Across the country, make-shift offices have sprung up in living rooms, dining rooms and even bedrooms as people have adjusted to home working to try and prevent the spread of the virus. But what impact is it having on our physical health?
We spend significantly less time moving than our grandparents’ generation did, with daily sitting time at an all-time high. During current lockdown restrictions, this lifestyle has become even more prominent.
But this isn’t good for us.Humans are designed to move and rise to physical challenges and the level of movement required in the jobs of our ancestors such as farming or hunting were key to our survival as a species.
But our lifestyle and jobs have evolved much quicker than the bodies we inherited from our ancestors have. Human behaviour has changed. We move less and sit more. Whether it’s sitting in a car, sitting at a desk, or sitting on a sofa to watch TV, there is no denying we don’t move as much as we should.
And this has an impact on our health. A sedentary lifestyle may increase risk of developing cardiovascular diseases, Type 2 Diabetes, obesity and musculoskeletal pain, especially in the lower back.
For the purposes of this article, I am focusing on lower back pain, as it’s something most of us are quite likely to experience during our lives. The good news is that acute (short-term) pain usually subsides by itself over time, even if we’re not sure what brought it on in the first place.
A few years ago, an acute episode of back pain was usually treated with prescribed bed rest. Nowadays we know this is actually counterproductive and evidence suggests the best way to manage to short-term pain is to keep as mobile as possible, trying to maintain a positive, optimistic outlook on recovery.
The best thing you can do for yourself is to get moving, especially during lockdown. Any stiff joints? Find a way to isolate them and get them moving. Tight muscles? Load and stretch them. Any weak muscles? Strengthen them. Essentially, it’s more important now than ever to schedule moving time into your working hours.
Senior Exercise Therapist Rachel Rees has provided six great exercises, which you could follow to combat any new aches and pains. The exercises provide a combined approach if you have stiff joints which need to be isolated and moved, also if you have any tight muscles that need to be stretched and loaded and finally if you have any weak muscles that you need to introduce to some strengthening exercises. Please take a look below and follow these examples if you do have any of these new aches or pains around your lower back and hips.
During these difficult times, it’s so important to practise self care, and this extends to your temporary work set up.As we continue to adapt to the challenges thrown up by the coronavirus, it’s important that your home working environment is working for you and your health.
Back pain in the population is likely to increase during lockdown, particularly now we have been asked to work at home (where able) whilst not being necessarily prepared to do so. An increase in back pain will come as no shock considering that most of us do not have home offices or even a desk to work from. The good news though is that the risk of ‘office’ related pain is easily reduced and remedied through simple ergonomic adjustments and movement activity advice.
Below are some tips to help improve your desk set up, reduce muscle tension or joint stiffness and practise healthy posture, all of which will reduce the risk of back pain.
Sort your work space out
Whether you are using a laptop or desktop, make sure that the screen is set at eye level. This can be achieved by using a laptop holder or raising it up with books to prevent you from slouching to read the screen. If available, use a separate keyboard and mouse rather than the keypad on your laptop. This will help to keep your arms relaxed by your side instead of stretching forward and up to a raised position, as doing this for a prolonged period can build tension in the shoulders, wrists and upper back.
Ideally you should sit at a desk and use an adjustable office chair. Resist the temptation to lie on a sofa or bed all day as your back won’t thank you. If you don’t have an office chair, use a rolled-up towel wedged behind your lower back for extra lumbar support. If the chair is comfortable, put a cushion underneath you to pad the seat.
Your feet should be able to reach the floor, so if you can’t, place a box, step or even ream of paper below you, so you can plant your feet there and offload your back. If you can tilt the seat, adjust it so that your hips are slightly higher than your knees. A slight forward tilt helps to maintain your back in a healthy shape and engage your core.
Practise healthy phone habits
Try to avoid getting into the habit of clamping your phone between your ear and shoulder, as this awkward position can cause pain and discomfort after a while, due to muscle tightness and joint stiffness. If you’re making regular phone calls, consider investing in a head set (perhaps your office IT department could send you one?) or using the loudspeaker function if you’re in a private area.
Whether you’re working or using your personal phone, you may find yourself bending your head down over your phone or tablet, which can cause lengthened, fatigued muscles that will result in pain. Try to avoid getting ‘text neck’ by lifting your device up to your eye line rather than the other way around.
Light is your friend
Working in a dim room will make it harder to read and concentrate, which could give you headaches or muscle tension and make you feel sleepy. Open the blinds or turn on the lights, flood the room with as much light as you can, especially your workstation. Work perpendicular to the window to reduce glare on your screen.
If you can’t properly see what you’re reading you’re more likely to slouch nearer to gain better focus. Having your head in this forward posture for long periods of time may also result in neck or back ache.
If you feel tense or start to experience pains or pins and needs, it’s usually your body’s way of telling you to change position and move. It’s crucial you vary your posture throughout the day, and as they say, the best position is your next position. Get into the routine of breaking up the day with stretching, walking, and changing posture.
One of the nice things about working from home is being able to sit, stand and mix it up. Perform some mobility exercises while you wait for the kettle to boil or stand on leg while waiting for your next video call. Seize opportunities to get moving. If you’re on a conference call, plug in your headphones and walk around the house while you’re talking, or maybe even go for a lap of the block.
Build exercise into your weekly routine, as without our usual active commuting time or access to physical hobbies, not to mention the temptation of snacking and calorie surplus, you might notice yourself becoming extremely sedentary. Find something that works for you and involve your children. Joe Wicks does daily exercise videos and there’s masses of stuff out there on the internet for ways to work out at home. We’ve also got some exercise videos you can work along with.
If home space is limited, go outside for your exercise (while adhering to government guidelines). Aim to meet the suggested guidelines to have at least 30 minutes of exercise every day to see limitless health benefits.
Listen to your body. Eye strain, headaches, tiredness, muscle ache and lethargy are all signs you might need a break, so don’t try and power through. When you’re in the zone of working from home, it can be easy to forget to take breaks, but a short break can be great both physically and mentally, often resulting in improved productivity when you get back to your computer.
Set reminders on your calendar to take a short break every hour, even if it’s just to get up and stretch. Get up and move your spine and upper body.
It’s important to give yourself emotional breaks from work as well. All the usual stresses of work have followed us into lockdown, on top of concerns about the virus, and these can manifest themselves in the the body in the form of muscle tension, rounded shoulders, increased heart rate and clenched jaw. Let yourself switch off, walk away from your desk and do something you really love, even if it’s just for ten minutes or so.
Keep yourself hydrated. Not only will your body thank you for drinking water, but before long your bladder will force you to get up and get moving as well.
With new habits and working from home routines becoming the norm, hopefully we have shown you a few ways to allow your body to adapt and reduce the risk of possible flare ups. Remember, when starting a new routine- whether that be running outdoors, exercising at home or sitting more at the desk – take gradual steps to ease yourself into this new activity with the correct technique and habits.
If you would like further information and advice about your pain, please do not hesitate to contact us and we can arrange a video consultation to discuss your needs and how we can support you. Whether it’s advice from our practitioners, a remote exercise plan, an app recommendation or a blend of these, we are here for you. Please get in touch. Call us on 0800 389 8820 or enquire online.