COVID-19, lockdowns and work-from-home happened almost the entire 2020. We have been enjoying the perks…and the pains of always being at home…and working, thus called new normal.
It’s nice to think that we get to work from home, and not have to go through the hassle of commuting, and we get to spend more time with our families and pets. However, the extended hours of sitting in front of our computers, not moving much and slouching are now taking a toll on our bodies.
Yes, we are now reaping the unfortunate rewards of working in our sofas, beds and high kitchen counters. We now acquired a condition called Sitting Disease. Yup there is one, and I bet this is how you’ll describe it-
“After more than 8 hours of sitting on my kitchen chair, my back feels sore, stiff and now painful from the neck down to the buttocks. Ugh, I badly need a massage!” If this sounds like you, then read further…
According to ohsonline.com (USA’s Occupational Health & Safety website) Ergonomics is the science of fitting job tasks, workstations, and equipment to individual workers.
Yeah so ergo? What’s in it for me?
OHS emphasized on the major benefit of a good ergonomic design: fewer musculoskeletal disorders. And the minor ones that some of us may not notice are beneficial: improved productivity, less job turnover, worker comfort, and greater job satisfaction
Many companies have worked toward making their workstations ergonomically -compliant. But with the new normal setting, the further strict implementation of physical distancing, staying safe and boosting our immune system leads us to transferring all of our office activities remotely.
Talking about numbers, the November 2020 numbers for remote work shows 88 % of the organizations worldwide made it mandatory or encouraged their employees to work from home after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic.
And what are the current trends in our workstations at home?
We have our soft and comfy beds, relaxing sofas, high kitchen counters (for easy access to the fridge) and coffee tables with pull-out kitchen chairs which serve as our make-shift workspaces where we spend a good eight-hour shift or even more.
And where does ergonomics take place in any of these areas in our humble abodes? -zero, nada, none.
This is sad but true. Not all of us would prioritize ergonomics until some pain and spasm in our spine starts to appear because of poor posture and improper body mechanics.
What are proper body mechanics?
Most of us may not be aware that our body has to maintain proper alignment of muscles and bones against the downward force of gravity. This is the very reason our parents would tell us when we were kids to-stand up straight and not to slouch when sitting.
And yes, we may think all along that it’s the old folks’ discipline right there, but scientists and doctors will agree-it’s tough love but it’s healthy.
What is unhealthy? Poor posture is. It is the imbalance between the anterior or front sets of your muscles versus the back muscle groups. The photo below shows the structure why balance has to take place.
There are about 600 muscles in the human body working to keep one central set of structure in place-the spine or the vertebral column.
It is the major anchor of all the integral parts of the body. And after this you may realize and love your spine more, yup more than the biceps and 6-pack abs! Here’s why…
The thirty-three properly tangled bones shown in the photo above houses the very sensitive and spongy spinal cord.
The vertebral bones support the head and act as the channel to distribute the weight to your upper limbs (shoulders, arms, hands) and your lower limbs (hips, knees, legs and feet).
The spine allows the attachment of muscles and ligaments, which facilitates movement and stability.
Too low computer monitors
Looking at your laptop or desktop in a downward position tenses your cervical/neck muscles that hold your head (which is by the way as heavy as a bowling ball). The right fix?
Place your PCs on an adjustable laptop cooling pad or a pile of books. Your computer screen should be kept at eye level, by doing this, you are looking at your monitor (any paper documents too) with an upright neck. Thus, preventing stiff neck or even headache.
Touchpad, mouse and keyboard are too far
A fully stretched arm to do the typing and scrolling on your computer places too much stress on your thorax or upper back muscles as they try to keep your entire upper limb anchored in your shoulder capsule, while holding the head and neck in place.
How to destress your upper back?
Place your mouse or touchpad and your keyboard (you might need an extra one since your screen is elevated if you follow the first fix) at a comfortable height and distance. When done right, this relieves your monk’s hood (upper back or trapezius) muscles of the knots and bolts of painful trigger points to develop.
Slouching while facing the computer
Although it may look relaxing if you slouch or stoop when sitting in front of your PC, it is not what your body would tell you after 6 to 8 hours.
The upper back and lower back (thoraco-lumbar area) muscles are doubling their load by contracting just to prevent you from falling forward or backward.
Not to mention the intervertebral discs in between the small bones of the spine, are taking too much shock absorption and squeezing job to do if you are in a bad posture.
What to do? Or what to sit on? An ergonomic chair.
With the right height and design an ergonomic chair promotes proper spinal curvature and lowers the chances of acquiring the dreaded low back pain.
Prolonged sitting without breaks
While an ergonomic chair may be a good idea to buy or have for your workstation at home, taking breaks to walk or stretch, taking your eyes off the computer every two hours, are far more important.
We want to keep the blood flowing throughout your body, so standing up nourishes not just your spine (your brain too!) but pumps the blood smoothly on your vessels.
What are you preventing when you give yourself a break? Venous problems, spinal disc bulging, inflamed muscles and a lot more.
Not too much movement while sitting
Too little movement of the joint (sacroiliac joint) connected to the sacral bone or your buttocks can lead to pain on the lower back and hip down to the legs. Conditions such as low back pain and sacroiliitis (inflammation of the sacroiliac joint) can even cause insomnia and depression.
How to prevent these scary debilitating spinal problems? frequent movement while working is the key.
Stretching, standing and moving from a seated position every 30 minutes are some simple steps to spare yourself the big medical trouble.
8 Simple daily habits to combat spinal problems
Hydrate- Increase your fluid or water intake to at least 1.5 liters
Move- Do some back and side stretches in seated and standing positions every 30 mins.
Rest your eyes- Using the 20-20 routine, rest every 20 minutes for 20 secs by looking away from the computer to a relaxing view (your window or a painting), or by closing your eyes.
Have a break- Take your coffee or tea breaks, or even just a few walks to the fridge to get some snacks or check your phone.
Recover- Have a hot compress pack or a massage gun handy with you for immediate, safe and professional relief of minor aches and pain
Supplement- Other than proper body mechanics, movement, observing a good posture, ergonomics etc., nourish your spine with calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, glucosamine, collagen-rich food and vitamins
Breathe- Leave home for a few hours and spend it in a safe area to unwind, meditate or socialize virtually to boost your mental health
Working from home may pose threats to our spinal health, but prioritizing workstation ergonomics and observing simple healthy habits to keep you in shape and productive are vital in these times. Fighting the debilitating effects of poor posture while we are still in this type of setting in the comforts of our home is a continuous battle while the world is still affected by the pandemic.
COVID-19 is just one thing to stay away from, while a spinal problem is another, both can be prevented by simple techniques or ways, when strictly followed can spare us and our family with greater worries.
So, practice social distancing, hand washing, wearing face masks combined with ergonomics, proper body mechanics and good work ethics and you’ll survive 2020-2021 and beyond with flying colors.
Mari Chico is a physiotherapist, fitness coach and an amateur athlete who plays bowling and does cycling for her outdoor sport. She has worked as a chief operating officer for a gym franchise business in the Philippines.
Mari is currently doing freelance sports and medical marketing. She also works as a content writer for a massage gun brand- Hydragun.