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Loving Your Back in Graduate School

Taking care of your body during the PhD.

May 3, 2016

Heather VanMouwerik is a Ph.D candidate in Russian History at the University of California, Riverside. She is also the Congressman George Brown Graduate Intern at Rivera Library. You can contact her via Twitter or her website.




Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional, and my advice does not constitute professional medical advice. This post is based on my personal experience. If you suffer from acute or prolonged back pain or weakness in your legs, please contact your doctor immediately.


Two months after my 30th birthday and a week before my little sister got married, I sat down in a café chair. Unfortunately, when I went to leave, I was completely and painfully unable to stand up. I have no idea how I got from the café to my office, but lying on the floor in a puddle of tears is how my fiancée found me a few hours later. The next day the doctor was befuddled as she handed me pain pills and a referral to a physical therapist, saying “Humans just weren’t meant to be that tall, I guess.”


Yes, I possess all of the physical and genetic traits that predispose me to chronic back pain, including my six-foot tall frame; however, this back injury was as much a result of my graduate-student lifestyle as it was my height.


Even the healthiest backs suffer from the neglect, strain, and stress of graduate school. Not only do our hectic schedules make getting exercise seemingly impossible, but the hunched-over, seated posture required to write, read, type, and attend lecture, decreases flexibility in your lower back and increases stiffness in your shoulders and neck. Over time, this can lead to uneven muscle development and chronic pain.


In addition to the physical strain, the emotional toll of graduate school also affects back health. Although not a cause of the pain itself, stress-related tension can make existing problems worse. For me, my natural workaholic tendencies meant that I tried for too long to “grin and bear it” when it came to my back pain. However, instead of helping, I probably did irrevocable harm and prolonged my eventual convalescence.


In general, there are four basic ways to heal from non-specific back pain: take time to fully heal, increase exercise once you are better, eat healthier food, and lose weight if you need to.


This prescription, which I received from my doctor, though universal in its approach and helpful in establishing all-around health, did not get to the root of my back problems: graduate school. I needed to fix my sedentary work habits and hunched posture while decreasing my overall stress levels. Since that painful day in the cafe, I've learned a lot about taking care of your back. These tips can not only heal a hurt back but maybe even prevent graduate school from taking a damaging toll on your body.


In addition to crafting a more back-friendly workspace, including an ergonomic chair or a standing desk, here are a few more ways to show your back some love:


Stretch. Do you unintentionally groan when you stand up? In the morning, do your bones crack as you walk to the coffee pot? For most of us, graduate school spans the transition from young adulthood to full-on adulthood. Along with this comes groans, cracks, and, yes, back pain. One way to prevent, or at least ease, these complaints is by a few minutes of stretching everyday.


Even the word—stretch—feels so luxurious!


I have settled into a great morning routine: turn the coffee pot on, stretch for fifteen minutes, and then drink the coffee. Your individual routine should be based on your own needs, but I really like Curvy Yoga’s Morning Routine, which combines stretching with very easy yoga to propel you into the day. I augment it with some Pilates, specifically the Swan Dive and Cat stretches.


Steps—Count Them. In the past, back pain was treated with bed rest, perpetuating the idea that back pain originated in movement. More recently, however, doctors have been calling this assumption into question by arguing that a sedentary lifestyle is actually the root of most people’s back issues. Exercise, though important, does not do a lot for your overall health if you are hunched over a computer the rest of the day.


In an effort to fight against the pull of my sedentary career, I made the commitment to walk 10,000 steps a day. To keep myself honest in this endeavor, I wear a pedometer. Since I love gadgets, mine is a bit over-the-top with bluetooth and a sleep monitor; however, any accurate pedometer will do.


Besides keeping a record of my steps, I have found two additional benefits to wearing my step tracker. First, it has turned preventative back care into a game. The buzzing on my wrist when I achieve my goal still, after four months, makes me say, “Yes!” Second, I have turned walking into a habit. For example, I go for walks after dinner these days, or I park a bit farther from the grocery store doors. When every step counts, these little changes really add up. My back has never felt better!


Ditch the Satchel Bag. Somewhere in between middle and high schools, backpacks became uncool. I don’t know if it was just a mid-90s thing or just a universal ninth-grade truth, but I have been slavishly loyal to my satchel bags ever since. I had to make many changes as a result of my back pain, but, at the time, the cruelest change was having to abandon my beautiful leather briefcase for a backpack.


Satchel bags, especially ones that are laden with books, pull your body to the side. To compensate, you have to curve your spine to support your weighed-down shoulder. Over time, this results in unequal muscle development. You feel this inequality acutely when you switch your satchel from its normal shoulder to the other one. Not only does it feel weird, but your weaker shoulder tires more quickly.


Backpacks, conversely, spread the weight evenly between your shoulders, which allows your spine to remain centered. Thankfully, at least at my university, backpacks are experiencing a renaissance, so I don’t feel as conspicuous as I thought I would.


After trying two other brands, I finally settled on Ogio’s Soho backpack, because it had plenty of internal organization, a padded pocket for my laptop, and straps that were designed to be comfortable for women. Although pricy, I wanted a bag that was classy enough for a job interview and would last a long time. That being said, any backpack is better than a satchel as far as your back is concerned.


Pomodoro for Your Back. If you haven’t heard about the Pomodoro technique, then you are clearly new to this and every other academic blog. Named after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer and intended to boost productivity, this method breaks down your work into 25-minute chunks of time separated by five-minute rests in between. I swear by this technique and credit it for getting me through my exams.


More recently, however, I have started to use the same method to keep my back happy. When my work is particularly sedentary, I set my timer for 25-minutes. After the timer goes off, I have to spend my five-minute break standing and stretching. Much like the step tracker, the Pomodoro approach ensures that I remain consistently active throughout the day.


Listen to Your Back. Even before I injured my back, that October was the most stressful month in the most stressful year of my life. Between my qualifying exams, research grant applications, relationship issues, bad teaching assignments, and money-related angst, I was a bundle of nerves. I had stopped riding my bike; I ate out most nights. Overall, I was dealing with my stress in the least healthy ways possible, and my back bore the brunt of it. Looking back, I can remember twinges of pain before the ill-fated café visit, but, since I was so wrapped up in my mental stress, I failed to pay attention to my body. The best thing you can do is try to listen, to respect your back for all it does, and to do your best to prevent pain from even developing.


I have started listening to my body through nightly meditation. Although it was originally meant to combat insomnia, I have found that the practice of silencing my mind allows me to actually hear what my body is saying. My preferred technique is the one outlined in the Mindful Geek, because I have never really identified with the spiritual components of meditation. Emily, a fellow GradHacker, recommends body scan meditation, a mindfulness technique for focusing attention on your whole body, from individual toes to muscles, joints, and bones. There are many different meditation programs out there, you just need to find whichever one is right one for you.


So, show your back the love it deserves! It’s like the old saying goes: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. By changing a few graduate school-related bad habits now, you can save yourself a lot of pain and frustration in the future.


What does your back health routine look like? How do you counteract the physical strain of graduate school? Please, let us know about it in the comments!

[Image by flickr user Jes and used under Creative Commons license]


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