Much like the rest of the world, I found myself sitting a lot more during this past year of COVID. “Zooming” became a common occurrence for many of us for work, catching up with friends and family, and even for telehealth appointments.

While many of my coworkers and friends enjoy less traffic on Route 95 during their commute, I think many of us made short-term arrangements for working from home that were not ideal. For instance, a year later, we might realize why having a home office so close to the refrigerator may not have been the best choice.

Sitting is the new smoking

A study of over 30,000 people from 2003 to 2007 showed that people who sit longer throughout the day live shorter lives. That is correct -- too much sitting can lead to an earlier death!

One finding from the study showed that people who sat for 13 hours or longer per day had a 200 percent greater risk of death compared to those who sat less than 11 hours per day. The point here is a sedentary lifestyle is not healthy and COVID did not make it easy for us to combat it in 2020.

Aches and pains

Back pain and hip pain are some of the most common reasons why people seek out medical care. The longer your hips are sitting at a 90-degree angle, the more your muscles and tendons adapt to this position. This adaptation in turn makes it more difficult for your most important core muscles to engage and support your spine and pelvis.

Your neck and shoulders adapt to the laptop as well. This is not necessarily a good thing. We tend to roll our shoulders forward and slouch, while also extending the neck awkwardly forward when trying to maintain an engaged look on our faces during video calls. This can all lead to further discomfort in the neck and upper back.

Why exercise is medicine

There is hope! The answer comes out of innovative and new techniques to improve our health in this modern world. I am not talking about a pill. I strongly believe that exercise is a medicine and there are ways to improve pain during this pandemic and improve your overall health.

Here are four tips for home office setup and hacks to help you feel better. I hope these suggestions, some inspired by the ingenuity of some of my own patients, will inspire you to make adjustments for a better work-from-home situation.

  1. Get Up! During your typical workday try to not sit for longer than 30 minutes at a time. If it helps, set an alarm on your phone or watch. Try some creative stretches and simple yoga positions or perhaps go for a brief walk to refill your water bottle.
  2. Office Setup. If you work from home, try to set up a legitimate work location in the house or, if possible, in the backyard. A patient told me she turned her ironing board into her standing desk and loves the inexpensive adjustment to help her back. If it is safe and comfortable, take off both shoes and socks and work barefoot. Purchase a yoga ball for sitting at your desk instead of a chair to engage your core muscles while seated. The important thing, whether working at home or in an office, is to ensure your computer screen and keyboard are situated with appropriate ergonomics.
  3. HIIT workouts. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts are a new exercise trend. There are hundreds of different types of workouts that increase the heart rate with short bursts of exercise and breaks. These sessions can be squeezed into a shorter amount of time while you’re still getting the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal benefits that are gained during longer workouts. Now that you’re saving time in your daily commute, consider scheduling in some time for HIIT. You can think of it as your body’s commute to a healthy lifestyle!
  4. Give yourself a goal. It does not have to be massive. It can be simple, such as quitting soda or planning to lose five pounds. When you take a step, your knees feel approximately six times your body weight through the dynamic action of walking. Losing five pounds can help you feel like you’ve lost 30 pounds in terms of pain relief!

Whatever you do to improve yourself through exercise, listen to your body and know your limits. There are limitless options for exercise you can do safely at home. If you need ideas there are plenty of resources in the various apps (some are even free!) found on your phone, at a gym or in a class. Don’t forget to check with your health insurer. You may be surprised that they offer benefits to cover exercise and fitness-associated costs.

If you do have pain, be sure to talk to your doctor or see a specialist. We can help relieve your pain and get you moving, back to work and feeling better. Visit our website for more information.

Philip A. Salko, MD

Dr. Philip Salko is a family medicine physician with a focus in primary care sports medicine with the Lifespan Orthopedics Institute. He specializes in sports medicine, interventional pain management and osteoporosis.