Millions of people have become less physically active due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. For those who work from home, the morning walk to the bus stop is gone. They can spend whole days hunched over in front of a laptop without leaving home.
For some, it is taking a painful toll: 81% of telecommuters suffer from some form of back, neck or shoulder pain, according to a survey conducted by Opinium for the Versus Arthritis charity. Almost half (48%) said they were less physically active than before the lockdowns. Another survey by the Institute for Employment Studies indicates that 35% report having new back pain when working from home.
Physical therapists and other back pain experts say that those with severe or persistent problems should seek professional help, but that there are things many of us can do to help ourselves.
Don’t just sit
Most experts agree that one of the best things you can do is to move. Don’t sit in the same position for a long time. “Make sure you take advantage of any opportunity you get to move your body,” says Ashley James of the Association of Chartered Physical Therapists. “It doesn’t have to be about exercise as such,” he continues.
“It’s about incorporating movement into your day.” He calls it “having a snack of periodic movements.” This can consist of answering phone calls or participating in online meetings while standing, stretching, or walking up and down stairs when not really necessary, he explains.
When you move, different muscle groups share the job of keeping your head, neck, back, and the rest of your body in alignment, rather than continually overloading the same muscles. Where lockdowns have restricted outdoor exercise to once a day, James’ advice is to take that daily opportunity to take at least a good walk whenever possible. Movement can help you breathe by opening your chest and reducing muscle atrophy. It increases blood flow and lubricates the synovial joints – those that allow free movement – such as the hips and shoulders.
Set an alarm
Creating a new routine to help keep you moving can be difficult, so experts suggest setting a stopwatch on your phone or computer to remind you to move. It’s a good way to avoid getting stuck in the same position hour after hour, says cervical specialist Chris Worsfold. “We have evolved to move,” he says.
“By nature, we want to move after about 20 or 30 minutes, so that’s when you have to go do it. If you are sitting when the alarm rings, stand up. If you’re up, do a stretch or go up and down the stairs”.
“The key is to create a routine that works for you,” says Leanne Antoine, who treats patients in Hertfordshire, England. “There is no point in creating a schedule that feels like a failure when you don’t stick to it.” So ask yourself honestly what you would be willing to do and stick to the plan. The important thing is that it makes you get up from your chair, stretch, walk or dance Zumba in your living room, he advises.
Organize your workspace
“You don’t need to have a perfect setup with a $ 1,000 chair, but if you’re cornered on the couch, it’s not going to be good for your back,” explains Chris Martey. Your workspace is worth giving serious thought, but companies have a keen interest in selling expensive equipment, so watch out for unnecessary expenses, he warns.
Leanne Antoine agrees: “Make small adjustments that don’t cost a kidney.” That can be as simple as using a cushion to lift yourself up in the chair, or to support your lower back. An inexpensive, adjustable office chair can help. A computer stand will raise the screen to eye level so you’re not always looking down, especially during long video calls. An external keyboard is also useful.
“Talk to your company,” says Antoine. Many will provide these kits to their staff. If you have to use a sofa, at least make sure your feet are flat on the floor and that you sit with a cushion to support your lower back.
Standing desks can be helpful, Chris Martey considers. But you have to alternate between standing and sitting, and taking regular breaks on the screen. If you don’t have a standing desk, some experts recommend replacing it by placing your computer on an ironing board for brief periods.
We are in a “perfect storm” for back problems, according to Ashley James. And it is that COVID-19 restricts physical activity and, at the same time, increases anxiety about health, job insecurity, children’s education, etc. It’s impossible to quantify, but much of back pain is caused by anxiety, he says. In their jargon, back problems are “biopsychosocial.”
People shake off stress with all kinds of methods, of course. Pilates and yoga are helpful to some. One of the best ways is to work on getting better sleep, James says. The key is “sleep hygiene.” This means cutting back on caffeine in the afternoon and evening, maintaining a consistent nighttime routine, and trying to wake up at the same time each day.
The British health service advises against the use of electronic devices one hour before going to bed, as the light from the screen can make it difficult to sleep. Light suppresses the secretion of melatonin, a hormone that helps you fall asleep. Numerous studies suggest that blue light is the strongest, but some research suggests that the warmer colors used in the “night mode” of many devices can have the greatest impact.
The Association of Chartered Physical Therapists has designed some simple stretches that, if done regularly, can help prevent aches and pains. They can be found on their website and are intended for people who telecommute and sit for long periods.
The stretching and mobilization of the chest, legs and back helps the different muscle groups. Although they say that there is no “perfect posture” and that the priority is to keep moving. There is a positive message here, says Chris Martey. For the millions of people who suffer from daily pain: “You can take control. You can manage yourself. You don’t have to be dependent.