Ergonomics on a Budget

Mar 29, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted everyone’s day-to-day lives. One of those ways, is many people are working from home more than ever before. Without a normal desk set-up, some people may experience sore and painful muscles. Kaiser Permanente Mid-Atlantic physical therapist Sebastian Cohen shares tips on to improve your work from home set-up on a budget.

What tips do you have for folks to create a more ergonomic workspace – particularly if they’re on a budget?

If you’re working at a kitchen table, or don’t have the space for a traditional office set-up, there are still easy and inexpensive ways to make yourself more comfortable while working at home. I recommend a few key tips to my patients:

  • Be creative. For example, try using a box to elevate your computer to create a makeshift sit-to-stand desk. Sitting on a sofa? Use a pillow as a lap-desk to avoid craning down at your computer screen
  • Listen to your body. If you’re working a position that hurts or causes you aches and pains at the end of the day – find a different position. Your body will tell you if your set-up is not working
  • The best way to prevent pain from sitting is to avoid sitting for long periods of time, and to avoid staying in one position. Schedule 5-minute movement breaks 10 times throughout the day, for example.
  • Change it up. Change positions frequently – move from the desk to the sofa, for example. If you’re leaning forward looking at a screen like most of us are, try using a chair that bends back a bit so you can sit back in your chair, or move to a sofa where you can sit back.

What are the common injuries you’re seeing due to sitting too much or sitting improperly?

Many people don’t realize how much more we’re sitting these days, and how much just our daily commute or work routine contributed to our physical activity – walking to the train, heading to the breakroom for coffee, etc. I have noticed in my patients, that more sitting and less movement is causing common issues such as:

  • Lower back pain – including soreness in the butt and down the legs
  • Neck pain and shoulder pain- often from craning our neck down/forward toward a screen

How can folks improve their posture and avoid these aches and pains?

  • 90 degree angles – An ergonomically correct workspace should support a seated position that allows for 90 degree angles – your back well supported and at 90 degrees, elbows bent at 90 degrees and resting so that arms are supported, feet flat on the floor with knees bent at 90 degrees, and head looking straight ahead so that the top of the computer screen is about at your forehead.
  • Work with what you’ve got—Many people do not have the resources or proper set-up for an ergonomically perfect workstation at home. In the absence of those resources – move as much as possible, change positions and listen to your body. If a position is uncomfortable – don’t stay in it.
  • Move! Remember, humans were not meant to sit all day. Frequent standing and moving breaks are important – try a walking meeting.

What stretches can people do at home to help alleviate some of these common aches/pains?

Try to take five breaks of about 10 minutes each throughout your day to do these easy at-home stretches and exercises. It’s OK if you don’t achieve five breaks right away – do as many as you can and build up.

  • Back bends – Most of us spend a lot of time bending forward to look at a screen. Stretches that invert your posture will help to alleviate that pain and tension. An easy example – Lay face-down down on the bed or floor and prop your upper body up on your elbows.
  • Desk jockey workout- This is a set of three stretches you can do easily at your desk/work station.
    • Hamstring stretch
    • External rotation/seated figure four stretch
    • Quad/hip-flexor stretch
  • Sit-to-stand or functional squat challenge – Stand up and sit down 10 times – set a goal of doing this 5-10 times per day throughout the day. Do as many as you can and build from there. This helps to strengthen your legs and glutes and will get your blood pumping.
  • Try a posture-based mindfulness meditation – sit in a chair with a nice straight back, both feet on the ground, shoulders back, chin tucked and take several deep breaths – hold the posture for as many breaths as you can until you get tired, and build from there. This will help you to:
    • Strengthen the muscles you need to sit properly
    • Relax and quiet your mind
    • Make proper posture more natural
  • Keep it simple- Pick just a couple of exercises and take brief breaks spread throughout the day to make it easier to stick with the routine.

What should folks do who continue to experience pain?

If some stretching and modifications to your posture are not helping, particularly if you are feeling a sharp or intense pain in one particular area, see a physical therapist or start with your primary care doctor.

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