Move over, "Quarantine 15." That term, coined for pandemic-era weight gain, isn't the only catchy phrase from this challenging time. Now there's "pandemic posture," referring to poor posture from slouching at a desk or on a couch during time at home, and it brings lots of back pain complaints with it.
We asked Dr. David Binder, director of innovation at Harvard-affiliated Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, about this phenomenon and what to do if you're experiencing it.
Q. Is "pandemic posture" real?
Dr. Binder: Yes, we have seen increased complaints of neck and lower back pain in the last year, often in the context of sitting for extended periods of time with increased work at home.
Many people don't have the same facilities or workstations that they have in an office setting, which has created poor posture.
Or maybe they're spending too much time in a comfortable chair or on the couch.
Q. Why does poor posture cause back pain?
Dr. Binder: Holding any posture for a long period of time, whether it's standing or sitting, sometimes increases discomfort because of muscle spasms or muscle fatigue.
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Having poor posture may also put increased pressure on certain joints or produce an imbalance on one side of your body that bears an increased load compared with the opposite side.
Additionally, poor posture can result in nerve irritation at pressure points such as the buttocks or tailbone, which can be painful.
Q. What do you recommend for people who want to reduce back pain from poor posture?
Dr. Binder: It's helpful to exercise every day with a well-rounded routine that includes a warm-up, aerobic exercise, a cool-down, and general muscle stretching. This will keep your muscles strong and flexible.
Sometimes working with a physical therapist is useful as well. A therapist can help you understand the mechanics of how to sit up straight, with your back arched and your shoulders back and down. The therapist can also train you to strengthen and stretch the muscles that help you sit up straight. Those include your abdominal, back, shoulder, neck, and chest muscles.
(Note: If you have medical conditions, check with your doctor before starting a physical exercise program.)
Q. Would improving a home workstation also help?
Dr. Binder: Absolutely. Use a chair with lots of cushioning for the buttocks and support for your lower back. Sometimes using a footrest helps you feel more comfortable and takes a little load off your back. A footrest is especially helpful for people who are a bit shorter, so they can keep their knees at an optimal angle — approximately 90°.
Other workstation tips would be raising your computer monitor to eye level, so you won't have to look down all the time and put pressure on your neck, and using an ergonomic mouse and wrist pad to cut down on wrist, arm, and shoulder discomfort, which can lead to pain in the shoulder, shoulder blade or neck. But watch out if you use a standing desk, which allows you to stand while working. Standing for long periods can worsen back pain.
Q. What else helps?
Dr. Binder: Set a timer to get up from your desk, or couch or chair, and move around every 20 minutes. This will keep you from being in one position for extended periods of time. Getting up will also give your spine a break from the pressure of sitting and keep your muscles from getting too tight. And of course, staying active throughout the day is also important for many other aspects of health; sitting too much is associated with chronic disease and even premature death.
How to combat poor at-home work posture
But what is 'proper' posture?
Proper posture while seated should include your feet flat on the ground, directly underneath the knees. The legs form right angles with your butt on the chair and your knees coming out directly straight from your hips. You want to avoid having your legs dangling from a chair that's too tall or sitting in a cramped style.
Moving up the body, focus on the spine being in proper alignment. Often the spine rounds forward as you're typing on your computer or working on something in front of you. Fix this by bringing the abs in toward the spine, lifting the chest and rolling back the shoulders. You want your shoulders to be stacked over your ribs, and your ribs to be stacked over your hips.
Next, bring back your head so that your chin is over your sternum or your breast bone — not jutting forward over your body.
Finally, rest your arms on a desk or surface that provides a 90-degree angle so that your elbows can be bent at your sides and your forearms stretched out in front of you onto your computer or surface.
Ideally, you'd have your computer monitor at eye height and your elbows hugged in at the sides of your waist. However, if you're working on a laptop computer, that is near impossible without an external keyboard. So, focus on the elbows hugging in at your sides with your forearms extended out to the keyboard, and look down to the computer screen with your eyes while keeping your spine in alignment and your chin back.
Props can help
Depending on where you're sitting, you may find it's introducing new problems into the equation. But problems often have solutions.
Problem: Chair is too high.
Solution: Put books, boxes or an ottoman underneath your feet so that your legs make a 90-degree angle — your knees stack over your ankles and your knees come straight out from your hips.
Problem: Slouching on the couch.
Solution: Sit upright on the couch with pillows behind your back, or sit sideways on the couch with your back against the armrest and your legs straight out in front of you.
Problem: Lying in bed.
Solution: Prop yourself up with pillows behind you, pillows underneath your arms and pillows underneath your legs. You want to have your knees bent and your arms propped up so that the elbows are at the same height as the sides of your body.
Problem: Standing and hunched over a counter
Solution: Prop your computer up onto boxes or magazines so that you can look at your computer at eye level instead of tilting your head down.
Exercises to combat poor posture while working
These exercises can be performed throughout the workday to fix improper posture.
Problem: Hunched shoulders, tension headaches, neck pain.
Solution: Perform a "shoulder square." With your head facing forward, move your shoulders forward, up, back and then down. Repeat this five times forward and then reverse five times.
Problem: Rounded upper back, middle back pain and stiffness
Solution: Roll back your shoulders and reach your fingertips toward each other behind your back. Bring back your elbows and try to press the palms of your hands together at the middle of your back. If this is impossible, just keep the fingertips reaching toward each other. Hold for five slow, deep breaths and then release. This stretches the shoulders and sides of the neck.
Problem: Low back stiffness, tightness and achiness.
Solution: Stretch the sides of the body by pressing down firmly with your glutes onto your chair. Stretch your arms up toward the ceiling and clasp your hands. Reach over toward the right to elongate the left side of your waist. Hold for a breath, then switch to the other side. Repeat side to side five times.
Exercises routine to improve posture
Research shows that people who engage in a regular workout routine to improve posture have less pain levels in the neck, shoulders, middle back, lower back and pelvis. Adding in 20 minutes a day just three days a week helps.
To get you started, add in these exercises to your regular exercise routine:
Bent-over rows: Holding onto a set of 5-pound dumbbells, hinge forward at the hips and allow the arms to reach toward the ground. Draw your shoulders away from your ears, and hug your elbows into your sides as you pull the weights up toward your chest. Release and repeat 10 times. This works the muscles of the upper back to help keep your shoulders back for proper posture.
Forward fold and sway: Hinge forward at your waist and allow your arms to dangle toward the floor. Sway to the right and left, pressing down equally with both feet throughout this stretch. Hold for five deep breaths, and then slowly roll up. This relieves tension and tightness from the low back, middle back and upper back, as well as stretches the sides of the waist.
Cat and cow: On your hands and knees, place your hands directly underneath your shoulders and your hips directly over your knees. Then, arch your back as you look forward and bring your shoulders back to stretch the chest. Exhale as you round the back, pulling the naval in toward the spine and rounding the spine up toward the ceiling. Repeat this 10 times.
Squat with raised arms: Step your feet as wide as your hips and bend your knees. Reach your glutes back and make sure your knees are bent over your ankles. Then reach the arms up toward the ceiling but relax your shoulders. Pull in your abs toward your spine. This increases mobility in the hip flexors, strength in the legs, strength in the arms and trains your body to sit back in a chair with the spine in a straight line.
Breaks from work
Even if you are in perfect posture while working, standing up to take a break, stretch and move your body is imperative. Getting up every 30 minutes is what's recommended according to current research.
You could take a walk around your house, march in place and pump your arms up or stretch. This will improve the circulation in your body and even reduce your risk of death due to sitting. Placing an alarm or notification on your phone or work calendar is a simple way to ensure that you're following these recommendations.
Standing desks are also a great way to combat the sedentary nature of working from home. You can create your own per the above suggestions or invest in a premade standing desk.
However you choose to work, focus on elongating your body rather than tensing or rounding yourself into a ball. Elongating the neck, spine, and torso, and supporting the lower body with a stable foundation (90 degrees at the hips and knees), will help you create your perfect work-from-home posture.
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