Back tight? Knees sore? You’re not alone. It’s been just over a month since the first “shelter in place” order was issued in America — nearly one month since many of us were asked to physically isolate our already stressed-out, suboptimally nourished, sleep-deprived bodies to our homes (residences that may or may not be set up for working) — and it’s taking its toll.
“One of the reasons people are starting to feel not great is that their environment isn’t conducive to what their body needs,” says physical therapist Kelly Starrett,DPT, owner and operator of The Ready State Virtual Mobility Coach and author of Deskbound: Standing Up to a Sitting World. “We’ve gotten stiff from not moving enough.”
Now here’s the good news: It doesn’t take a lot to start feeling better. Aside from prioritizing stress relief (getting adequate sleep can go a long way), the experts say adjusting your environment and building more purposeful, non-exercise movement into your day will do wonders.
Optimize Your Workstation
Even if you’re lucky enough to have a home office, that doesn’t guarantee you’re set up for ergonomic success. “We’re sitting in positions that aren’t necessarily the correct position, and for longer,” says Jessica Dorrington, PT, MPT, OCS, CMPT, PRPC, CSCS, director of physical therapy at Therapeutic Associates Bethany Physical Therapy in Portland, Oregon. “So we’re starting to see more neck, shoulder, elbow, wrist, and hand pain — things that could easily be solved by just changing what our computer station looks like.”
Start with your computer
One of the biggest obstacles facing people who’ve been thrust into remote work is that they’re often using a laptop instead of a desktop computer. “Laptops can be good for very short periods, but from an ergonomic standpoint, they’re a bit of a nightmare,” says Dorrington.
Place your laptop (or monitor) on a riser or a stack of books so that it’s at eyebrow level and then pair an external mouse and keyboard to it — ideally one without the 10-key on the right-hand side so you don’t have to reach as far to use your mouse (if you’re right handed). The keyboard should lay flat (not higher in the back). And try to avoid letting your fingers hover above the mouse, which can strain elbow and hand muscles.
Choose your chair wisely
What you sit on can have a big impact on how you feel. When workers were given an ergonomic office chair and taught how to properly use it, they reported less musculoskeletal pain immediately afterward, according to a 2012 systematic review.
Lock your office chair (if possible) so that you can’t recline backward. “You want your weight to go through your legs and your buttocks,” says Dorrington. If you don’t have an office chair, using a rolled-up hand towel as lumbar support can help you sit more upright. Adjust the height of the chair so that your feet are flat on the ground (or resting on a footrest), your forearms parallel to the floor, your elbows are at a 90-degree angle, and your wrists are flat. And lose the armrests, if they come off, so you can slide your chair underneath your desk and be closer to your keyboard. “Maintaining even just a short reach out in front of your body for a sustained period puts a lot of strain on your neck muscles,” says Dorrington.
Take frequent breaks
If you have the ability to switch between a seated and standing desk throughout the day, do it. In a 2011 study, workers who reduced their sitting time by 66 minutes a day experienced less upper back and neck pain and improved moods. “Our body doesn’t like to be in any position more than 30 minutes,” says Dorrington. “So moving from sit to stand and stand to sit every 30 minutes is a great suggestion” even if it’s just to walk around your house.
90% of the issues that we have are overuse injuries where the tissue doesn’t like being in a certain position for that long.
Address Your Aches and Pains
We’ve all heard the warnings about “sitting disease,” but being sedentary for too long can also wreak havoc on your body in ways a daily workout won’t necessarily fix — especially if your workstation suffers from any of the issues above.
“I would say 90% of the issues that we have are overuse injuries where the tissue doesn’t like being in a certain position for that long,” says Dorrington. “So it’s about changing your habits to reduce the force on the [muscle] tissue.”
The best way to do that is to stand up and move more. Research recommends working your way up to two hours a day of accumulated standing or light activity (like walking) during work hours and then progressing on to four (Dorrington’s recommendation to alternate sitting and standing every 30 minutes could get you there).
If you’re doing that and are still in pain, performing some targeted stretches, like the ones below, as often as needed can help. Hold each stretch for 30 to 45 seconds unless otherwise indicated, and then switch sides, says Dorrington. “If you have true tightness in a muscle, you’ll want to do up to about five cumulative minutes of stretching a day to make some lasting benefits.”
Why it might be happening: Spending a lot of time sitting means you’re constantly bending at the waist, which can shorten the hip flexors (the muscles at the front of your hip), making them tight.
How to treat it: Standing with your feet hip-width apart and your hands on your hips, step your right foot forward into a modified lunge, slightly bending both knees. Keeping your back straight (do not bend at the waist), tuck your tailbone and press your pelvis forward, lifting your left heel off the ground. You should feel a stretch across your left hip and thigh. Switch legs.
Neck and shoulder pain
Why it might be happening: “A muscle that has to work a lot is going to get angry,” says Dorrington. And if you’re constantly leaning your head forward while working on a laptop or tilting your head to secure your phone between your head and your shoulder, your little neck muscles are forced to work a lot. If trigger points (think: knots in your muscle or connective tissue) develop or the joints in your neck become irritated, they can refer pain down your neck and into your shoulder.
How to treat it: “If it’s just a trigger point, you can reach your hand up and press on the muscle for a few seconds and that can alleviate some of the symptoms,” says Dorrington. You can also stretch the tight muscles: While standing or sitting up straight, rest the back of your right hand on the small of your back and reach your left hand over the top of your head. With your left hand, gently pull your head down toward your left shoulder, stretching the right side of your neck. To intensify the stretch, drop your shoulder toward the ground, keeping your right hand against your lower back
Upper back pain
Why it might be happening: Pain across your shoulder blades can be coming from your neck (see above) or your arms. “If your elbows aren’t at your sides and at 90-degree angles and you’re having to reach your arms forward to type or use your mouse, those back muscles can get fatigued,” says Dorrington.
How to treat it: Stand or sit upright and squeeze your shoulder blades together and down as if there were a pencil between them that you want to capture in place. Avoid shrugging your shoulders towards your ears. Hold for five seconds and release. Repeat 10 times. You should feel the stretch and lengthen in your trapezius muscles along the tops of your shoulders.
Stretching your pectoral (chest) muscles — not your upper back muscles, which may already be overstretched from too much hunching — can also help. Stand facing the corner of a wall with your feet hip-width apart. Place your palms onto each side of the wall at head height. Keeping your core tight, step your left foot forward, pressing your palms and forearms into the wall. You should feel a stretch across your chest.
Lower back pain
Why it might be happening: Again, being sedentary for too long or leaning forward too much tend to be the biggest culprits.
How to treat it: Stand up and do 10 backward bends. Stand up straight with your feet hip-width apart. Keeping your knees straight, place your hands on the small of your back and gently lean backward, pushing your hips forward and your gaze toward the ceiling. Hold for one second and then come back to center.
Why it might be happening: “The kneecap is like a train track in a groove and it moves up and down in that groove,” says Dorrington. “But when your knees are bent at 90-degree angles for a long period of time, that kneecap becomes more compressed into the groove.”
How to treat it: Stand up straight with your feet hip-width apart. Bring your left foot behind you and rest it on the top of a stool or stable surface. Keeping your back straight and your hips parallel, bend your right leg so that your body sinks toward the floor. You should feel a stretch across your left hip and thigh.
Why it might be happening: You may be developing plantar fasciitis, an inflammation of the tissue that connects your heel bone to your toes. There are a few possible causes. Being too sedentary can make your calves tight and the muscles on the bottom of your foot weak, both of which can lead to plantar fasciitis. The protective fat pad on your heel that plumps up when you walk can also deteriorate. Lastly, wearing a slipper or a sandal that doesn’t have a back will force you to lift your big toe when you walk so your shoes don’t slip off, which puts more force on the plantar fascia.
How to treat it: Switch to footwear that cups and supports the back of your heel. And stretch your calf muscles. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your hands on your hips or touching a wall for support. Step your right foot forward into a modified lunge, bending your right leg and keeping your left leg straight. Pressing your left heel into the ground, lean into the lunge, gently deepening the bend in your right leg. “This stretches the gastroc calf muscle,” says Dorrington.
Next, do the same stretch, but also bend your back knee. “That stretches the second calf muscle, the soleus,” says Dorrington. “You want to stretch both.” Switch legs.