Blog Post

Beware of health advice from mass media

Recently, NBC News ran an article on its health website ‘Better’ about relieving neck and back pain at your desk

You can read it here

I’m always interested to see what advice is given when I read these types of articles from news organizations or magazines, because they usually follow the same old trope that we are fragile and we’re doing everything wrong…and they’re usually wrong.

The sad part is, this bad advice is repeated over and over in mass media and it’s very difficult for lil’ ol’ me (or most other healthcare professionals, for that matter) to reverse the tide of incorrect and misleading (if well-intentioned) ideas. This article unfortunately mixes decent advice with erroneous premises.

Charlee Atkins, who was interviewed for the article, starts with a misleading and unsubstantiated statement: “The body becomes injured when we…constantly move our bodies without proper alignment.” We have very little scientific research to back that assertion up. Even some obvious “faults” that most of us are aware of—flat feet, knock knees, scoliosis, winging shoulder blades—are poorly or not at all linked with future pain and injury. To suggest that improper alignment of joints may lead to injury in office workers who encounter very low relative loads in their daily work is a large leap.

Atkins goes on to describe how sitting at a desk leads to problems in various body parts.

  • She suggests that we spend most of our time looking straight ahead at a computer, thus making us vulnerable to ‘tweaking’ our neck if we turn it too fast. This is almost certainly not how one hurts their neck, unless maybe, possibly they also keep their neck completely still throughout the day and never move it. It’s worth noting that large summaries of studies suggest there is no correlation between neck posture and pain (here and here). Sorry ‘Text Neck,’ you’re not a thing.
  • She says that slouching with a forward head causes our shoulders to creep up, and “elevated and protracted shoulders don’t leave a whole lot of room to raise your arms overhead.” In fact, our shoulder blades do elevate and protract when we raise our arm overhead, so that statement is all kinds of wrong.
  • She complains that when we’re sitting our cores aren’t engaged so the core gets weak, which is probably true in comparison to someone who is standing do manual labor all day. But keep in mind, our cores only really require 5-10% activity during most daily activities, so even a ‘weak’ core can handle what you need to do. Then she makes a huge leap and claims our weak core throws off our center of gravity and we run the risk of herniating a disk from the offset weight of our head. Wrong, wrong, wrong. It just doesn’t work like that. Our backs are not so fragile that our 8-lb head will damage a disk. Heck, some freaks among us can lift 1000 lbs and be fine!
  • She says that immobile hips make it hard to get low to pick something up, so we are at risk of a back injury. This harkens to the old adage to lift with your legs, not your back. It may surprise you to know there is no evidence to support that claim. A review in 2008 (here) concluded that the findings of several studies “challenge current widespread practice of advising workers on correct lifting technique” and that “there is no evidence to support use of advice or training in working techniques…for preventing back pain.” An earlier small study (here) compared loads on the spine when different lifting techniques, lifting heights, and size of objects being lifted were used. Sometimes squatting (the “correct” way) had the lowest spine loads and sometimes stooping (the “incorrect” way) did depending on the size of the object and height it was lifted from. Thus, it’s not always bad to “lift with your back”, sometimes it may be better, and in general forcing people to always lift with their legs is not effective for preventing low back pain. Despite this evidence, even WebMD continues to promote that false idea. SMH.
  • Lastly, she describes how sitting long hours prevents our quadriceps muscles from “doing their job”, which is another leap of logic, and that leads to knee injuries when we use stairs. And then somehow that leads to decreased mobility in our ankles because…science? I don’t know. It doesn’t make sense. Our muscles don’t atrophy from not using them for a few hours. Do you wake up in the morning with smaller muscles? At work, I’m sure you get up to go to the bathroom, you climb a few stairs in the day, and I’m assuming you probably walk out of the office at the end of the day. That’s enough to keep your muscles from wasting away. Numerous studies have shown that resistance training just once a week is enough to maintain strength and muscle mass.

So most of what she said was blatantly incorrect. This is not meant to be a takedown of Ms. Atkins, specifically. She just happened to be featured in the article that bugged me enough to finally write about it. I’m sure she’s a fine trainer with many happy, healthy clients. No, this is a takedown of most of the health advice that is produced for mass popular media, i.e. TV news, magazines, doctor shows…They all tend towards blaming our modern lifestyle, blaming our poor postures and inactive core and glutes (if I had a dollar every time some patient lamented that they were told their glutes don’t fire…)

I assume these same “problems” keep getting trotted out because telling someone they have problems encourages them to find a solution, which usually means handing their money over to some health/fitness/bodywork professional/guru or to purchase some new-fangled device to fix the “problem.” Also, health shows and publications have to constantly bring you fresh—and interesting/entertaining—content to be profitable, which means the bar for admission can sometimes be depressingly low. There’s a lot of money to be made, especially if people think you have some new, improved, or never-thought-of-before solution.

It’s a shame, too, because buried beneath all the inaccuracy in the NBC article was some truth: a lot of us probably aren’t active enough to maintain healthy and resilient bodies that can handle our daily lives plus some extra strain every now and then. And that has a pretty simple solution: get moving. Adopt an exercise regimen most days of the week. And if you can’t be very active because of work, at least give yourself sips of movement frequently throughout the day. May I suggest a few easy exercises to do at your desk every 30-60 minutes (here, here, and here)? The five exercises listed in the NBC article are also fine to do (though I worry the time it takes to do them may be a deterrent).

In conclusion:

  • Your glutes and your core work just fine.
  • If you have a sedentary job move around a little bit at work, but do it a lot.
  • Trust that your body is not a fragile stack of blocks. Be a “Movement Optimist” as Dr. Greg Lehman says.
  • Be wary of health advice from mass media. Your best interest may take a backseat to profit pressures. Look for the scientific research to back it up, if at all possible.

Hope you enjoyed the read (and it didn’t come off as a rant.)