Working from home is wrecking your body. These small changes could help
Now that many of us have been working from home for a few months, the way we work has changed. Incidentally, so have our bodies, due to this sudden and long-term switch. Even if you've been able to create a viable workspace at home, sitting in an unsupportive chair (or a couch) all day can be really rough on our bodies. I started out my quarantine work days at a desk not suited for my height, sitting in a seriously uncomfortable folding chair — mostly used for tying my shoes or holding piles of laundry I couldn’t be bothered to fold.
By now, I’ve now admittedly added my bed and my living room couch to my “office space.” Because of this, every time I get up and stretch after a few hours of work, my body sounds like I’m crushing a trash bag full of empty water bottles. That’s...not good.
The technical term for that popping noise my joints are making when I stretch is called crepitus, and it can be an indication that I am not treating my relatively young body as well as I should be. I’m not in a financial position to transform my entire space right now, but there are simple steps I can take to improve the way I work from them, and how much damage I do to my body. Here’s some useful expert advice I collected that might be able to help you too.
Work on your posture
“When it comes to working from home, we miss all those ergonomic chairs and workplaces we have at the office,” says J. Alex Coulson, a Toronto-area chiropractor. He’s right — those fancy ergonomic office chairs are believed to better your posture, which in turn, improves productivity. They also, oddly enough, can improve a person's confidence. That’s quite a boon, considering many of us feel like shriveled, Zoom-ing hermits right now.
Also, reflect on how you’re sitting, especially if it’s on a couch. “The further forward your head is, the more weight and stress that is put on your neck. Your neck flexed at 60° puts close to six times the amount of force on your neck,” Coulson tells Mic. Ironically, I’m typing his words from the exact position he’s describing — a familiar position to me — and my shoulders are, well, sore. Since most of us don’t have fancy ergonomic chair money right now, there are a couple of quick and easy things you can do to bring ergonomics to your home work setup.
“We should practice proper posture by sitting in a position that allows us to have our feet on the floor, legs out from the torso in an open angle,” advises Pilates instructor Jamie Isaac, who adds that an open angle means slightly greater than 90 degrees — so feel free to slightly manspread (regardless of your gender) in the comfort of your own home. “Our spine should be straight and ideally, we should be able to sit back a little with our lower back supported. We can use a rolled-up towel behind our lumbar spine to help support our back.” Back support, I’m learning, is crucial, which means I need to get something better than my semi-backed folding chair — stat.
When it comes to posture, Coulson adds, “one of the biggest focuses is to think about sitting up straight. Think about having your ears, shoulders, and hips all in line and perpendicular to the ground. Avoid leaning forward and holding your head forward.”
Adjust your workspace by getting creative
In addition to using a 100% free lumbar support pillow in the form of a towel or rolled up sweatshirt, there are other ways to change your workspace — for instance, correcting a too-low desk or chair situation.
“If there is any way to get your monitor to eye-height and relax your shoulders, this will be so beneficial,” says Danielle Berres, a Minnesota-based physical therapist and yoga instructor. “Looking down at a laptop over-stretches the trapezius muscles of the upper back and the cervical extensors and suboccipitals, which are found in the neck and head, respectively.” Berres adds that holding the shoulders tight and typing for extended periods of time puts stress on joints, which can lead to shoulder and neck stiffness as well as a decreased range of motion of your neck and arms.
“You can also construct a standing desk out of boxes and books that you place on a table or your typical desk — just pile them high enough so that when you are standing, you are looking at the center of the monitor,” Berres says, adding that you'll want to maintain the same posture with that you had in an ergonomic sitting position, and a separate keyboard from your laptop will keep your elbows at a 90 degree angle and your shoulders relaxed. Berres suggests trying a few configurations until you find the right height for you.
And while it might not seem obvious, the way your feet sit is important too. “Your arches need support when standing for extended periods of time, so you may want to wear shoes with arch support that match your feet or use a pressure relieving mat,” Berres says, but let’s be honest, I’m most likely barefoot when I work from home, so I’ll likely be using my comfiest pair of slippers. Berres suggests moving every 30 minutes or so by taking a quick lap around the house or doing a small set of glute squeezes and shoulder rolls .
Just to say it: I tried the glute exercise before creating my own standing desk setup using a bookshelf as I wrote this section, and my sore butt thanked me profusely.
By the end of a long day of typing at a laptop from any of these spaces, my body screams for a massage. The fact that I spend most of my time on Twitter or scrolling through Instagram after I’m done working for the day isn’t helping my body either, apparently.
Issac says even with ergonomically designed furniture, our bodies aren't designed to sit for the whole day, so taking simple steps can improve our posture, work efficiency, and honestly, our mood at the end of a workday.
“The majority of work I do in the Pilates studio to help clients reduce pain is often moving them in opposite patterns, directions, or planes to what they usually do,” Issac continues. “We should consider this when working from home. If you've spent a great deal of time rounded over a screen, taking some time to stretch in an arched and open way will help alleviate our compressed, rounded posture.”
Every single expert I spoke to also strongly suggests getting up and moving your body in some way or another every 30 minutes to an hour, which I am totally guilty of not doing. To combat this, I partake in a few simple yoga stretches, but if that’s not your thing, doing other exercises to get your body moving can’t hurt either. “Set timers to move—both to stretch and to change your working location. This can help us to avoid falling into the trap of staying in the same position all day,” Issac adds.
“If you have been on the couch or typing in bed all day, the best way to stretch out your body is through active movement—you'll get much more benefit from going for a walk, taking a dance break, or moving through a few yoga salutations than any static stretching.” Beres suggests. “Get your body moving in a way that feels good to you, and don't worry too much about the specifics.”