During 2020, our gyms shut down, mandates were placed to stay inside, and many watched their physical health and stamina decrease due to increased stress and time spent being sedentary (this author included).
Previously, experts have declared “sitting is the new smoking.” And while the last couple of decades have seen a huge boom in health and diet-conscious lifestyles, due to COVID-19, this past year has pushed many workers home and into remote positions. For a lot of us, that’s here to stay.
By the end of 2020 (not even a full year into the pandemic), the Chicago Tribune stated that, “across the country, aching backs, necks, and shoulders brought on by COVID-19-related lifestyle changes have sent many people to physical therapists.”
According to a recent story from Brink News, “between January and September 2020, costs associated with musculoskeletal disorders have surpassed the annual cost during each of the past three years,” which cost companies and employers handsomely in the process. So, how do we confront the new challenges presented to us in this ever-changing remote landscape?
As someone who has also acquired an aching neck, I asked medical and industry experts how to stay healthy and limber during the age of remote work.
It’s not just about what you do—but what you don’t do
COVID-19 has disrupted everyone’s life on some level or other. Even for remote workers like myself who were active pre-COVID-19, it doesn’t take long for the body to lose muscle mass after periods of inactivity (a mere four weeks).
Ulrich Dempfle, Chief Product Officer and one of the founders of the scientifically proven AI-powered Carol Bike says, “apart from moving less, some remote workers are sitting for an additional 4 hours a day for a total of 9.3 hours and then sleeping for 7.7 hours; that’s a lot of inactivity. Forty-six percent of people reported doing less exercise in the pandemic, 36% said they had disturbed sleep, and 39% said they had had musculoskeletal problems since March 2020.” There are a plethora of adverse repercussions to inactivity.
Kristian Marcial, a cofounder and physical therapist at Tribeca Physical Therapy echoes Dempfle’s sentiment. “There is definitely an increased case of health issues related to inactivity due to the new norm of work from home. I would approximate it to a 25% increase in our patients having pain, especially cases such as neck pain and low back pain.”
We all know we should probably exercise more. You don’t need to hear that again, but try taking frequent breaks, even if it’s just for a few minutes, to walk around your place. “I also encourage most of my patients, even those who need to spend most of their day at a desk, to get up and walk around, at least for a few minutes, every 20 to 30 minutes, to get blood flowing to the whole body,” says Jacob LaSalle, a pain specialist and physician at Hudson Medical, comprehensive spine and pain management specialists. “Some find it helpful to have a short, minutes[-long] stretching routine that they perform during these mini-breaks.”
If you have stairs, go up and down them a couple times, maybe invest in a little trampoline or exercise ball, anything to get the blood flowing a bit. This isn’t about breaking a sweat, this is about keeping your body from going into shutdown mode. Not to mention that it’s also good for your brain, focus, and productivity to step away from the monitor at regular intervals.
Your creativity also needs a workout
One of the best things about remote work is the commute, or lack of it. But turns out, that’s also one of the biggest pitfalls of remote work. Without a commute, we lose out on precious steps and fresh air and that mental separation and decompression that comes from leaving a workspace.
Nikita Rvachev, cofounder at Aitarget, says, “Since work from home, I’ve been slowly rolling down to constant tiredness. The border between work and rest has disappeared, so I found myself sitting in front of the laptop from early morning to late night without breaks. To combat this, I have built a work-from-home routine: I pushed myself to separate my working time by wearing office clothes, I replicate ‘commute’ time by walking 15 minutes before and after working hours, and I differentiate devices I use for work and for leisure time.”
Andrey Novoselov, a director of content at Travelpayouts, shares that “The wrong position of the table negatively affects my neck and head. I’m using a stand for my laptop so that I look up, not down, and my neck doesn’t feel as tired.” LaSalle confirms Novoselov’s point, “I can’t stress enough the problems associated with sitting and/or slouching for prolonged periods of time in regards to spinal health. I encourage most of my patients who require long hours at a computer or a desk to invest in a standing desk that is adjustable and allows for a range of postures and positions.”
Don’t forget natural light and snacks
The difference between an active and inactive lifestyle doesn’t have to require a wardrobe change. There are so many fad exercises and diets, it’s impossible to keep up and we end up doing nothing at all. But “active” isn’t just crossfit memberships and yoga pants.
LaSalle says getting moving is most important: “By ‘active’ we certainly mean exercise, but also other forms of activity that aren’t generally considered exercise—walking, shopping, gardening, even getting up and doing things around the house. All these things can promote the type of activity that preserves the health and integrity of the musculoskeletal system over the long run.”
Josh Axe, a doctor of natural medicine and a cofounder of Ancient Nutrition, suggests “taking walking calls, stretching, and doing some quick chores outside. Sitting for too long can cause all sorts of issues like sluggish digestion, stiffness, [and] anxiety. Changing up where you work in your home is another good strategy for fighting boredom.”
Axe says that “because it can be hard to prevent snacking and [food] grazing when working from home, keep treats and junk food out of sight. Put them in containers away in the cabinet so you’re not tempted by seeing them. To help you consume more nutrient-dense, whole foods, take some time to meal prep on the weekends or after work hours, and put healthy foods in visible sight (such as a fruit bowl and pre-made snacks).”
Activity can take many forms. Don’t let fear or dislike of exercise keep you from being active. Find the activities you do enjoy and make them part of your daily routine. Hobbies, walking, sports, games, and even chores are all great ways to keep yourself active.
Separate work and personal while at home
“It’s important to have work-life balance even when working from home.” says Matt Robertson, a partner at Planet X, a marketing firm and production company. “While working remotely, I reserve a separate corner of my apartment for work and computer time, while keeping the rest of my space as relaxing and work-free as possible. From hanging with my dog to taking mid-day breaks for the gym, prioritizing my health helps me stay productive as I grow my business.”
Part of creating a healthy work-life balance is being able to separate work from home. However, this can be easier said than done when they’re the same place. Create boundaries for yourself. Give your home space for you. It is your home after all.
LaSalle says, “I also think, in regards to specifically working from home, it’s important to create boundaries between work space and private space. We are generally more sensitive to space than we realize, so working in the bedroom, or even in the living room, can make it harder to unplug and get restorative rest in spaces that are associated with work.”
And make time for yourself. Says Axe, “If possible, set a time when your work day ends and you can focus on quality personal or family time and self-care, [such as] cooking and exercising. Anything you can do to make the following day easier, more organized, and more productive is a good thing. Try tackling the most important tasks first thing in the morning so that your day seems more manageable, allowing you to set boundaries.”
If possible, set up a designated workspace separate from where you “live.” Another option might be to work in a nearby coffee shop or library. Know when the work day is over and hold that sacred, because your health is sacred.
The flexibility of remote work is wonderful and completely changes the modern outlook on work and the work environment. However, it comes with its own new set of challenges and threats to physical and mental health, some of which we may not even be aware of just yet. Listen to your body and be patient with the process.