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Working from home can be a real pain. A plan to prevent pain and stiffness.

Technology is a godsend for those of us lucky enough to have kept our jobs during the pandemic. But working from home can leave joints and muscles aching by day’s end.

Since the COVID-19 crisis unfolded quickly, few had the opportunity to prepare for working from home, long-term. Many are making do with what’s on hand – working at the kitchen table, from a laptop or even the coffee table.

Since most of us do not have a fully equipped home office, problems crop up in the neck, back, shoulders, hips and other spots. Fortunately, relief comes down to common sense, making small adjustments to prevent trouble and taking action to keep your joints and muscle limber and healthy during the quarantine.

Setting up for ergonomics

Even without a desk and proper office chair, you can optimize your workspace to prevent problems. Here’s a handy checklist, from Cornell University, a pioneer in office ergonomics research:

  • The ideal office work position is sitting with your feet flat on the floor and your back slightly reclined. This can be difficult in a stiff kitchen or dining room chair, but you should at least try to stay in a neutral position, keeping arms, shoulders and wrists relaxed.
  • Center the keyboard spacebar in front of you.
  • The monitor, too, should be centered in front of you and with its top edge two to three inches above eye level. If it’s too low, set it on a stack of stout books or boards to raise it.
  • Place your chair so you don’t stretch to reach the keyboard, but not so close that your wrists and elbows are crunched.
  • If you’re on the phone a lot, use headphones with a built-in microphone to minimize neck strain. Avoid using your head and neck to hold the phone hands-free.
  • If you use reading glasses, be sure they are the right strength for the monitor, which may differ from your reading distance.

Be careful with that laptop

By their very design, laptops can make trouble. Ideal computer ergonomics keep the keyboard and monitor separate. With the laptop, we sacrifice function for convenience, which is OK most of the time. But if you’re using a laptop for long periods, these tips will keep your body happy.

  • Ideally, use a separate keyboard and mouse to prevent wrist, neck and eye strain.
  • A separate keyboard can also allow you to elevate the laptop on a stack of books or whatever you have handy to get the monitor in a better position to take strain off your neck and shoulders.
  • When you use the computer on your lap, find a chair that puts you in the most neutral and relaxed position. Angle the screen so you can see without putting strain on your neck.
  • Be aware of your wrist position to be sure it’s neutral and relaxed.

Take action to head off trouble

Prevention is always the best medicine, but it isn’t always enough. When you’re juggling projects and chasing deadlines, it’s easy to get stuck in the chair for hours. You might not know you’re in trouble until pain and numbness starts.

The most important thing is to keep moving. Changing work positions, even for a few minutes, can prevent both receptive stress injuries and pain from keeping muscles and joints in the same position for a long time.

Take breaks. Rest your eyes by focusing on something in the distance. We used to get scolded for staring out the window in school – but it’s actually good for your eyes. Walk. Stretch. Stand. Sometimes the kitchen counter is a good place to try getting work done, standing, if you don’t have a standing desk.

My work-at-home stretch routine

Sitting with poor posture or for too long a period stresses muscles of the back, hips, legs and butt. To keep things loose, relieve stiffness and stay ready for tomorrow’s busy schedule, I recommend a regimen of five stretches, designed specifically to counter the effects of extended deskwork. They require no special equipment and can be done at home, anytime.

Watch the videos to see how it’s done:

  1. Seated Glute Stretch: The gluteus are the large muscles that form your rear end. Sitting on them during office work tends to shut them down from lack of use. This stretch targets the glutes to wake them up, increase blood flow and improve hip mobility. That takes pressure off the low back.
  2. Counter Stretch: This one’s great for the hamstrings, the muscles of the back of the thigh. When sitting for long periods of time, the hamstrings are flexed, or held in a shortened position. Stretching them opens things up and prevents cramping.
  3. Cobra Stretch: This is among the best exercises for low back pain from excess sitting. It promotes lumbar extension – opening up the lower back, which gets crunched when seated. It also stretches the hip flexors.
  4. Hip Flexor Stretch: The hip flexors also stay in a flexed or shortened position when sitting. This stretch targets all the affected muscles; the psoas, iliacus and rectus femoris.
  5. Pigeon Stretch: These target the piriformis muscles, short bands on either side that connect the pelvis to the femur, the upper leg bone. It is right next to the sciatic nerve. When held flexed for long periods, during sitting, it can put pressure on the nerve, causing pseudo-sciatic symptoms; aching, tingling, or pain in the lower back and legs. This stretch relaxes the muscle and reduces the pressure.
  6. Cat-Camel: This targets the middle spine to increase extension and improve range of motion, which can be crunched when sitting for a long time.

Your workload, chasing the kids or even just sitting too long with movies or games might have you thinking ‘my aching back.’ Take precautions in your work space and learn these stretches to stay limber and flexible – and chase aches and pains away.