We’ve long acknowledged the physical issues that can arise from typical desk jobs. Now that so many of us have spent the better part of a year working from home, the pain and injuries caused by sitting all day are being exacerbated. Even if our offices had ergonomic setups, our makeshift home offices probably don’t. Where we used to stand up and go to meetings or visit coworkers at their desks, we’re now still seated, still staring at our computer on Zoom calls.
“Muscles that are predisposed to getting tight—the back of your neck, the front of your chest, the back of your knees—are getting tighter and tighter,” explains Meredith Butulis, a physical therapist with Coastal Orthopedics. “Then you have trouble when you go to stand up or walk up the stairs, because those muscles aren’t being asked to do that throughout the day.”
Early in her career, Butulis worked for an ergonomics consulting firm. “We were called in when people had pain at their jobs, or they were having trouble with workman’s comp claims,” she says. “A lot of it was office stuff. It wasn’t construction.”
Butulis says Covid-19 is revealing issues with home office setups—people turning slightly to one side all day, causing stiff necks and headaches, or leaning forward on their desk or kitchen table, creating compression and inflammation in addition to those tightening muscles.
For a better workspace, your eyes should be aligned with the top third of your computer screen, and your elbows should be at 90 degrees but not resting on anything. “If a T-rex dinosaur can’t reach [your keyboard], then you shouldn’t be able to reach it,” she says.
But desk health doesn’t stop with an ergonomic arrangement. “People think once their office is set up, they have to stay there. That’s not true. Our bodies were meant to move,” Butulis says. “And if you like to curl your right leg up in the chair, then do it. Just make sure you make equal time to do it with your left leg.”
“Do something—anything—every hour.”
In some cases in her ergonomics consulting work, Butulis and her coworkers were allowed to program viruses that would lock a computer for one minute, every hour, in order to encourage the user to step away.
And once you’re in the habit of thinking about your body on a regular basis throughout the workday, there are several simple, easy-to-remember exercises to encourage healthier posture, better circulation and stronger, more flexible muscles. Butulis says to think in terms of head, shoulders, hips, knees and toes—“Like the kids’ song, but with hips thrown in.”
Butulis sometimes jokes that her clients should put a picture of a unicorn on their computers. “Our shoulders are next to our ears. But when you see the unicorn, imagine that horn pulling our head up,” she says. She also recites the phrase, “Ears over shoulders, shoulders over hips.”
Interlock your hands behind your head, open up your elbows like a butterfly. Additionally, squeeze your shoulder blades together for five seconds; repeat 10 times.
“We’re sitting on our glutes all day. They get weak. And then people go to the gym and get injured because their glutes aren’t activating,” Butulis says. While you’re sitting, flex your glutes. Then keep them flexed while you stand up.
While seated, extend one leg straight out and hold it there for five seconds. Then slowly lower it for five seconds. Repeat 10 times for each leg. This helps lengthen the muscles in the back of the leg.
“A lot of adults don’t work their feet, which leads to so many foot issues,” says Butulis. To strengthen your arches, curl your toes—even inside your shoes—and pretend you’re trying to pick up a nail on the floor with your feet.