contract and clench up. And if you keep stressing, those tight muscles don’t get a chance to relax, causing pain.
7. The Habit: Skipping Workouts
Exercise builds muscle tone that’s essential for supporting your back. When you don’t get enough of it, you experience stiffness and weakened muscles, and spinal discs become degenerated.
The Fix: Workouts that strengthen the back and abdomen are your best best—try pairing light cardio with Pilates or strength training. (See: 5 Yoga Poses for Lower Back Pain)
8. The Habit: Eating Too Much Junk Food
Not surprisingly, an excess of high-calorie, low-nutrient food leads to weight gain. And that weight gain can put a load on your back too—excess weight around the midsection causes the pelvis to pull forward, creating stress for the lower back. Overweight people are also at an increased risk of osteoarthritis.
The Fix: The good news? Dropping even five to ten percent of your body weight can greatly improve your health. Start with small healthy habits that’ll stick—swap three big meals a day for four to five smaller ones, switch from butter to a healthier alternative (like coconut oil), and drinking green tea.