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How To Work From Home Without Hurting Your Back, Neck Or Anything Else

Posture pros reveal all!

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Martina Paukova
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My friend Dana lives with her twins and husband in a 1,500 square-foot apartment in New York City. It used to be plenty of space. But that was the old days, when everyone went somewhere else to work or learn all day long. (Remember that? I don’t, but I have pictures on my phone that prove I had a normal life in January). By March, Dana found herself trying to lead Zoom conferences with 40 or more people from her bedroom, the only available room with a door that didn’t contain an adolescent or a blaring television. After a few weeks of working from the edge of her bed, Dana noticed something.

“My hips started hurting. It was the strangest thing.”

Dana had twisted herself into a pretzel, literally and figuratively, trying to make this whole working-from-home thing work. And the cost was her posture and alignment, the last thing she had considered when trying to set her family up for this strange new life indoors.

Dana shared this with me over FaceTime. I was lying on the couch in my own home, trying to give my aching lower back a break, holding the phone over my face with one arm, which was being supported by my other arm because both of my shoulders and my wrists have been killing me lately. Two healthy, active, middle-aged women, suddenly popping Aleve and groaning like arthritic, broken souls. We had both fallen victim to the physical dangers of working from home.

I reached out to a few posture pros to see what could be done. Should I purchase a new desk and chair setup? Call in sick until the vaccine becomes available? Or just open a bottle of wine, turn on Netflix and cry? (I already do that pretty much every night). Here’s some of the awesome advice they gave me:

Holly Cinnamon is an Alexander teacher and blogger at teachingpresence. She explained that seeing ourselves and our coworkers as two-dimensional, talking heads on a screen can cause us to lean forward into the screen. “This creates tension in the back of the neck and low back.” She reminds us that the neck has a lot of extra work to do to hold the head up when we lean forward. And who needs extra work right now? (I’m speaking to those of you who are homeschooling and running a restaurant out of your kitchen while holding down a full-time, virtual job.)

Sports chiropractor R. Alexandra Duma works with Team USA and practices out of FICS, a high-tech fitness recovery and wellness studio in New York City. She has three key pieces of advice when it comes to working from home: 1. Have a similar setup as in your workplace. (You know, If your kids and spouse lived in your office.) 2. Take breaks every 30 to 60 minutes. “Set an alarm to remind you to get up,” she says. (Repeat after me: “Alexa, set a timer to get my ass out of this chair in 30 minutes.”) And 3. Avoid working from your couch or bed. (This one’s for you, Dana!)

Brian Peck, M.D., a rheumatologist in Waterbury, Connecticut, is a big fan of placing a small pillow behind the low back for support. But it has to be the right pillow. “If it feels bad, it probably is bad. Don’t persist with a pillow or chair that causes pain just because it’s supposed to be good for your back. Each person’s pain is individual.” (Oh, good. Because I haven’t spent enough time shopping for things on Amazon this month.)

But what about when we aren’t at work? Is there an ergonomic way to chillax on the couch and binge-watch Tiger King with a nice box of wine?

“It’s OK to lounge!” says Cinnamon. “The most important thing is to be free and to move and not be stuck in one particular pattern. Change is good!” She even suggests getting off the couch and sitting on a yoga mat while watching TV. (Finally! A use for my yoga mat!) Duma is also in favor of keeping your “move” on. “Get up and walk in place for every commercial or do some squats or push-ups every time your crush celebrity appears on TV. (OK, I can do some burpees every time I see Lester Holt. … Yes, he is my celebrity crush.)

But all joking aside, there are some important things to look out for. Peck says that weakness or numbness of the legs is a warning sign that should not be ignored. If you are experiencing those symptoms or any severe pain, it might be time to try out telemedicine. You get to see your doctor on the screen (and try to guess if she or he is wearing pants).

And if we already have been doing it wrong for weeks and we’re starting to hurt? Is it too late to get back to our former selves? Or should I just put a straw in that box of wine?

“You aren’t damaged beyond repair,” says Cinnamon. “Pain is just a way that your body is communicating with you, asking you to change some of your behaviors.” Peck advises that we try to (gently) move through the pain, if we can do it without injuring ourselves.

“Get up and dance while you’re on the phone!” Duma agrees. “I cannot stress how important it is to keep moving, get your blood flowing, and lubricate your joints. Turn on your favorite songs and dance. … Home Alone style!”

Ergonomically Correct Working-From-Home Setup

Head: upright aligned with shoulder

Eyes: looking at top third of your screen; raise your laptop if needed (books or a box underneath it)

Elbows: above the desk at 90- to 110-degree angle, letting your forearms rest without raising your shoulders; a pillow under your chair can be used

Shoulders: relaxed, try not to hunch over

Wrists: in line with your forearms

Hips, knees and ankles: at 90 degrees while seated

Feet: on the ground or under a mat

Backrest: a chair with some lumbar support (even a pillow behind your back, if not using an ergonomic chair)

—R. Alexandra Duma