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Is binge-watching giving you a backache? Here’s how to prevent it

Who knew TV bingeing could be back-breaking work? CNA Lifestyle spoke to the experts on how your favourite TV-watching position can hurt your back, neck and shoulders.

With more people working from home or practising self-isolation and social distancing, TV bingeing is becoming a common activity these days.

You select the channel, settle down on the sofa and before you know it, it’s already night (wasn’t there daylight when you started?). As for your back and neck, they feel as stiff as the zombies in the day in Kingdom, the South Korean drama series you just finished doing a marathon on.

READ: 6 stretches to relieve muscle tension in the office

Sounds familiar? That’s because stiffness and pain of the neck, upper back and lower back are the common issues that people face when TV bingeing, said Rachelle Lim, a principal physiotherapist with Changi General Hospital’s Rehabilitative Services.

After all, no one sits with a ramrod straight back – or not for long – when watching TV. You tend to slide down the seat of the sofa and lean your upper back against the backrest, said Sylvia Ho, a senior principal physiotherapist from Core Concepts.

“In such a position, the lower back muscles and joints become stretched, which can cause pain to develop.” This slouching position also creates the forward head posture, which “increases tension in the neck muscles, causing them to tighten and the joints to stiffen in the long term”, she said.

READ: Sitting for long periods may sabotage the benefits of exercise

That’s not all. Some people also like to sit with one leg crossed over the other, which creates an uneven weight distribution on the pelvis, said Esther Lan, a principal musculoskeletal physiotherapist with Physio And Sole Clinic. Twisting your torso can also cause muscle imbalance at each side of the spine, she said.


The best thing you can do for your body is to minimise sitting in one position for too long, said Fred Chen, another principal musculoskeletal physiotherapist from Physio And Sole Clinic. “Motion is lotion, so movement is the best way to prevent pain from setting in.”

The good news: You don’t have to do sit-ups or push-ups while watching the telly. “Getting up and moving every 20 to 30 minutes can reduce accumulative strain on the back,” said Lim, who suggested “neck, arm and leg movements, hand squeezes, marching on the spot and mini squats”. 

“Such breaks are also associated with beneficial metabolic effects, which can lead to decreased waist circumference, body mass index, and body fat,” she said. Translated: You can beat the bulge on the couch.

READ: Standing more, sitting less at work to lose weight? Don't get your hopes up

But if you find it disruptive to pause an exhilarating one-hour episode midway through, Ho said that “taking a five-to-10-minute break after 50 to 60 minutes of sitting down is better than taking a 20-minute break every three hours”. Small, frequent breaks are better than long but infrequent ones, she said.

Here’s a look at the common (and cheekily named) postures you might consciously or unconsciously slide into when watching TV, what damage they can cause and how to save yourself from a bunch of aches and pain. Who knew TV watching could be so back breaking?


(Art: Jasper Loh)

The “ow” you feel in your lower back from this position is caused by the poor support in that area, said Lim. “(The minimal lower back support) can lead to pain, achiness and stiffness of back, buttocks and even down the legs.” 

Propping your feet up on the coffee table with straightened knees isn’t doing you any favours either, said Ho. The posture increases the stretch on the sciatic nerve and those with lower back conditions may experience aggravated pains in the back and leg, she said. “Placing both feet on the floor, or ensuring that the knees are slightly bent when elevating the legs are recommended approaches.”

You’ve probably heard this before but sit up and sit back – and lean into the back of the couch, said Lim. This is to ensure your buttocks and lower back are well supported. “You can also prop your lower back with a cushion, or move the coffee table closer to the couch for leg support,” she added.


(Art: Jasper Loh)

“This could be someone using the laptop while watching telly,” said Lan. “In this sitting position, the spine tends to slouch as both legs are stretched out for long. This is especially pronounced for people with tight hamstring muscles.” Furthermore, she added, your body weight is not evenly distributed through the pelvis and spine – and this can cause lower back and/or tailbone discomfort.

It gets worse when it comes to your neck, said Chen. Without the support of a head rest, you’ll tend to support the weight of your head with a forward head posture. This can lead to neck strain and upper back stiffness. “This is especially so if you do not have enough core strength to keep you up in this position,” said Chen.


(Art: Jasper Loh)

Depending on the height of your armrest, your neck might be in an awkward position, said Lan. "The armrest may not have the adequate support for your neck and might cause neck joint, muscle and ligament strain resulting in neck ache, headache or arm symptoms."

Instead of using the armrest for head support, use a pillow or cushion that allows your neck to be in a neutral position as much as possible, said Lan. 

If this is one of your favoured positions, Lim suggested alternating lying on your left and right sides, preferably with the neck and shoulder comfortably supported.


(Art: Jasper Loh)

Lying down with one leg flung over the sofa for prolonged periods might create back strain or hip discomfort as the pelvis is tilted to one side, said Lan. 

“Avoid this position if possible.” Ho agreed. “This position will cause the mid-lower back to be in a rotated position,” she said. “It is a discouraged position to be in to watch television.”

Not that you can’t be lying down when watching TV. “Use a pillow or cushion that allows your neck to be aligned in as close to the neutral position as possible,” said Lan.


(Art: Jasper Loh)

“Sitting in a cross-legged position causes us to lean our body forward,” said Lim. If you enjoy hugging a cushion while sitting cross-legged, especially when streaming a horror movie, make sure you sit back into the couch so that your buttocks and lower back are well supported, said Lim. “It may also be helpful to alternate into other positions periodically, or straighten the legs to relieve any pressure,” she said.

Or try placing a cushion at the small of your back to encourage a more neutral spine position, advised Chen.


(Art: Jasper Loh)

Chances are, you’ll end up tilting your head to one side, said Lim, and potentially straining your neck and shoulders. “This can lead to pain, achiness and stiffness of the neck, shoulder and even down the arms,” she said. To stay comfortable, regularly alternate leaning your head to the left and right, or keep your head and neck upright, she said.

“Also, prolonged sitting on the floor can be challenging on the knees and hips when getting up,” said Lim.

Source: CNA/bk