Has Working From Home Become a Pain in the Neck, Back and Hips?
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Before March of 2020, we may have gotten strange looks from colleagues if we bent over in a downward dog position in the middle of our office, in work casual attire. But now, at home in our athleisure, there is no excuse for not moving, stretching or doing simple exercises throughout the day. These kinds of activities can keep working from home from literally becoming a pain in the neck, back and hips.
I’ve had an ergonomic home office with a standing desk and this brilliant chair for years, but during quarantine, I've let my husband take over my office while I work downstairs and supervise our kids. When lockdown began, I took up residence over our kitchen counter, at the dining room table and sometimes on the couch in our family room, and quickly developed a nagging pain in my hip. This has sidelined me from running and riding my bike outdoors or doing Peloton as frequently as I’d like. I realized that I was hunching over way too much (I rarely hunch at my adjustable standing desk) and my guess is that you may be too if you are working from bed, the couch or other haphazard work stations.
A recent study by the Institute for Employment that surveyed 500 people in the first few weeks of lockdown revealed that over half of the participants reported new aches and pains, especially in the neck (58%), shoulder (56%) and back (55%). The double-edged sword to this, which I’m experiencing now, is that these pains keep us from doing things the physical activities that nourish our mental and physical health. It’s been tough for me to rest as I heal, but as with this pandemic, I remind myself to be patient and trust the process — again, and again, and again.
Get strategic about your daily exercises
The human head makes up about 8 percent of our body weight and when we hunch down to look at our screens, which includes the Zoom Happy Hours and Netflix binges, we are putting a lot of pressure on our neck and backs. We are also likely sitting or standing with poor posture, which affects our shoulders, hips, knees.
Matt Pippin, CSCS, Mobility Expert and co-Founder of Pippin Performance, is someone I met via a mutual colleague and he has helped me tremendously with my hips. Pippin explains that “more aches and pains are happening because we are walking less and our usual body treatments like massage, chiropractic adjustments, stretch practitioners, trainers, yoga class, pilates, etc. have either been completely eliminated or have been severely compromised. We are also not using our chairs properly and above all, stress levels are currently through the roof.” Research has shown that chronic high levels of stress have been associated with more pain throughout the body.
Pippin offers some ways to alleviate this:
- Corrective exercises - “CARs,” which stand for Controlled Articular Rotations, are a series of exercises that are designed to take your joints through their greatest pain-free range of motion. Pippin explains, “The beauty of these exercises is that they take your three big joints, the hip, shoulder, and spine, and via movement act like an anti-inflammatory for them by providing vital nutrients to the joint capsules.” I started to do these CARs throughout the day (for example, I try to do them after every bathroom break, looking to build a new habit by doing it right after a formed habit), and I am able to do the hip and shoulder CAR while standing over my computer. At the very least, give them a try. Below are the links with video instruction:
- Set multiple alarms/reminders - Hours can go by very quickly if you’re on back to back Zoom calls and deep into the screen. However, by setting alarms throughout your day to get up and do the following activities, you’ll be in a much better place at the end of the day.
- Walk around your house.
- Do your CARs.
- Switch work stations if possible (for example, maybe have a stand-up area as your go-to, then sit at the kitchen table, and then a comfy spot like a couch or lounge chair where you are not hunched).
- Do something to take your mind off of work for 5-10 minutes.`
- Sit on the Floor. Pippin recommends this to many of his clients, instructing them to “place either thick pillows, blankets, or if possible a few yoga blocks on the ground and sit cross-legged, with your computer on a chair or couch. Sitting on the ground is great for the hips, plus if you focus on keeping a long tall spine, you’ll train all those little muscles that are responsible for keeping a good-looking posture, while strengthening your core. Think of it as a mini-workout while you get your work on!”
How are you sitting as you read this article? Pippin offers three quick and simple posture checks that I’ve adopted by setting my phone alarm every hour and they’ve helped immensely:
Double Chin - This sounds terrible, but by using your index finger to push your chin in, you’ll put your cervical spine in a better position making you contract those deep front neck muscles.
Sternum up - By elevating your sternum a little bit (think chest up), you’ll place your thoracic spine in a more neutral position forcing you to contract those muscles around your mid back.
Roll those shoulders - When you roll your shoulders in a backwards pattern, you start to mobilize those pesky shoulder blades that when get stuck, can become so tight and achy.
A little yoga goes a long way
I also looked to my friend and one of my favorite Peloton yoga instructors Kristin McGee for some breathwork and stretches I could do throughout the day which I inspired my kids into doing with me, because YES, they too are slouching as they work from home.
McGee recommends these three yoga stretches as a habit before work or during the day:
Downward dog: You can do this on a mat or on the floor or a towel or even using your desk by placing your hands on the desktop and walking your feet back until your body is parallel to the floor. You'll feel an awesome stretch along the back of the body, the shoulders and the legs. Down dog is a gentle inversion that gets blood flowing the brain as well.
High altar arms: These can be done seated or standing. Interlace your hands and invert your palms as you press them up overhead above you. Relax your shoulders down away from your ears and find length in your torso. Take deep breaths as you feel your body lengthening and your energy lifting.
Ankle to knee pose: Tight hips lead to lower back pain. Ankle to knee can be done in a chair or on the floor. Place one ankle atop the opposite knee and allow the knee to drop open the side. If you're in a chair keep the bottom foot relaxed on the floor and start to bend forward to feel the stretch. If you're on the floor you can keep the opposite leg long or bend it underneath the top leg that's bent to stack the shins and get an even deeper stretch. Hold both sides for 5 to 10 breaths.
Take two minutes and do these now. Go ahead, set the habit.
My favorite reminder from McGee is to “make sure you're not holding your breath when you work.” So when you set that time do some posture checks or CAR exercises, also take a deep breath. This makes a world of a difference for mind and body, and relaxing, reducing stress.
My hips are improving as I challenged myself to Matt’s Healthy Hip Challenge (it takes less than 10 minutes per day) and have been practicing yoga as much as possible. I’ve also enjoyed keeping a little massage ball like this (but a tennis ball will do) under my feet and rolling my feet over that.
The takeaway for you? Don’t sit in the same place for too long. Get outside and move as it’s critical to your overall physical and mental health. Ensure you take time to turn work off and take care of yourself because health, as we are realizing each and every day, is our wealth. Start now, get into that downward facing dog before you're back to work.