How to preserve your back at college

You might be in any one of a number of positions as you read this: lying in your bed, squeezed on a cramped bench on the 1 train, hurrying across across a campus quad, or otherwise. So let’s play a game. Whatever posture you’re in, please focus for a moment on the sensations it is producing on your body. Is your back leaned against something hard, such that you can feel a slight, sharp pressure on that spot? If you’re lying in bed, how’s your neck? Is it propped at a comfortable angle? If you’re stuck down in the subway, is the sweaty arm of the foul-smelling dude next to you forcing you into a pretzel position, leaning away, lest you spend the whole ride rubbing against his hairy skin and picking up his stinky cooties (that’s the medical term)? Are you comfortable like that?

For about a decade, scientists have been at consensus that there’s no ideal posture for prolonged work. If you have just humored me and played the game above, this conclusion would seem kind of obvious; holding a single position over time will fatigue at least one muscle or tendon somewhere in your body uncomfortably. Nonetheless, for many years, furniture designers have tried to come up with the ultimate ergonomic chair, one that is shaped to the human form so perfectly that you could sit in it for hours and hours without fatigue and be happy as a clam. (Note: We typically think that clams are sedentary all day, on a rock or the bottom of the ocean. In fact, clams get around quite happily, and also in a very cool way.) Ergonomic chairs have never completely fulfilled the dream of their designers, although the results have been so beautiful that they’ll be displayed someday in the Decorative Arts wing of the Met. (Click on the link to realize I’m joking.) Ultimately, there is perhaps only one chair worth sitting in all day long: The Beer Chair, a recliner with a built-in refrigerator that holds a 6-pack. Sadly, however, it’s unlikely that they’ll be introducing Beer Chairs into Butler Library anytime soon.

So what’s a Columbia student to do? Well, first, let us note that we must study. Oooooooh, we must study. To the frosh reading this: It’s pretty unlikely that you’re going to get through the next four years without having to spend at least a good chunk of it concentrating for long hours behind textbooks, notepads, laptops and in lecture halls. Sitting to do all of this is bad for your health, as it can lead to obesity-related conditions and repetitive strain injuries. Lying down in your bed lowers your cognitive performance—scientists in Germany demonstrated that just a few months ago. A standing desk is a good solution for some people, but it can’t be generally recommended, because a) it tires other people out quickly, and b) there aren’t standing desks in the campus libraries and study areas.

So here’s what to do:

1) Back strengthening exercises. You can dead-lift until you look like Schwarzenegger, or you can be a bit less hulkish and follow these beautifully illustrated 15-minute bodyweight exercises from the Mayo Clinic.

2) Don’t be ashamed to move around and mix up postures. Just because your pre-med friend sits without flinching for six hours at that table in NoCo, scribbling out organic chemistry diagrams, doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you if you’re not also hunched over your books alongside him for the duration. He’s sacrificing his musculoskeletal system to become a doctor, at which point he’ll have back problems, which he’ll be well-qualified to treat.

3) Study intensely, for shorter bursts of time, rather than sort-of… you know... writing that paper... while checking Facebook and PMing your friends every five minutes. Shut off social media and just get your stuff done AQAP. You’ll end up with less desk time, which means more time for real stuff, like, say, cramming yourself into the downtown 1 train to go boogie in a sweaty, cootie-filled nightclub.

Erik Campano is a student in the General Studies class of 2015 who hopes someday to be a medical doctor working year-round in developing countries. Until then, he’s giving health advice to Columbia.


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