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How To Make Your Working From Home Routine Healthier

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(Image credit: Unknown)

It’s easy to underestimate the amount you moved before COVID-19, just by going about your business. During the COVID-19 pandemic much of that movement has been lost, especially now many people are working from home. In addition, often that work is now done on a laptop while sitting on a sofa, bed or kitchen chair, rather than at a desk that has probably had a safety assessment and been set up to be as comfortable as possible.

This change risks all manner of posture-related problems – so we spoke to Rachel Brammer, physiotherapist and clinical lead at Vitrue Health (opens in new tab), to get some advice on how people can adjust their working from home routine to be as healthy as possible.

What extra problems can working from home cause compared with going into an office?

It’s the amount of daily activity you do. If you commute by train or bus you’re walking to your stop. Then later you may leave and walk to get a cup of coffee. Perhaps you have to print something and walk to the printer, or you go and have a chat with somebody at their desk. The overall amount of activity you’re doing is much less when you’re working from home, and you end up taking fewer breaks. No matter how amazing your desk set-up is, unless you move around regularly, remaining in any one posture for a prolonged period of time is going to cause you aches and pains.

What problems can arise from a bad home working routine?

The big thing that people are reporting is lower-back pain. That’s from being in a seated position for a long period of time, and maybe not getting the best back support from their chair.

The next one is neck pain, which is to do with the screen height. You want it arm's length away and level with your eyes.

Another thing is wrist pain. That can come from not having a separate keyboard and mouse, so people may be keeping their wrists in one position for a long period of time, or they can get repetitive strain injuries.

Then there’s tension in the shoulders – when working from home, perhaps not in the best set-up, people are using more of their shoulder muscles so they get tightness.

Another thing people may not associate with their desk set-up is headaches and migraines. A lot of people are getting headaches because they're not getting as many breaks away from their screen. And again, if your head is bent forwards because of your screen height the tension in your shoulders can also give you headaches.

What are the key things to look out for in your desk set-up?

You want your chair to be height-adjustable so your feet are flat on the floor and your knees are bent at 90°, and it should have some kind of lower back support. If you don’t have that you can use a towel or pillow behind your back so you sit up straight.

If you are using a laptop there are lots of things you can do to raise the height of your screen, so you’re not tilting your head down and forward which puts strain on your neck and shoulders. Either pile some books up, or get an adjustable riser. You will have to use a separate keyboard, because you don’t want to have to bend your elbows higher to use the keyboard. You want your elbows bent at 90°.

Buy a separate keyboard with a wrist rest, so you’re not causing any repetitive strain through your wrists. Get a separate mouse as well and move the side your mouse is on once a day, so you have half a day with it on the right-hand side, and half a day with it on the left. Try and become ambidextrous to give one side a bit of a rest.

If you can, try to use an area with good natural light and airflow. Not everyone is able to have that with smaller spaces, but it helps to have a separate area, a separate brain space.

Can a standing desk help?

There is certainly lots of literature to support them, but it’s about making sure that people do what’s right for them. Some people are able to stand for 45 minutes to an hour, but if you have someone who’s not used to a standing desk, standing for that long might result in a posture that’s not advantageous.

If you’re new to standing desks, take it slowly. Start with five minutes and then sit down again. Build it up over time and listen to your body. Using a standing desk to change your posture regularly can help break up the day.

What can you do apart from sorting your desk set-up?

If you have an amazing work set-up and you’re still getting pain, get up and move. It can be as simple as setting yourself a challenge of doing 10 squats after every meeting. Make sure you have breaks scheduled into your diary, and you set time aside for your lunch. If you can have it in another room you’re getting some movement and a new environment.

You can make your set-up more productive too. Make sure you have light – have your curtains open! Sometimes in a meeting I see people with their curtains closed so there’s no reflection on the screen, but natural light is so important to us. Take a walk during work to get light, fresh air and movement – at the moment it’s freezing, but even opening a window just for an hour to get some fresh air into your space can help.

If you have a fitness tracker that reminds you to move every hour, how much can that help?

We get very stuck into our work and anything that prompts you to get moving is good. “Little and often” is important when it comes to movement. Even just resetting your position. When working you might only realise after an hour you’re curved over into this horrible C shape like the hunchback of Notre Dame. Set that reminder on your tracker or whatever works for you, even if it’s just to reset your position and look away from the screen for 20 seconds. All those little things you do have a cumulative effect. So doing neck stretches and forearm stretches throughout the day is useful. Quite often we do them for a day and then forget, so those little reminders are brilliant.

Can you still get help during the lockdown if you are experiencing pain?

Unless you’re isolating there are still a lot of physiotherapy clinics open and doing appointments, and there’s a lot of virtual physiotherapy help out there too. If you are experiencing pain it’s worth being seen to get on top of it.

If you have a little niggle or soreness there are lots of things you can do in your daily routine to try to alleviate it. Start off with one or two changes, because sometimes if you tell someone to do 10 things it becomes too much and they won’t do any of them.

Nick Harris-Fry
Nick Harris-Fry

Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.