If you’re like many Americans, due to COVID-19 you are now working or learning from home — and have been since early 2020. While there are advantages to a home office or classroom, such as sleeping later or not having to commute, there may also be a significant downside: physical pain.
Our makeshift workspaces may not, in fact, be well-suited for work. From using our dining room or coffee table as a desk, to sitting in chairs that lack lumbar support, to working while reclining on the sofa, we may be putting a strain on our bodies.
According to physiatrist Max Fitzgerald, MD, we should focus on routines that prevent our muscles from getting tight and causing pain. This is increasingly important as we are dealing with both the emotional and physical toll of the COVID-19 pandemic. “During a time when we are out of our routine and feeling more stressed than normal, it’s best to find ways to ease that stress on our minds and bodies,” he says.
Some of the following tips address the most common complaints Fitzgerald sees in his patients at Rush University Medical Center and Rush Oak Park Hospital. He recommends starting small: Try adopting a few simple changes rather than creating an unrealistic plan that you may not be able to sustain.
Workspace and positioning
Posture and work-related issues are prevalent; we frequently sit in unhealthy positions. Most commonly, we tend to sit in a forward, rounded position that causes neck and back strain and pain. This was true even before the pandemic began, but it may be even more pronounced while we’re working remotely.
Fitzgerald advises paying attention to the ergonomic workspace with some simple adjustments:
- Add a few books under your laptop or computer monitor so the screen is higher — ideally at eye level — and you aren’t straining your head and neck.
- Sit in a chair that has armrests so that when you’re not typing, your arms have something to rest on.
- Use a table and chair rather than sitting on the couch so you can focus on proper posture and prevent back and neck pain.
- Use typing system software where you can write an email on the phone using your voice, then transfer it. This can help prevent issues related to repetitive typing or using a mouse, like carpal tunnel syndrome.
Eye strain can also be an issue. “We are staring at our screens more than ever right now, and our eyes weren’t built to stare at a screen all day,” Fitzgerald says. “A simple rule is to look away from your computer at something in the distance every 20 minutes to give your eyes a break. Put something near your computer to remind you to do this. Otherwise, your vision can worsen over time from the strain.”
Also, make sure you have good ambient lighting. Try to eliminate glare where light is beaming on the computer, and avoid sitting in dark rooms.
If you’re not bound to your workspace, try and get up and move during meetings or phone conversations.
“It’s best to schedule at least one or two times a day to focus on movement,” Fitzgerald says. “Just as it’s important to schedule time to eat, it’s important to schedule time to move and stretch.”
Creating a movement schedule throughout the day can be as simple as setting calendar reminders in your phone or on your fitness watch.
These simple exercises are beneficial during the day. They take less than three minutes to complete but can make a huge difference in keeping pain away:
Upper body stretches
“As we spend our day looking down and forward, it’s really important that we make sure those muscles stay stretched because they have a propensity to get tight,” Fitzgerald explains. “When these muscles get tight they tend to cause pain and headaches, and we are already getting enough of that staring at screens all day.”
- Standing doorway stretch. While standing in a doorway, spread out your arms outward toward the doorframe and lean into the doorway for 45-60 seconds. You should feel a stretch in the chest muscles, which tend to tighten as we lean forward throughout the day with our shoulders hunched.
- Ear toward shoulder stretch. In a sitting or standing position with your shoulders relaxed, bring your right ear toward your right shoulder, which will extend your neck on the left side. Hold this position and repeat on the other side. Try to hold each side for 30-45 seconds.
Lower body stretches
- Gluteal stretch. Sitting in a cross-legged position, put your ankle on the opposite knee. Lean forward and bring your chin over your shin. You should feel a gentle pulling sensation on the outside of your thigh and into your gluteal muscles.
- Hamstring stretch. Lean your body forward while standing with one leg extended in front of you.
Another recommendation: Stand and walk as much as possible during the work day.
“If you’re not bound to your workspace, try and get up and move during meetings or phone conversations,” Fitzgerald says. “If you can’t do that, take breaks and spend at least five minutes every couple hours just walking around. That will help to keep your muscles loose and give your body a break from all that sitting.”
Progressive muscle relaxation
Another tool Fitzgerald recommends is called progressive muscle relaxation.
This technique involves contracting (tightening) then relaxing one group of muscles at a time. While lying down in a quiet place, start with your feet/lower legs and work your way up the body, contracting each muscle group for 5-10 seconds and relaxing for 10-20 seconds before moving on to the next group.
There are a number of YouTube videos demonstrating how it’s done.
“It’s good to schedule this a few times a week while we can’t go to the gym or do the exercise we would normally do,” Fitzgerald says. “Engaging in progressive relaxation helps to reset stress and relax your muscles, which reduces pain and anxiety and improves sleep.”
Work better not harder
Fitzgerald reminds us that there’s a tendency to overwork when working at home. He advises sticking to a routine to avoid putting further strain on our minds and bodies.
“There are so many small distractions during the day at a workplace that we don’t have at home. For instance, at work you would normally take a break to get a snack or lunch; at home, we aren’t following those routines,” he says. “Having a schedule will help you create that all-important work-life balance. You can say, ‘I am separating’ at your scheduled quitting time, and you won’t feel fried at the end of day because you’re working straight through the day without pauses.”
We also create that sense of separation while we’re traveling home at the end of our workday, whether we drive, take public transportation, walk or bike.
When working from home, use the time you would normally spend commuting to mentally distance yourself from your job: Listen to your favorite radio station, playlist or audio book, or immerse yourself in a compelling podcast. A little enjoyment will go a long way toward easing work-related tension and stress.