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expert-approved home office tips to reduce back pain and body aches

One day you’re at your company desk, the next you’re WFH indefinitely in a pandemic. Here’s how to make your home set up ergonomical, body-friendly and best of all, working for you. 

As your body has probably already informed you, the same desk habits that suited you at the office may not work at home, where you move much less, fight for space and spend more time in your PJs. Whether you’re suffering from a sore neck and shoulders, headaches, lower back pain or wrist cramps, it’s all very common and can be easily fixed.

We hit up some experts for their tips on how to set up your work-from-home space so you can be as comfortable and productive as possible from your couch, dining table, bed or balcony.

“Working from home has rapidly become the new ‘norm’. While we need to embrace the change, there is no need to embrace the pain that comes with that,” says osteopath Dr Ngaire McKay. “Take your time to set up your workspace so that you are comfortable, you’re going to be spending a lot of time there, so avoid jumping into the work without analysing your set up first.”

Sit to suit your body

According to physiotherapist Andrew Wynd, there is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to the ‘best way’ to sit, but there are some general guidelines that can minimise discomfort.

“Keep a nice, tall spine, hips and knees at close to 90 degrees and feet either on the floor or on a footrest,” he advises. “Elbows nicely bent and relaxed and shoulders/shoulder blades floating lightly. Sitting slumped is a no-no and conversely, excessive rigidity and sitting bolt upright is also a problem. Aim for sitting tall, relaxed and supported.”

How to set up your home office

When it comes to your work set up, Dr McKay recommends you consider the impact it has on both your body and your mind

“A wireless keyboard and mouse allows much more flexibility,” she says. “Keep the items you use regularly within reach. Natural light and some fresh air or plants will really help to keep your mindset health.”

As for those ‘golden rules’ we mentioned, she suggests the following:

  • Ensure both feet are comfortably planted on the floor, with thighs parallel to the floor, your knees at hip height or slightly lower (absolutely avoid sitting with one foot tucked under you!).
  • Support your lower back with a supportive ergonomic chair or a cushion.
  • Your forearms should also be parallel to the floor. Keep those shoulders nice and relaxed (shoulders are not designed to cuddle your ears though they often creep up in that direction!)
  • The top of your computer screen should be at or slightly below eye level and roughly at an arm’s length away from you.
  • Make sure that your room has adequate lighting to avoid any squinting or needing to constantly move your set-up.

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Household props to improve posture

If you don’t have ergonomic office equipment at home or can’t get hold of it at the moment, you can use household objects to improve your ergonomics.

“Books or boxes are ideal to prop up your computer monitor or laptop,” tips Dr McKay. “Use rolled-up towels under your wrists for support or small cushions behind your back or

under your bottom for added comfort. You can use also use little stools or boxes to create your own footrest.”

Mobilise your work

As adults, we tend to normalise sitting in the one position, but our bodies literally thrive on movement.

“We must move and ideally move every 20 minutes,” says Wynd. “We’re not designed to be in the one spot for very long.

“Smartwatches have great little built-in reminders to move and breathe deeply. If you don’t have one, set a timer on your phone.

“Alternating sitting using the backrest of the chair, then ‘perching’ is a great idea. Any phone calls taken can be done walking around the room or house, or ideally, outdoors to top up on vitamin D and fresh air.”

Listen to your body’s warning signs

Often our body will send us signals in the form of niggles and aches when we need to adjust something says Dr McKay.

“Notice the position of your body as you work, are you leaning forwards because your desk is too far away? In this case, your neck and shoulders can get sore and achy. You might even experience headaches.

“Perhaps your desk is too close and putting your body in a cramped position? It’s common for people to experience low back pain in this instance and you need to consider the height of your chair, not having your feet flat on the floor will put unnecessary strain on your lower back.

“Your wrists and elbows may also protest if they are bent when using your keyboard or mouse – aim for a neutral position.”

Stretch it out

As well as moving around regularly, Dr McKay also advises stretching to release any tension in your body and keep it supple. She suggests a dozen repetitions of the following spread throughout the day:

Neck stretches:

Place your hand underneath your leg or on your shoulder and use your opposite hand to gently pull your head toward your shoulder

Seated glute stretch:

Cross your ankle over your opposite knee and lean forward at your hips (keeping your back straight) until you feel a stretch at the back of your hip

Seated roll downs:

Bring your chin toward your chest and slowly roll your spine down toward your feet, then slowly roll back up again

Back release:

Improve stiffness in your mid-back by taking time to roll a towel lengthways along the spine, as you lay on the towel. Keep your knees bent with feet flat on the floor. Place your arms out to the sides, palms facing up and take some deep breaths.

Boundaries and breaks

As we all know, taking regular breaks is key to being our most productive but the combination of social distancing and working from home can make this, and keeping to reasonable work hours, trickier than usual.

“Have regular breaks to keep your body happy,” says Dr McKay. “Maybe set a timer on your phone or computer so you don’t forget,”. “Interspace your work time with some gentle stretches, keep a glass of water next to you so that you regularly walk to the kitchen for a refill.

As for capping longer work hours, psychologist Donna Cameron believes boundaries are key to helping us avoid burnout and keeping us buoyant.

“Whether you’ve got a home office or are negotiating space in a spare room or on a shared table, put your work away or covering it up at the end of the day can help to signal when you are and aren’t working,” says Cameron.

“It gives you permission to say ‘I’ve done enough’ for the day and to have that much-needed downtime.”

And Dr McKay has one last tip for us “Change often brings opportunity, and if nothing else…remember to breathe, we are all in this together.”

More essential coronavirus reading:

Read up on what the government lockdown means for you, understand why Aussie doctors are up arms, be aware of the ‘hidden symptom’ of COVID-19 carriers, prepare yourself for the long-term mental health effects of the pandemic, get your sweat on at home with these free online workouts before reviving your over-washed hands with this DIY balm, and then console yourself with these unexpected joys.