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Canberra curse: public servants' routine a risk to their back health

Nathan Hitchcock calls it the Canberra curse.

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Eighty per cent of the personal trainer's clients are office-based public servants and many of these come with the same problem: a sore lower back.

More than 80,000 people in the national capital work for the federal or territory governments while another large proportion of the population work in offices for companies providing services for the bureaucracy.

Figures from the Comcare insurance scheme – consisting of Commonwealth and ACT bureaucrats – show the biggest category of claims were made for body stressing injuries even though public servants were often not doing regular manual labour.

The curse of lower back pain is often created by what is known in medical terms as an anterior hip tilt, meaning the hip is tilted forward so the top half of the body is ahead of the bottom part of the body. "If you're sitting for a lengthy period of the day, your hip flexors tighten and can put your hips out of alignment," Mr Hitchcock said.

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"This then can create a larger curve in your back.

"It means the bottom (muscles), the hamstrings and lower back have become underutilised.

"If you look around you see a fair bit of society with a flat bottom.

"A lot of people don't know what's going on until they get a postural analysis."

Sedentary, office-based lifestyles of Canberrans are showing up in the raw statistics as well.

Canberra workers are fatter, but more active, than their NSW counterparts, according to the results of the 10-year Health Profile of Australian Employees study released a month ago.

An average ACT worker had a waist circumference of 88.2 centimetres in 2013, nearly five centimetres more than those from NSW while Victorians were fatter again, with an average waist of 89.9 centimetres.

"Our bodies are like an old, rusty car – if we don't use them, they rust up and you find it's harder to get them moving again," Mr Hitchcock said.

He suggested daily exercise to strengthen weak parts of the body because the risks went beyond back pain.

A 2009 Medibank Australia study of workers in office-based, retail and call centre roles found they spent 76 per cent of their work day sitting, and tended to underestimate their overall sitting time.

A Comcare spokesman said sedentary behaviour, defined as too much sitting as distinct from too little exercise – was "now understood to be a significant health risk and a major contributor to obesity and chronic diseases such as type II diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease".