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Protecting Your Body While Working From Home

Oct 28, 2020 By Evan Levine, DC
Woman stressed working from home

When offices closed at the beginning of the pandemic, millions of employees across the U.S. were forced to get creative with their office space. Some created desks out of bookshelves, dressers, and countertops, while others took conference calls from their bed or sofa. Now, months into the pandemic, hours of sitting at makeshift desks and workstations is beginning to take its toll. Throughout the last few months, there has been a sharp increase in back pain, neck pain and general musculoskeletal injuries as remote employees continue to adapt to new working conditions. And many of these injuries have gone untreated and gradually worsened as people delay care amid the risk of COVID-19. Fortunately, there are many simple steps you can take to protect your body, reduce aches and pains, and counteract long hours of sitting while working from home.

Adjust your workstation

Everyone’s work from home set-up is unique. Some people have bought new office chairs or desks to accommodate their new work environment, while others live in small living spaces may only have a window sill or vanity to use. Regardless of where you’re working, here are some quick tips to improve your WFH set-up:

  • Use an external keyboard and mouse when working on a laptop at a table or desk. Push the laptop back so that it’s an arm’s length away and elevate it (use a stack of books or shoebox if you need to) so the top of the screen is just above eye-level. Try to keep your head and neck in line, with your ears aligned with your shoulders in a slight chin tuck. Your wrists should hover above your keyboard and mouse in a neutral position. Avoid letting your wrists rest or fall on your workstation or laptop while doing so.
  • Adjust your chair height so that your elbow and keyboard height are aligned. If using a fixed-height chair and need to get higher, try sitting on a pillow or folded bath towel. If the lumbar support is inadequate, use a pillow or rolled-up towel in the small of your low back while sitting. Try to keep your low and mid back flush against the back of the chair and recline slightly if possible.You want your chair to be at a height where your thigh is 90 degrees from your lower leg.
  • Check your feet. They should be resting comfortably on the floor when sitting. If not, use a ream or two of paper or a shoebox as a footrest.
  • Maintain a symmetrical posture when sitting and standing. Don’t lean to one side, sit with your legs crossed or underneath you for long periods, or have your trunk twisted while sitting and working.
  • Change positions regularly. Variety is the spice of life and the same holds true for your workstation! Rotating through a variety of positions will prevent strain on your back, neck, and shoulders and will keep your blood flowing throughout the body. Go sit and work on the couch or in bed for 20 minutes. Stand at a counter-top or DIY standing-desk for 20 minutes. If on a call, stand up and walk around the room. Don’t. Just. Sit there.
  • Take micro-breaks every 30 minutes. These can take anywhere from 5 to 30 seconds. If you’re in the zone, simply reach your arms up overhead and bend from side to side then slowly roll your neck clockwise and counterclockwise. If you’ve got a little more time stand up and walk to the kitchen for a glass of water. Already done that? Go take a bio-break.
  • Follow the rule of 20. Every 20 minutes, focus on a spot 20 feet away for 20 seconds to reduce eye strain and fatigue. Also adjust the brightness of your monitor. It likely does not have to be at 100%. Lower it so that you can still clearly see what you’re doing, taking into account the lighting in the room that you’re working in.

Modify screen time

We’re all on screens now more than ever before for work, school, entertainment, and connecting with friends and family. While a lot of that screen time is unavoidable, reducing the excessive and non-productive time spent on your devices can certainly benefit your health and well-being. Screen-time can impact your mental health, circadian rhythm (the internal process that regulates our sleep cycle), and general productivity. Here are some tips that can help:

  • Turn off email and app notifications on your mobile device(s) to prevent you from constantly reaching for it.
  • Try to avoid screens during meals. Interact with others when possible or read a book or magazine.
  • Engage actively with your screen’s content. Take a yoga or exercise class. Learn to dance or play a musical instrument online. Resist the urge to consume passive content for consecutive prolonged periods of time.
  • Avoid social media during work hours and consider setting limits on social media scrolling during non-work hours.
  • Avoid screen time 2 hours before bedtime when possible. If you must be on, use a dim or night-time setting and adjust the amount of blue-light being emitted from the device. Consider blue-light filtering glasses when working at night to minimize the impact to your sleep cycle.
  • Use an alarm clock and keep your mobile device out of the bedroom.
  • Consider a digital detox - start with 24 hours and work your way up to a full or even long weekend. You’ll be amazed at how refreshed, focused and productive you’ll feel.

Get moving

All of that desk work and screen time adds up. Long periods of immobility combined with back-to-back meetings and a pile of emails can lead to common aches and pains in different parts of the body, and in some cases, can also lead to mental fatigue and a loss of focus. Luckily, there are quick and easy ways to promote healthy work posture and mental performance while staying on task and on time. We know you may be busy, so we built a list of quick and effective exercises! Try your best to perform these exercises one to two times during your work day, or whenever you can fit them in!

  • In Your Chair (easy exercises you can do right here, right now!)
    • Seated Chin Tucks 2 sets of 10 repetitions, hold for 2 seconds
      • Start seated with two fingers on your chin for guidance
      • Glide your head straight backwards, gently tucking the chin
    • Seated Scap Squeezes 2 sets of 10 repetitions, hold for 5 seconds
      • Start seated with arms relaxed
      • Pull shoulder blades together, without extending arms behind you to isolate the shoulder blades
      • Avoid shrugging shoulders up towards your ears
    • Seated Hamstring Stretch - 3 repetitions, hold for 30 seconds
      • Straighten one leg out in front of you, while maintaining an upright trunk
      • Hinge forward at the hips just to the point where you feel a stretch in the back of your thigh
      • Repeat on the opposite side

  • At Your Desk (feel like standing? Try these!)
    • Standing Hip Flexor Stretch - 3 repetitions, hold for 30 seconds
      • Place to hands on your chair for support
      • Step back onto your toes, keep hips “squared off”, with the leg you’d like to stretch
      • Draw your belly up and in, while squeezing your glute muscles
      • Feel a stretch in the front of your hip
    • Calf Raises - 2 sets of 10 repetitions
      • Hold onto the back of your chair
      • Slowly lifting up onto the ball of your feet
      • Slowly return back down
    • Walk in Place Set a small timer on your watch or your cellphone for 3-5 minutes. Play your favorite song and challenge yourself to walk in place for the entire duration.

Need something more advanced but not quite ready to hit the gym? Try walking lunges, climbing up and down stairs, or doing bodyweight squats.

When to see your primary care provider about aches and pains

Have you tried all the suggestions above and are still experiencing symptoms as frequently and intensely after a few days? Or are your symptoms worsening? If yes, it's a great time to reach out to your primary care provider. Your primary care provider can work with you to develop a care plan tailored to your unique health needs and specific work from home environment. If you’re not quite comfortable going into an office yet, book an appointment with our virtual medical team.

Should I see a Chiropractor or a Physical Therapist?

Physical therapy and chiropractic share the same primary goal of improving pain, function and musculoskeletal balance. Here’s how the two differ:

  • Physical Therapy — The main focus of physical therapy is the restoration of function and reduction of pain through a combination of strength training, flexibility and neuromuscular facilitation. Manual therapy measures involving the joints and soft tissue are used but to a lesser degree than in chiropractic care. Post-surgical rehabilitation is also a focus. Physical therapists are available via provider referral or direct access.
  • Chiropractic — The main focus of chiropractic care is pain reduction and improved functionality through joint manipulation and soft tissue therapies. Exercise and rehabilitation measures are used but to a lesser degree than in physical therapy. Chiropractors are available without the need for a referral.

If your PCP thinks you may benefit from either specialty, they can discuss your options with you during your visit and give you a referral.

Know your red flags

It’s important to keep a few things in mind when getting moving, and know when to contact your primary care provider right away, especially if you are recovering from a confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19. If you have chest pain, shortness of breath with exertion, and/or sudden, unexplained weight loss, you should talk to your doctor. Other signs and symptoms that would warrant a check in with your PCP include night pain, unrelenting pain even when laying on your back, any combination of fever/chills/night sweats, incontinence, and a loss of sensation in the groin, butt, or inner thighs.

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Evan Levine, DC

The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, Portland, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.

Any general advice posted on our blog, website, or app is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace or substitute for any medical or other advice. The One Medical Group entities and 1Life Healthcare, Inc. make no representations or warranties and expressly disclaim any and all liability concerning any treatment, action by, or effect on any person following the general information offered or provided within or through the blog, website, or app. If you have specific concerns or a situation arises in which you require medical advice, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified medical services provider.