Working remotely definitely has its advantages. No commuting time and more flexible work hours are among some of the benefits that people have discovered since pandemic lockdowns began in March 2020. Even as restrictions have eased, many people continue to work remotely.
Here’s the downside: Remote working tends to keep people glued to their work. There’s less incentive to get up and move around. There are no physical meetings and there’s nobody down the hall to go talk to. People are spending countless hours on Zoom meetings. Some people admit to me that they are spending more hours doing their work because it’s easier to do so. There’s no coffee shop or restaurant on the main floor to meet a friend or grab a coffee. People have increased their sedentary activities and are less active than they were before the pandemic sent in. Many people have converted their 5 to 10 commuting hours per week into more time spent on video games and Netflix series. How do I know this? Since I reopened my chiropractic office in early June, I have heard increasing complaints about acute, severe musculoskeletal pain or re-aggravation of chronic pain conditions. People tell me they’ve become less active over the past few months. Is this something you can relate to?
When I think about the reasons behind this phenomenon of increased pain it makes sense to me clinically. As people became used to the new remote working lifestyle they settled into a pattern of inactivity. If this does not apply to you and you have balanced your work activities with a movement and fitness routine, good for you. I welcome you to read on. But if you are feeling increased pain in your musculoskeletal system here’s what’s happening: your ligaments have shortened as a result of sitting for too long and you’re relying on your muscular system to support you more because your ligaments are not flexible. As a result, you are more prone to muscle spasm, pinched nerves, joint stiffness and inflammation of your soft tissues.
I have called this spike in musculoskeletal pain conditions COVID Sitting Syndrome or CSS. Long-term sitting at work and at home was already a significant health concern before the pandemic began. The imposition of lockdowns and the explosion of people working remotely has only exacerbated the problem. There are a number of other factors to consider with CSS: Fitness centres and gyms closed, and a lot of people did not pivot to create a home fitness routine. People tell me they are not walking enough and are simply not exercising anywhere near as much as they did before the pandemic. There are also significant mental and emotional factors at play in these pain complexes. COVID-19 has increased anxiety for many people. People have curtailed most if not all of their routine activities including going shopping and visiting relatives and friends. On top of all that is a constant negative stream of media and mixed messages that serve to increase stress. Diminished physical activities and a heightened sense of stress and anxiety are a strong recipe for the development of musculoskeletal pain.
If you think you are suffering from CSS there are important steps you can take to help alleviate your pain and prevent it. The cumulative strain of sitting for many long hours and other stressful factors can be addressed but you must be consistent, and you must be proactive. Here are some practical ideas that you should consider implementing:
1) Take an hourly movement break. Every hour of your workday set an alarm to remind you to stand up and walk around. You have to get away from your work area for a few minutes every hour. This is important for your physical and mental health. During this brief break you should do some stretches for your neck, upper back, shoulders, elbows and wrists. Not sure what to do? Here are some basic stretching break videos. Here's another option. There are more videos on YouTube. Make sure to drink some water but be careful when you enter your kitchen to avoid the snack filled pantry! Be wise with snacks. Choose from a healthy list of fruits, vegetables or other food sources with low caloric value. People have mentioned to me that they have gained weight over the past few months and it’s easy to do that when you’re not moving around a lot and your just steps away from your kitchen. Be on guard!
2) Don’t work at the dining room table! If you’ve been working at home for months and anticipate that this will continue indefinitely, make sure you have created a healthy workspace. Apply good ergonomic rules which should include proper monitor height, an ergonomically comfortable chair that has adjustments for height and support and adequate lighting. Here’s some helpful information regarding ergonomics from my website. Make sure to maintain upright posture and avoid slumping forward towards the keyboard, mouse and monitor. You may want to consider getting a sit-to-stand desk which gives you the flexibility of sitting and standing for variable periods of time during your workday. Your home working space should be no less safe or comfortable than the one you have at your office.
3) Schedule fitness times during the week. People often complain to me that they don’t have enough time to exercise because they’re too busy. Before the pandemic, a lot of that “busyness” included daily commuting hours. Many of you are no longer commuting and you’ve been given the gift of time. It’s important to convert that time into a fitness routine that you can stick with. The options for fitness have increased as gyms and fitness centres have reopened in certain jurisdictions. If you’re comfortable going to a gym, then investigate their COVID protocols and availability times. If you prefer working out from home, create a workout space for yourself which may include at least one piece of equipment for cardio, an exercise mat, some low weight dumbbells and resistance bands. There are different ways of approaching this and so consider various options. Your fitness routine should include cardiovascular exercises such as walking, cycling or using an elliptical machine. Your strengthening routine can include light weights, resistance training, core stability and body weight exercises. Finally, there must be a flexibility portion that can include stretching and yoga exercises. There are a myriad of exercise routines available on YouTube and if you’re not familiar, start with beginner programs. I am happy to respond to you if you have any questions about where to begin.
4) Get help if you’re in pain. These long months of lockdown and inactivity have magnified sedentary patterns that people already had pre-pandemic. Your body is similar to a machine. It needs to be moved consistently throughout the day. If you sit still and move very little all day long, your joints and muscles will begin to tighten up, something akin to rust in a machine. If you are experiencing persistent, high levels of musculoskeletal pain and have not been able to resolve this with time or your own self-care, you should consider getting some help as soon as possible. Healthcare offices are using government mandated protocols for health and safety during COVID-19. There should be no barrier for you to seek out help if you need it. I advise you to see a chiropractor, physical therapist or massage therapist for your musculoskeletal concerns. The longer you wait to address your problem the more complex the resolution may become.
Working remotely should become a win-win situation for your mind and body. You can avoid CSS. Take breaks during the day, create a safe and comfortable working space in your home, set aside time for fitness in your weekly schedule and address any pain conditions that you are experiencing. In this way you will stay healthy and well through this pandemic. Your body is counting on you!!