Three stretches to ease the aches and pains while working from home

Andrew B Myers for The New York Times
Andrew B Myers for The New York Times

By A.C. Shilton

On March 16, Nancy Black left her office for what she thought would be the last time. On March 19, however, she was back and ready to pilfer (with permission) parts of her office workstation. Dr. Black is an associate professor in the department of mechanical engineering at the Université de Moncton in Canada, specializing in ergonomics. In three days it was clear her home office was not going to meet her standards. So she came back and got her desktop computer, a large monitor and a desktop sit-to-stand apparatus, which lets her toggle between sitting and standing. Now she’s working from home pain-free, which is more than most of us can say as we toil away on tiny computers, sitting in our sweatpants on rigid kitchen chairs.

Two studies demonstrate the toll we exact on our bodies as we do office work. These studies, one from India and one from Greece, show that 75 percent and 60 percent, respectively, of computer or office workers reported work-related musculoskeletal discomfort. All of the workers in these studies had office desks and full-size computers. So, they were starting in a better position than most of us working from our couches.

Joy Baganz, the lead occupational therapist at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital, says she’s already steeling herself for an influx of patients with neck and back pain as more and more workers report for duty on their sofas. The problem with working from your bed or your couch is simple: It’s too comfortable, says Ms. Baganz.

Gravity is the sedentary worker’s nemesis. “Anytime you’re in one position for a long time, there are problems,” Dr. Black warns. As you sit — or even stand — gravity compresses the discs in your back. Over time, those compressed discs may cause back pain and nerve issues.

As gravity collapses your spine, it pushes fluid out of the discs, explains Dr. Black. Just 20 to 30 seconds of moving around, however, draws fluid back into the discs. This sets everything back in its proper position. Ideally, she says, microbreaks for movement every 40 minutes is ideal. That movement, though, can be as simple as getting up and stretching or walking to the kitchen for a glass of water.Aching Neck? Sore Back? Simple Fixes to Better Work From Home

One important thing to remember regarding ergonomics is that work-related musculoskeletal injuries sneak up slowly. You may not end up with carpal tunnel during quarantine, but 10 years from now, you’ll be glad you took a little bit of time every day to do some stretches to keep your body feeling good.

As for your back posture, don’t stress about it too much. It’s great to think about sitting up with your back straight and your shoulders down. Start there, but don’t be surprised when you find yourself with the spinal rectitude of a sea slug.

“It’s the nature of the beast. People’s posture always tends to fall,” says Ms. Baganz. You can try setting a reminder to check your posture, but Dr. Black quickly found that apps and reminders just annoyed her. Luckily, she has another method that works in these weird times: children. “One thing I’m finding as a real benefit of working from home is that there are so many interruptions around me,” she says.

Try to do this set of three stretches three times a day to prevent aches in your wrists, back, neck and arms (or at least as much as you can).

Think of these as preventive maintenance, suggests Ms. Baganz. While she uses them often in her occupational therapy clinic, the goal for you is to implement them now and avoid the clinic altogether.

( 1 )

By Andrew B Myers
  • Stand with one arm out in front of you and your palm facing the ground.
  • With your other hand, gently pull your fingers of the outstretched arm back. You should feel the stretch in the underside of your wrist.
  • Hold for a moment or two, then release.
  • Next, keeping your arm straight, use your other hand to push your fingers and palm down and toward your body. Hold a few seconds, then release.
  • Repeat with your other arm.

( 2 )

By Andrew B Myers
  • Shrug your shoulders by bringing them up toward your ears and holding for 3-5 seconds.
  • Release and repeat 3-5 times.

( 3 )

By Andrew B Myers
  • Clasping your hands behind your head, squeeze your shoulder blades together.
  • Hold this squeeze for 5-6 seconds.
  • Take a breath, then repeat one more time.

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