Working from home is a relatively new concept for a lot of us and, over the past few months, we’ve learned a thing or two about best practices. We don’t know about you, but after hours of slouching over our laptops on the couch…at the kitchen island…on the bed…and pretty much anywhere else but an actual desk, our backs have started to feel pretty tight and uncomfortable.
To help remedy these aches and prevent future pains from creeping up, here’s everything you need to know about keeping your back healthy while you’re WFH.
How bad is it to work from the couch?
Though it may seem like a comfy setup to start, sitting on the couch while working on a laptop can quickly become an ergonomic nightmare. Whether your laptop is in front of you on the coffee table, beside you on the couch, or propped up on your lap, there’s really no way to set yourself up that won’t result in poor posture. The next time you try it, notice what happens after about 10 minutes. More than likely, you’ll feel that your upper body has begun to slouch over, you’ve rounded through your shoulders and your head has pressed into a forward-jutting position. Comfy, right?
Now spending a couple hours here isn’t the end of the world, but spending a few days (or weeks…or months) in this position signals to your body that it needs to start adapting to this new load. In response, certain muscles begin to become short and tight while others start to lengthen and become weak.
The result? A set of muscular imbalances that are a major cause of neck and shoulder pain, upper and lower back aches, poor posture, and sometimes even pinched nerves.
Excuse us while we get up off the couch…
What’s the most back-friendly setup for working from home?
If working from home is something you’ll be continuing for a prolonged period of time, it may be worth investing in a proper home workstation. Ideally, this would include a designated desk, a stationary computer monitor and a good office chair that can be adjusted through the seat, back rest and arms.
If, however, your time at home is a temporary one or you don’t have enough space for a full home office, setting yourself up on a dining room chair is the next best alternative to help prevent neck, shoulder and back discomfort.
In either case, make sure you’re keeping in mind the following tips for better posture as you work:
1. Always scoot your hips to the back of the chair so the backrest can sit comfortably along your lower back and support the rest of your spine.
2. Place your computer screen around 20 inches in front of you and adjust the height so the top of the screen is at eye-level.
3. Keep your hips and knees at 90 degrees with your feet flat on the floor while you work.
4. Adjust your position every 20-30 minutes to allow for even blood flow throughout your body (a sit-stand desk is great for this).
What else can I do to reduce back pain at home?
Workstation all sorted out? The next step is to start reversing the muscle compensations that your body has begun creating. By adding certain exercises into your daily routine that target these imbalances, you can start to lengthen back out the muscles that have tightened up over time and strengthen the ones that have become weak. This will help to improve back flexibility and relieve the aches, stiffness and pain that have resulted from poor working posture.
Stretches to release tight muscles from sitting
Certain muscles become tight with prolonged sitting and forward hunching. These include the chest, hip flexors, low back and neck extensors.
To release these muscles, try including the following three stretches into your daily routine:
1. Kneeling thoracic extension
This stretch helps to open the front of the body and promote extension through the upper back.
Start in a high-kneeling position with your elbows on top of a chair. Sit your hips back to draw your chest down toward the floor and reach the hands back as if trying to touch the base of your neck. Hold for 10 breaths, slowly lowering the chest toward the ground with every exhale.
To add an additional challenge, walk your knees further from the chair and perform controlled rocks forward and back between the starting and end positions.
2. Half-kneeling hip flexor stretch
This stretch help to open the front of the leg and releases the hip flexors.
Start in a half-kneeling position with one knee on the ground and the other foot forward. Slightly tuck your pelvis under until you feel a light stretch along the front of the back leg. If this is enough of a stretch, stay here and hold for 10 breaths.
For a deeper stretch, slowly press the hips forward as you keep your pelvis tucked until you feel a good stretch along the front of the quad and hip flexor. Hold for 45 sec.
3. Child’s pose
This stretch helps to release the low back.
Start in a quadruped position (on your hands and knees), bringing your knees wide and feet together. Slowly lower the hips back as far as you can toward your heels as you keep your arm stretched out in front of you. Hold for 10 breaths.
To add a movement and target the side-body, walk your hands to the right side of the mat and breathe into your left set of ribs for 10 breaths. Come back to the centre then walk your hands to the left side of the mat and breathe into the right set of ribs for 10 breaths.
Exercises to strengthen weak muscles from sitting
Just as some muscles become tight, others become weak from remaining in a prolonged seated position. These include the glutes, abdominals, upper back and neck flexors.
Strengthen these muscles by adding the following three exercises into your daily routine:
1. Glute bridge marches
This exercise helps to activate the glutes and posterior leg.
Start on your back with your feet on the floor and knees bent. Activating your core and your glutes together, press the hips up toward the ceiling and hold.
With control, amp up the pressure through your left leg by pressing your left foot hard into the ground. Then, without letting your hips shift, float the right leg off the ground. Replace the right foot back down and repeat on the other side. Perform 8-12 reps per side.
2. Forearm planks
This exercise helps to stabilize the low core and strengthen the shoulder girdle.
Start on your stomach and prop yourself up on your forearms. Drawing the shoulders down away from your ears, activate your core and begin to lift your stomach and hips off the ground until you’ve come up onto your forearms and knees. If this feels challenging, stay here. To progress further, tuck your toes and, one at a time, lift your knees until you’ve come up onto your forearms and toes.
Stabilize yourself in this position by keeping your shoulders set and drawing your low core up toward your spine. Hold for 20-60 sec.
3. Cactus arms back extensions
The focus of this exercise is to engage the scapular stabilizers and strengthen the upper back.
Start on your stomach with your forehead on the mat and your arms out to the sides like a cactus.
Drawing your shoulder blades together and down along your back, passively float your arms off the floor and hold. Maintaining this position, activate the muscles of the mid and upper back to float your upper body off the floor (keeping your neck in neutral). Hold 10 sec then lower. Repeat for 8-12 reps.