This story was updated at 10:10 a.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020, with more information. An earlier version of this story referred to Doug Daniel as a board certified orthopedist. Daniel is board certified in orthopedics and holds a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree. He is not a medical doctor.
Some of the most common aches and pains occurring during the COVID-19 pandemic have no direct connections to the coronavirus. The pain comes from doing the same thing in the same way for too often and for too long.
After seven months of working from home, I've come to appreciate the virtues of a traditional workspace — in particular, an ergonomically correct desk setup. I never knew beds and couches could cause such discomfort.
Here, Doug Daniel, a Siskin Hospital for Physical Rehabilitation physical therapist who is board-certified in orthopedics, offers tips for staying well while working from home.
1. Keep moving.
"Our body likes moving often," Daniel says. He suggests changing position frequently and getting up to move for at least five minutes every 45 minutes to an hour.
Sometimes that's not possible due to the nature of a person's job, in which case he recommends setting a small goal such as moving for at least 20 minutes throughout the day. "That would be a good goal for most people," says Daniel.
2. Treat exercise as a snack.
"I think the idea of 'exercise snacks' is really practical," says Daniel.
Do 2- to 5-minute bouts of exercise throughout the day, anything from walking around to yoga to a set of targeted exercises, such as squats or lunges.
Home health hack
If you’d rather purchase a gadget that could potentially help your achy back and neck muscles, I get you. The Theragun is best described as a power drill for the body. I know a chiropractor who regularly uses this to release tight muscles, and I can verify that it works. It’s expensive, but if you have the money, it’s worth it.
3. Variety is key.
"If a person's working from home, I do like the idea of a standing desk," Daniel says. "I think it gives people a lot of versatility in changing position throughout the day," which he recommends.
If a proper desk just isn't an option due to lack of space — or your significant other, child or roommate has already claimed it — the kitchen table is a better option than the couch or bed, he says. A firm chair promotes use of the torso and allows you to sit upright, without your body being in a low position relative to your hips.
"It's not necessarily that sitting is inherently harmful to our bodies; it's just that our bodies are made to move and that prolonged positions can lead to pain or discomfort," he says.
4. Don't neglect regular exercise.
If you're not scheduling time at the gym to work out, it's way easier to get distracted at home and abandon your good intentions. And being a healthy person means being relatively active, which, among other health benefits, helps with blood pressure management and prevention and management of type 2 diabetes, says Daniel. Most people who have musculoskeletal problems, such as osteoarthritis, or persistent pain issues do better when they exercise regularly, he adds.
"There's a big hormonal influence from exercise and it helps us stay well. The body prepares for the task it must undertake, so if a person's generally sedentary, their body is not being routinely trained for higher stresses," Daniel explains. That's why it's easier for people who typically lead a sedentary lifestyle to develop new musculoskeletal issues in areas such as their knees, hips or ankles when they do something more demanding, like picking up something heavy or taking a long hike, he says.
While individual needs vary, Daniel says most people would benefit from strength training a couple of times a week and 30 minutes of aerobic exercise at least five days a week.
"What we need is frequent activity, often," says Daniel, who suggests using a calendar to keep track of goals, such as doing something good for your body every day, whether that's walking for 30 minutes or drinking two glasses of water after waking up.
When to seek help
For people with no history of back pain or problems, if you start to notice a bit of discomfort, getting up to move more, trying a new work position or adding lumbar support could take care of the issue. People who haven’t had prior back issues but have started to experience serious pain should see a medical professional, Daniel suggests. In Tennessee, patients can see a physical therapist without a physician’s referral for up to six visits or 15 days, at which point the physical therapist will work with the patient’s doctor to determine if more physical therapy is necessary. Or, patients can go straight to their doctor. People who have a history of back problems that experience a flare-up of a long-term issue should seek skilled care, he says.