Creative ways to be healthy in the home office

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It’s almost been a year now since the concept of working from home became a reality for most, with makeshift home-office setups becoming the unofficial norm.

As kitchen or dining room tables turn into desks and couches or recliners turn into office chairs, however cozy we may feel, experts say our new home setups could be creating chronic problems.

Whether it’s shoulder, neck or back pain you may be feeling, it’s most likely those makeshift workspaces that are to blame. 

“Ergonomics is the science of fitting the work task and work environment to the individual worker, as opposed to the individual trying to conform to a work setting that is awkward or a workflow that is stressful,” said Julie Barker, physical therapist and ergonomist at Henry Mayo Fitness and Health.

This becomes exactly the case when you try to conform your body to the couch or bed, with laptops balanced upon your knees, or at the kitchen table, with wrists or elbows resting on sharp edges, Barker added.

Kaiser Permanente’s senior physical therapist and ergonomist Ghyzal Ashrati, agreed, adding, “Working from home typically sounds nice, but in terms of ergonomics and proper body mechanics, setting up a healthy home workstation can be challenging.”

Traditional workplaces often provide key items, such as keyboard trays, ergonomic chairs and height adjustable desks, to support good body mechanics.

Courtesy of Kaiser Permanente

The biggest concerns regarding makeshift setups

One of the biggest problems with working from a couch or bed, instead of a desk, is the poor or awkward position you’re putting your body in, as rather than sitting upright, typically you’re slouched. 

In addition, using improper work surfaces, like your lap, can lead to you being hunched over trying to see the screen, while having an incorrect seat or a table height, can result in the same.

This is especially true when using laptops, as you can’t have your arms and your head in a really comfortable position at the same time, added Amy Wunsch, co-owner of Next Level Physical Therapy and Athletic Performance. 

Barker agreed, adding, “You literally cannot get yourself in a good position using your laptop in your lap.”

Barker and Wunsch also agree that working from home has led many to be moving too little as they tend to stay glued to their screens.

“When you’re at the office, you’re getting up and going to meetings and coming back and going to lunch and you’re moving around — we don’t have that now — everybody comes to you, basically, and you stay stuck in your chair,” Barker said.

“And sitting actually increases the pressure at your spine by 50%,” Wunsch added.

It’s this suboptimal work environment that is causing postural strain and a lot of injuries. 

A good ergonomic setup can not only reduce muscle soreness and overall fatigue, as well as prevent injuries, like bulging discs or carpal tunnel, but it can also make your job more efficient and easier, in turn making you faster and more productive, allowing your brain to focus on the task at hand, rather than any pain you may be feeling, Barker said.

“I think there is a tendency to just try to get by until it’s over, (but) we need to be intentional about carving out a dedicated and correctly set up workspace,” Barker added.

The key is really making your environment work to your body versus trying to fit your body into your environment, Wunsh explained.  

“Working from home and keeping yourself free of injury,” Ashrati added, “may require a little creativity.”

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Tips and tricks to making your work-from-home setup actually work

  • If you’re working on a laptop, invest in a wireless keyboard and mouse, so you can keep your screen at eye-level and an arm’s length away. 
  • Find a table or work surface with a height that matches your seated resting elbow height. If you’re short, a TV tray may work, and if you’re tall, maybe try stacking books under the table. An ironing board can also be lowered or raised to the perfect height.
  • You can also use your kitchen counter or ironing board to create a sit-to-stand desk. Make sure it is also elbow height.
  • Use pillows or folded towels to lift your butt up higher than your knees to achieve a better spinal posture and raise you up to the correct height to view your screen. 
  • You can also place a pillow or rolled towel behind you for lower back support.
  • Use boxes as foot rests or to raise your screen up to the correct height.
  • Use Legos to build yourself the perfect tablet stand to ensure it, too, is at eye-level.
  • Use sponges or an old tube sock filled with rice as a wrist rest.
  • Enlist the posture police by asking family members to cue you when they see you slumped, or make a visual reminder so you can police yourself.
  • Drink plenty of water to help cycle the toxins out of your system. 
  • Take microbreaks, which are vital to working successfully. Take a few seconds to stand up and move every 20-30 minutes and focus your eyes on an object 20 feet away. Walk and stretch during some tasks, like taking phone calls.
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