Since the government announced lockdown restrictions, there has been a dramatic increase in people working from home and perhaps unpreparedly so. With our kitchen table now serving two purposes, office by day and dining table by night, we may be finding that we have started longing for our ergonomic and purposeful office desk that takes less of a toll on our bodies.
In a seminar held last year by global law firm, Clyde & Co, it suggested that employers must provide extra care for employees who work from home, or there will be an increase number of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). MSDs represent 41 per cent of all employment ill health cases with 156,000 new cases reported last year. Companies taking greater care In ensuring their workers are not harming themselves using laptops and viewing display screens in sub-optimal conditions has been a big consideration since lockdown began.
When we sit for any length of time, the muscles in the front of our hips and thighs shorten, our back flexes and our shoulders round. Most people are aware of the fundamentals of good chair-based postures i.e. sitting up straight and drawing the shoulders back. However, despite our best intentions, it is almost impossible to do this for an entire working day and every day. We do not have the stamina and endurance in the muscles to hold us in this position for extended periods of time, despite our best intentions. Hunching over makeshift desks in unsupportive chairs or even the occasional afternoon working from the comfort of the sofa can all lead to upper neck, shoulder, lower back or hip discomfort.
All of this can be counteracted with regular mobility stretches or poses throughout the day can help alleviate these tensions. A technique called the pomodoro technique, which uses a 25: 5 minute work: rest rule to help increase productivity could actually be used instead to help encourage movement in your working day. Every 30 minutes or so (dependent on the job in hand) try to get up and get moving, even for a few minutes.
The most common areas that we often see tension building in throughout the day is the neck, in the middle of our back, called our thoracic spine and the front of our hips. The following suggested exercises can really help to alleviate your makeshift desk aches and pains
When we are seated in a flexed position our diaphragm can become shortened due to the abdominal contents pushing up into it. Over time this can reduce the efficiency of the diaphragm muscle and make us more reliant on using our accessory breathing muscles in our shoulders and neck, eventually this could lead to developing neck and shoulder pain. Research conducted at the Lund University in Sweden provided new insights into how completing regular breathing practice can not only improve our breathing function but also improve psychological health.
Try simple breathing exercises in a seated, standing or lying position. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly, below your ribs. Take a deep inhale through your nose and focus your attention on getting the hand on your belly to rise. Breath out through your mouth. Complete this 5 times two or three times a day.
Regularly moving the spine
The spine loves to move and the vertebrae stacked one on top of the other are mechanically and beautifully designed to do so. By sitting is a flexion-based posture for any length of time means the spine lacks rotational movement, extension and side flexion. Every few hours you can move into all these positions without needing to leave your chair. Place your hands across your chest and rotate slowly round to your left and then round to your right. Repeat this a few times. You can then slowly lift your chest up to the ceiling and back to your starting position. Then finally drop one shoulder down towards the arm of your chair and then do the same on the other side. Your back will thank you for this by the end of the day.
Most yoga or Pilates instructors will incorporate these movements into their classes, and they are a great way to maintain good spinal mobility. There is now a wealth of instructors and studios offering online classes to help guide you through a virtual class.
Opening out through the hips
The other downside of spending any length of time sitting is that the long muscles in the front of our hips can become shortened and stiff. Often this can be a contributor to lower back pain. A physiotherapist would be able to help you ascertain whether this may be the case with a series of objective tests, either virtually or in person. A nice way to lengthen out these muscles and keep your back healthy, is to set up a standing desk for parts of the day. You can get creative and use a high surface with books or boxes under the screen to make sure it is at eye level. If this is not possible, you could just decide to take your phone calls standing up and change posture this way. A good stretch to incorporate into your day is to lie flat on your tummy on the floor and reach back for your ankle with your leg flexed to your bottom, gently pulling your ankle towards your hips. If you cannot hold your ankle, then use a towel or belt of a dressing gown around your ankle and hold onto the loose end. You should feel a nice stretch through the front of your thigh and hip.
The lockdown restrictions in the UK are now allowing us to take outdoor exercise as many times as we like during the day. If you wanted to get back into running, then the article published last month will help take you through the steps to ease you back into this. However, a walk is a great activity to help counteract the effects of a day at a desk, makeshift or otherwise. The contralateral arm and leg movement helps to create rotation through the spine and the back is naturally in an extended position, which opposes the position it is in when seated. To keep it interesting you could increase the pace slightly for 10 or so strides every few minutes. This would get your arms working a little harder and create more natural movement through your spine.
Rosie Cardale is a Physiotherapist. She has a regular clinic at Bristol Physiotherapy Clinic or you can follow her on Instagram @pilateswithrosie