Initially, it was fun. No commute to work, not worrying about what to wear, not spending money on snacking, and the ease of lounging in various corners of the house—just a few of the perks for those privileged enough to work from home. Then came the endless meetings, the haphazard hours, and the need to almost always be available. And then fatigue set in. Bad posture, aches and pains.
“Most people who come to me sit for at least nine to 12 hours a day. Not only are people sitting more, they are sitting wrong,” says Dr Aparna Pradhan, a chiropractor, neuro-physiotherapist and dry needle expert in Pune.
A September 2020 Microsoft Work Trend index surveyed 6,000 workers from eight countries and found that longer working hours due to the pandemic-enforced work-from-home situation induced more burnout. India had the longest workday span of all the countries surveyed. According to NordVPN data, people in the USA have been logging in for three more hours on the job from home. NordVPN tracks when users log in and out of work.
Like many in the US tech industry, Prina Patel has also been working from home since mid-March, and will continue to do so till at least June 2021. “I’ve been logging 12 hours a day on most workdays,” says the 30-year-old who resides in Charlotte, North Carolina. Most people don’t have more than one working desk at home, so the sofa, the bed, or any other surface becomes a makeshift place to work from. Apart from the mental burnout which can cause headaches or make people more irritable, the physical burnout of working from home is being felt more than ever.
“I was working from a basic table and chair. Then the knee pain started. Then there was back pain, and finally a pinching pain in the lower back which forced me to visit a doctor,” Patel says. The first question she was asked was how many hours she had been sitting. She’s not the first to be asked this.
“We get walk-ins from people who don’t have desk jobs but sit for long hours, because even if you ignore the extra hours of sitting while people have been at home, bad posture syndrome is very common and usually related to a lack of fitness activity,” says Sriram Sundarajan, an orthopaedic surgeon who teaches and works at a medical college in Baroda.
“The muscles attach to bones using tendons. Tendons are the anchors of the muscle. Because one group of muscles is functioning more than the other while you sit, the force on the skeletal frame is not right. So when you have an eccentric pull on the skeletal frame, the discs—which are the cushions between the vertebrae—take all the pressure. After a particular point, these will give away, and then the disc makes its way out of position and the problems start,” he explains.
It can be tough to accept that something as simple as sitting can cause so much distress. But the silver lining is that it isn’t too difficult to maintain posture. As Sundarajan says, “You don’t have to be a gym freak for a healthy spine.”
Dr Pradhan gives some tips which she says people can use easily to maintain a healthy posture. “The solution can be as simple as taking micro breaks during work. Get up, do some stretches, shake your legs out, go for a walk. But there is a lack of awareness about these movements. Maybe if I wasn’t a physiotherapist, I wouldn’t know what was causing the tingling sensation in my wrist or a dull ache in my ankle was actually my spine giving me a signal that it is not okay. And if ignored, it can eventually lead to bone deterioration,” she says.
While she insists that every person may need to be treated differently according to their problems, there are hundreds of guides on the internet which can help one avoid getting into a situation where they need to see a doctor.
The first step is to be aware of your posture. There are some easily-detectable signs of bad posture: your head is jutting forward, your shoulders and back are rounded, or if your pelvis is tilted forward, what is called the anterior pelvic tilt. Jeremy Ethier, a kinesiologist who runs the YouTube channel Built with Science, has created a simple 10-minute workout to help reverse these with the help of a few exercises.
The first exercise is called over-and-backs, for which you can use a band or a towel. Grip the towel in a wide overhand grip so that it is taut with some tension, and raise it over your head and behind your back without bending the elbows. Go as far as you can and come back to the starting position again. Over time, your mobility will increase. If you can’t do this, replace the exercise with an easier stretch: clasp fingers behind your back, squeeze your shoulders together and deepen the stretch.
The second exercise is the fairly easy cobra pose, also known as the bhujangasana in yoga. The third is the stand-and-reach. Stand up, place one hand on the hip, and reach up with the other diagonally and hold for a few seconds, then change sides. Then there is the wall slide, where you stand against the wall with your upper and lower back completely flat against it. Slide your arms up and down against the wall. Pull your chin behind simultaneously to use your deep neck flexors. Finish the workout with some lower body stretches: most importantly the hip flexors, which tend to become shortened and inactive if you’re sitting for too long; and some glute bridges too. Ethier recommends 10 to 15 repetitions of these exercises, where you hold your stretches for anywhere between 15-45 seconds depending on how tight your muscles feel.
Prina Patel learnt the lesson the hard way. “I exercise regularly now. Tiny changes have worked wonders but on hectic days when I can’t squeeze in a workout, I make sure I’m getting up every five minutes so my back doesn’t revolt again. However, if the pain were bearable, I may not have done these things,” she says.
Back pain or not, longer sitting hours or not, it’s imperative to replace one of those chai breaks with a quick five-minute stretch.