Turning the Office Athlete into the Home Olympian!

Over 30 years ago I conducted a series of lectures entitled” The Office Athlete” which discussed how to avoid injuring your spine when working and sitting at your desk at the office.

The drawing done in 1987 epitomised what I thought of the Office Athlete at the time. At that time, 80% of people would suffer low back pain at some stage in their life mostly due to sitting.

Fast forward to today and not only has the workplace changed with more people using standing desks rather than sitting but due to Covid 19 and the prolonged lockdowns we have transitioned to working from home moving from being the Office Athlete to the Home Olympian. Creating good ergonomics at home is just as challenging in preventing postural pain.  

Postural pain refers to pain that occurs to the body after repeated or prolonged stress or load. Take a runner who rolls his ankle. His ankle will swell, become stiff, painful, and difficult to weight-bear. Now if the runner was to stand on the outside border of their ankle (poor posturing) for 6-8 hours they would experience pain, stiffness, swelling and the inability to weight bear i.e., the same symptoms.

In the spine this load usually refers to:

> A slouched, forward bending position in the lower (Lumber) spine

> Rounded Shoulders and a curved or rotated middle (Thoracic) spine

> A chin poking and tilted neck (Cervical) Spine.

The effect is to strain muscles and ligaments and potentially bulge/herniate discs.

Unfortunately, perched on the edge of your bed, slumped, looking down into your laptop for 6-8 hours provides exactly the right environment for postural pain which makes the frustration of being locked up at home even worse.

Other common working from home poor postural positions which cause pain include:

> Lying on your stomach looking at a laptop

> Sitting on a dining room chair with a pillow/cushion behind you (whilst the back support slips from behind you)

> Sitting on the couch with your laptop on the coffee table or worse on your knees

> Holding your phone to your ear propped on a table.

 There are many things you can do to prevent postural pain at home.

1 Bring the office to you

 Many of you have been able to bring home some of your work equipment.

 So, in a perfect ergonomic world.

• Use a PC rather than a laptop. Set it up on a table where you can use an ergonomic chair.

• Better still bring home a Standing or a Sit/Stand desk and change your postural position during the day – remember that the best postural remedy is to keep moving. Good Posture should not be static but dynamic. Hence a sit/stand desk gives you that flexibility to move/ change during the day.

 To those lucky enough to have this equipment remember to maintain your natural curves imagining that from side on, a straight line should run down through your ear, shoulder, and hip. Take a side on selfie to check if this is your position.

Ergonomic chair set up

 You should sit back in the ergonomic chair so that your lower back is always in touch with the chair and that it has a lumbar roll to support your spine in an inward position called a lordosis.

The best ergonomic chair position should be:

• Chair back slightly tilted backwards 10 degrees

• The whole chair tilted forward so that your hands can reach the keyboard whilst still maintain a 10-degree reclined position.

• The Chair elevated so that a third of your body weight is going through your flat legs (or may need a sloping footrest) and that the angle that your elbows make with the keyboard is greater than 90 degrees i.e., a right angle.

• I recommend a high back chair especially for those workers who are in front of the computer for longer than 8 hours per day.

Desk set up

Then setting up your new desk would have:

• Your PC, no more than one arms-length away (you should be able to place your palm on the screen).

• The height of your screen should be at your eye level.

• Your mouse should be no more than a half arm-length away with your wrist in a relatively flat position (not cocked up).  You can use a wrist guard to keep your hand in a neutral position. Could click and collect from Officeworks!

Non-ergonomic chair

If you don’t have an ergonomic chair, then you can turn a standard chair into a better postural chair by:

• Choose a chair with the most enclosed and full backing.

• Choose a chair that has a comfortable seat or get a cushion. Sitting on a hard surface will reduce blood supply to the gluteal muscles leading to increased stiffening and poor control- a factor that can lead to low back pain.

• Roll up a towel, placing rubber bands around it to keep its shape Start with a small roll so that you do not overcompensate and create pain out to the sides of your back. Place the roll just above the beltline to provide support to the lower back. 

D.I.Y sit to stand desk

The humble ironing board makes an ideal sit-to-stand desk. Ensure that the board is stable when you change the height.

If you use another surface, then ensure that the angle that your elbow makes with that surface is greater than 90 degrees.

Ideally change every few hours although if you are experiencing pain then follow the advice of a Physiotherapist.

 Even then you will need to give yourself longer breaks during the day to rest your legs and lower back.

2. Using your laptop

A laptop is the next best thing to a PC. Avoid using your iPhone etc. to work for anything else but short reference periods i.e., 5-10 minutes.

• Set the laptop up on a desk to bring it closer to your eye level to avoid craning your neck forward.

• A Laptop stand allows greater flexibility to put the height of the laptop screen in line with your eyes

• Plug a normal size keyboard and mouse into your laptop

• Ensure that you are more rigorous with restricted hours of sitting 45 minutes max and that you regularly change your posture.

3. The Home Olympian!

Like any good Home Olympian doing exercise is crucial in preventing postural pain.

Obviously taking up your allotted 1 hour of exercise for a walk, run or some outside P.T is an excellent start to keeping your body and mind healthy.

Equally as important is to exercise at the keyboards/ Monitor. Earlier in the Pandemic, in 2020, I sent an exercise program to prevent postural pain called Pause Aerobics. A copy of this is in our blog section of the website – elizabethphysio.com.au

Pause Aerobics

1. POSTURE CORRECTOR – Make a double chin, pull shoulder blades in and down, keep elbows in by side and turn out with palms up. Hold 5 seconds x 3.

2. SHOULDER ROLLS AND SHRUGS x10

3. TRUNK TURNS – Cross arms and turn trunk. Hold 5 seconds x3

4. FINGER FANS – Palm down, spread and lift fingers and hold 5 seconds. Then make a fist hold 5 seconds x 3.

5. WRIST STRETCH – Palm down, curl fingers under your hand, keep elbow straight. Hold 5 seconds x 3

6. NECK STRETCH – Hand behind back. Tilt head away from hand behind back. Use other hand to stretch neck in tilted direction.

Hold 10 seconds x 3

7. BACK STRETCH – Standing, fingers into lower back just above belt level.

Stretch side to side x 5

Circle hips x 5 in both directions

Bend backwards with a gentle stretch – hold 5 seconds x 5

8. MIDDLE SPINE STRETCH – Sitting, hands behind head. Tilt body back over chair. Do not tilt head back. Hold 5 seconds x 3

Call us on 9670 3996 at Elizabeth Street Physiotherapy to help you with all your postural problems from treatment, advice to suggestions regarding ergonomic chairs and desks.

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