How to Make Your WFH Setup Kinder to Your Body: The Ultimate Guide
In the new era of #WFH, home office ergonomics have never been more important. In spite of this, many of us find ourselves slumped on sofas and beds, hunched over our laptops, and doom-scrolling Twitter during our breaks. The percentage of employees working remotely has increased from 11% last year to 60%, and it is estimated that 25-30% of the workforce will still be working from home multiple days a week by the end of 2021. Weeks have turned into months, and we owe it to ourselves to give more than just a passing thought to our working arrangement while we remain at home. With that in mind, below we outline some best practices.
The Best Posture is Your Next Posture
Experts may differ on whether certain postures are worse for you than others, but one thing they all agree on is that movement is incredibly important for maintaining healthy joints. The conveniences of working from home have eliminated much of the need to ever leave our chairs – no water cooler, no desks of colleagues to wander over to for a chat, no ‘stand up’ meetings. As a result, we can end up staying in our chairs for hours at a time without even realising it.
If you remember to, try not to sit for more than 20 to 30 minutes without getting up to walk around. This is where sitting on a hard surface comes in useful. The downside of using a beautifully engineered, suspension mesh chair is that the springiness of the seat doesn’t allow our tissues to give us the feedback that tells us to change position. What this means is that ergonomic office chairs can facilitate sustained pressure on tissues that simply aren’t designed to bear our weight for long periods. Contrast this with a basic wooden or plastic chair which, though less comfortable, encourages us to shift position and move more. You’re also better off not leaning against your backrest. By not using a backrest, you can encourage the supporting muscles of the trunk to engage and reinforce healthy posture habits. If you are blessed with a specially designed office chair, you might want to set reminders for yourself to take breaks to move your body for a couple of minutes.
What about lumbar supports? In his book Deskbound, trainer and physical therapist Kelly Starrett recommends avoiding positioning these in the lumbar spine as this puts the lower back into overextension (too deep a backbend). When we jut our ribs out and overextend into our lower back, we create tension in the lower back and weaken our abdominal muscles by putting them into a passive stretch, and this can make lower back pain worse! Instead he recommends placing it, if you do have one, at the lowest rib which will help keep the muscles in the lower back long and spine neutral.
Do the Twist
In our chair-dominant culture, twisting of the torso is an underused range of motion. If you were to look behind you right now, would you just turn your head, or would you revolve from your mid-back? Many of us don’t move our thoracic spines enough, and movement we don’t use, we lose. If you get knots between the shoulder blades or feel tight in your upper and mid-back, as many of us do, you can incorporate twists into your workday to alleviate this. The following is one exercise that sees a lot of action in our desk yoga classes! You can do this seated, but standing is preferable. To perform these twists, keep your hip bones facing the front and engage your abdominals. Bring the arms into ‘robot’ (that’s ‘bent at 90 degrees, elbows tight to the torso’), and twist gently from side to side. You can use a bit of momentum, and the movement should come from just above the navel. If you have the space, you can extend the arms and tap the back of your shoulder with your opposite hand.
Check in with Yourself
With more time spent indoors and living through our screens, we can lose touch with our bodies and live from the neck up. The challenge is to catch ourselves when we’re in this trance, and once you have, you can do a check-in. Ask yourself, am I in my body? And if so, to what degree? Can you feel sensations arising in your body? Maybe a sensation of warmth or, if you’ve just eaten, fullness. What are you feeling emotionally? What is the rate and depth of your breath? How do your muscles feel? Can you sense how your body is taking up space in the room that you're in? Is there a mental narrative going on? Whatever is arising, see if you can stay present with it without wanting anything to change. Even with more challenging somatic experiences of anxiety, or sadness, or ennui – by leaning into them we can make space for them and allow them to express.
Another more immediate tactic would be to keep a spray bottle of rose or spring water near you and spritz your face to bring yourself back into your body and in touch with your senses, or to keep a tennis ball underneath your desk for rolling out your feet to bring your awareness back into your lower body.
Find the ‘Right Angles’
The central column of the body should form a plumb line, to fend off torsional forces that cause our joints to degenerate prematurely. Intuitively this makes sense – when upright, we are at our most stable and use the least amount of muscular effort when our joints are stacked. Our hips are designed to be weight bearing, so when we position ourselves to support the weight of our upper body over the pelvis, we are using our skeletal structure as it was intended. To be even more precise, we should be sitting on the portion of the pelvis that is designed to bear our weight – the sit bones, rather than on the tailbone. Many of us sit too far back in our chairs which places excess pressure on our thigh bones and hamstrings, making them tighter. Instead, we should try to sit towards the front half of the seat which encourages better posture and weight distribution.
When our shoulders stack neatly over our pelvis, our spine will be in its default ‘S’ shape. The ‘S’ shaped curves of our spine really are an impressive feat of engineering, without which we would not be able to hold ourselves upright – we would still be quadrupeds, walking around on all fours! The ‘S’ curve cleverly absorbs forces much like a spring does, which protects our spinal discs in the lower back from getting squeezed by downward pressure (whether that’s from supporting the weight of our upper body, or from carrying a heavy object). When we round our spines forward into a ‘C’ shape, we no longer have that ability to neutralise those compressive forces, and we place ourselves at risk of disc degeneration, potentially leading to bulging, trapped nerves and herniation.
With your spinal column set, let’s talk arms. Our forearms should be parallel with the floor and elbows by our sides. When we let the elbows ‘wing out’, we bring our upper arms into internal rotation which contracts the fronts of the shoulders, creating tightness there, and weakens the muscles in the upper back by placing them in a prolonged passive stretch. We’re more likely to do this if our keyboard is too far from us or if our table is too high, so make sure the distance allows your elbows to relax comfortably by your sides as you type. Having your forearms parallel to the floor minimises strain on the elbows and wrists, and your table height should support this endeavour.
If you’re working on a laptop and are using the built in keyboard and trackpad, this almost definitely means that your screen will be too low for you. The top edge of our screen should ideally be at our eyeline when we’re sitting in good posture. We have two options to fix this – we can either use an external monitor positioned at the correct height, or we can elevate our laptop using a stand or a stack of sturdy books and use an external mouse and keyboard. When our screens are too low, we tip our heads forward and down. Our heads are heavy, on average weighing about 5 kilos, and when we don’t let our skull stack over our shoulders into that plumb line, we have to exert muscular effort to hold it in place, which places undue stress on our necks.
Finally, we come to the legs. Ideally our feet are flat on the floor when we sit in our chairs. This is not just sound biomechanics, but also has a grounding effect on our nervous system. Having our heels on the floor allows us to distribute some of our weight into our feet and out of the pelvis, which takes pressure off our thigh bones and hamstrings. If you need to, you can place boxes or books under your feet so they can sit flat. Another important consideration is the configuration of the hips. For optimal alignment, the hips should not be flexed more deeply than 90 degrees – that is to say, that the knees should not be any higher than your hips. Shrinking this angle burdens the hip joint and creates unnecessary tension in the front of the hip. Of course, any of these positions would be alright on occasion for limited amounts of time, but when these postures become habit, we stress our joints and tighten our muscles to compensate, allowing patterns of tension to set in. These habitual holding patterns sap us of our energy and can lead to muscular pain if unresolved.
Use Your Glutes
When we’re sitting, our glutes function primarily to stabilise the position of the pelvis and assist the lower back muscles in supporting the lower back. If they don’t pull their weight, the lumbar paraspinals have to work extra hard and fatigue more quickly. Weak glutes and lack of endurance in the lower back muscles create the perfect storm for lower back pain. Unfortunately, sitting for long periods only makes the glutes more passive, but there are steps we can take to lessen the impact. For example, periodically squeezing your glutes activates them and has the added benefit of resetting the position of the thigh bones. You can do this standing, seated, reclined, and whenever you remember. Another pose you’ll see often in our desk yoga classes is a chair-supported backbend, which you can do any time of day to punctuate bouts of sitting. To do this, grip the outer edges of your seat, thumbs pointing forward, walk the feet out in front of you and lift the hips as high as you can into full extension, squeezing your glutes. This is also a brilliant stretch for the fronts of the shoulders and chest and, biomechanically, couldn’t be more removed from the shape our bodies make when seated, so it’s ideal for counteracting the effects of chair-sitting.
The reality is, remote working isn't disappearing any time soon. But with a few tweaks, we can improve our levels of comfort and productivity. If you’re interested in learning about how you can make working remotely better for you and your team, please get in touch with us! We offer virtual yoga classes, desk yoga, posture clinics, WFH self-care classes, and more. Our virtual and in-person classes have connected us with over 100 offices in more than 35 cities around the world. Contact us to find out more.