Millions of people have been working from home since the start of the coronavirus pandemic and it appears this trend will likely continue into the foreseeable future. And while there are plenty of advantages of having a remote office, being home all day long, spending hours staring at a monitor, and attending Zoom meetings hunched over a laptop can impact your posture and be a real pain in the neck. Literally.
“Neck pain, back pain, hip pain, and shoulder pain are the top complaints seen in the WFH population,” says Leada Malek, P.T., D.P.T., C.S.C.S., S.C.S., a board-certified sports physical therapist.
Since commuting to the office today means walking from the bedroom to the living room/the kitchen/the basement/the spare bedroom, physical inactivity mixed with poor computer posture can lead to harmful strain on the body.
“In general, prolonged sitting can cause muscles like the hip flexors and hamstrings and certain neck and shoulder muscles to shorten,” Malek says. “Nerves, such as the sciatic nerve, run through these muscles, which means tightness can bring on nerve symptoms, like dull aches, numbness, or tingling.”
Prolonged sitting and poor desk posture can also increase the pressure on the discs and the surrounding ligaments. “This can lead to increased pressure on the joints in the spine or disc pathologies, like herniations, early degeneration, or lumbar radiculopathy,” Malek adds.
Use this guide to set up a healthy workstation and practice good WFH posture.
If You’re Sitting At A Desk Or Table
In order to avoid making one of the most common ergonomic mistakes—sitting with your head and neck tilted downward—Malek’s strongly suggests giving your screen some height.
“Raise your laptop or monitor so the top of the screen is within five degrees of eye-level to you,” she says. “Feel free to use books, yoga blocks, or even Tupperware.”
Next, if you’re sitting in an office chair, she advises adjusting the chair’s height so that will allow you to reach the keyboard with relaxed shoulders and elbows at 90 degrees. Your wrists should be in a neutral position.
But what if you can’t adjust your chair? Malek recommends anyone sitting in an uncomfortable chair place a pillow behind the lower back or along the spine for extra back support. “Also, if the chair doesn’t have armrests, use a pillow beneath both elbows to help prop arms for relaxed, supported shoulders,” she adds.
If You’re Sitting On The Couch
While earning a living from your couch sounded ideal once upon a time, we’re not so sure anymore. The sofa can actually be one of the unhealthiest locations in the home to set up your office. Sitting slouched with shoulders hunched and your neck bent forward can bring about numerous ailments, such as back pain, hip discomfort, and neck and joint stiffness, Malek says.
However, if you give in to the temptation, refrain from lying down or curling up. Instead, sit straight up and grab two pillows, placing one under the knees and one on the lower back. “The pillows will provide support and take pressure off any nagging pain or tightness in the back and legs,” Malek says.
If You’re Sitting On The Floor
The science on floor-sitting is limited, but one International Journal of Occupational Safety and Ergonomics study found sitting on the floor with folded legs to be less hazardous than sitting on the floor with stretched legs, referencing lower rates of reported musculoskeletal disorders and body discomfort.
Additionally, “if you opt to sit on the ground, try to keep your monitor at eye level,” Malek says. For example, set your laptop on the coffee table, then “fold a small blanket and place it under your tailbone to help prop you upright.”
As soon as the workday has ended, do your body a favor and spend about 10 minutes practicing simple flexibility exercises to stretch your muscles and improve your range of motion.
Begin with a hip flexor stretch. “Lower your left knee to a kneeling position (either on a yoga mat or folded towel) and put your right foot forward, placing your right hand on your right leg for support,” says trainer Sue Heikkinen, M.S., R.D., C.P.T., a dietitian for calorie and nutrition app MyNetDiary. “Shift your weight forward to your front leg, keeping your back straight and core stable.” Hold for about 30 seconds, then switch legs and repeat. Repeat two to five times on each leg.
If your shoulders tend to roll forward from being hunched over at your desk, Heikkinen advises the supine snow angel exercise. Begin by lying on your back with bent knees and feet flat on the floor. “Pull your shoulders back toward the floor, keeping your midsection stable,” she explains. “Extend your arms to about 45 degrees from your side. Bend your elbows, with your palms facing upwards. Slowly slide your arms along the floor to touch your fingertips together above your head. Return your arms to starting position.” Complete one to two sets of 10 reps.
Lastly, she recommends chin tucks. “This simple exercise can help with neck pain and prevent forward-head posture,” Heikkinen states. Sit comfortably in a chair, look forward, and gently glide your chin back. “This is a small, subtle motion.” Hold for five seconds, relax, and repeat five times total.
Key Points To Remember
Keep in mind that working from the bed shouldn’t be an option. In fact, medical experts from the Cleveland Clinic state that turning your bed into your office can result in the numerous negative side effects that come from poor posture, along with disrupted sleep patterns and reduced productivity.
Regardless of where you do choose to sit during the workday, Malek recommends arranging the items you regularly reach for (mouse, smartphone, folders, highlighters) within an arm’s distance to avoid unnecessary muscle strain.
Perhaps the most important tactic of all, though, is to take breaks from your “desk” as often as possible. “Try to schedule calls that don’t require you to be at the computer and go for a stroll instead,” Malek says. “Set a reminder to stand up and move around for five minutes per every hour of sitting. Add a few stretching or mobility exercises and you will reduce almost all of your WFH ailments.”