How Spending More Time at Home Affects Our Posture

woman rubbing neck while sitting at desk

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In light of a global pandemic causing people to spend more time working from home, the quality of people's postures has declined. Whether it's easier access to sitting on a couch, hunching on a chair, or staring at screens, many of our bodies are feeling the results of poor posture on a day-to-day basis. 

Many people were required to start working from home without having a proper setup to support their posture. Some people had to start working at their coffee or kitchen table using surfaces and chairs that weren't ergonomically optimized. After even a few days, musculoskeletal issues can start to arise, leading to pain and discomfort.

Researchers conclude that more time spent at home leads to an increased risk of musculoskeletal problems affecting the spine in particular. Adjustments to your work from home environment and addressing your pain issues can help reduce your risk of pain and discomfort, helping improve your productivity at work and your satisfaction with work from home life.

How Working From Home Affects Posture

A 2020 study revealed that musculoskeletal disorders, including low back pain and neck pain, increased dramatically due to working from home. Low back pain was experienced by 41.2 percent of home workers, and neck pain by 23.5 percent. As time progressed, neck pain worsened in half of home workers while low back pain got worse for 52 percent.

Proper sitting posture is vital, yet many people are unaware or unable to set themselves up for a healthy seated position. Whether you lack the appropriate furniture or have slipped into bad habits, your posture will pay the price. For example, sitting to one side, propping up your chin, or slumping can affect your body's balance, creating an imbalanced posture.

These imbalances can lead to chronic conditions, including anomalies in your neck and back discs, shoulder muscle issues, headaches, and mental problems. Poor seated position can also lead to backache and dysfunction and increase your risk of nerve issues.

Constantly working with your arms in front of you puts force on the joints of your neck and lower back (thoracic and lumbosacral joints). Over time, this can lead to upper cross syndrome (UCS), a common condition affecting the neck, chest, and shoulders muscles.

With UCS, these muscles become stretched and tightened, especially those of the upper trapezius and levator scapula—your neck, and upper back and shoulder muscles. The muscles in the front of your body, including your chest, start to tighten and shorten. When this happens, all of the supporting muscles begin to weaken. Overstressed muscles of the back body and the underused muscles develop an X shape.

Symptoms of Poor Posture and Upper Cross Syndrome

Poor posture and upper cross syndrome can cause a wide range of painful symptoms and functional issues, such as:

  • Headaches
  • Neck strains and pain
  • Lower back tightness and pain
  • Upper back and shoulder pain
  • Pain in your ribs
  • Upper arm numbness or tingling
  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Jaw clenching in pain
  • Mental and physical fatigue
  • Limited mobility in your neck and shoulders

How to Set Up Your Work From Home Space

With some tweaks and proper equipment, you can set yourself up for success while working from home. Follow these tips for setting up your work from home space.

  • Make sure your feet can rest flat on the floor.
  • Do not work with your laptop on your lap or in any position where you are forced to look down at the screen.
  • The top of your computer monitor should be at eye level. Use a desk riser if necessary. If this makes typing on a laptop awkward, purchase a separate keyboard to use at a slightly lower level.
  • Your monitor should be at approximately arm’s length.
  • The back of your seat should touch you when you are seated. If not, support yourself with pillows placed vertically behind your spine or supporting behind your lower back.
  • Your chair should provide support for your lumbar spine, have armrests for your elbows, and be adjustable so you can position the height of the chair according to your body proportions.
  • Raising your chair to position your hips slightly above your knees can help limit the pressure placed on your lower back.
  • Try using a stand-up desk and switch between a proper seated position and standing throughout the day. Also, incorporate breaks to stretch or move around every 60 minutes or so.
  • When standing, ensure that your head, neck, torso, and legs (your posterior chain) are stacked (or aligned).

If possible, build or buy a treadmill desk so you can walk while working on the computer or watching TV. Keep in mind that it's still important to follow the tips for optimizing your posture while using a treadmill desk.

How Being Sedentary Affects Posture

It isn't just our working from home setup that affects posture. The tendency to be more sedentary due to home confinement also impacts our physical health. Research shows that increased inactivity from bed rest, reduced steps, and sitting with one arm suspended when using a device leads to muscle wasting that can be detected within only two days of inactivity. This muscle loss leads to neuromuscular damage and loss of proper muscle functioning, as well as inflammation.

Increased sitting can lead to reduced mobility in your spine. Research shows that if you spend more than seven hours a day sitting or get less than 150 minutes a week of physical activity, your neck and spine pay the price with increased pain and reduced ability to move normally. These effects are also seen in your shoulders and elbows. In fact, the research shows that sitting without a break for even one hour leads to increased spinal stiffness.

Tips For Improving Posture

The number one tip for improving your posture is to make sure you get up and move throughout the day. Even if your lifestyle doesn't support a full exercise routine right now, you can still incorporate movement into your day by getting up and taking breaks. Moving throughout your day is an excellent first step you can make toward preventing and reducing muscle pain and stiffness and improving your posture.

The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend moving more and sitting less throughout the day, with some physical activity being better than none. The guidelines recommend at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) to 300 minutes (5 hours) of moderate-intensity activity each week, or 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) to 150 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity or a combination of the two ideally spread throughout the week.

Even more health benefits are obtained by going beyond 300 minutes of physical activity each week.

Taking walking breaks to break up inactivity throughout the day helps combat the negative health effects of sitting too long. Try walking for 15 minutes after each meal, or set timers to break up periods of sitting.

On top of getting more movement in throughout the day, adults should participate in muscle-strengthening activities for all major muscle groups on two or more days each week. Strength training helps mitigate the effects of the muscle loss seen from a sedentary lifestyle and helps to strengthen the muscles that become weak over time as we sit. 

Stretching and mobility work are also critical for releasing muscle tension due to tightened stressed muscles, especially those in the chest. Mobility work also helps to improve joint function and increase stability to support your spine and neck. 

Here are some actionable tips to improve your posture:

A Word From Verywell

Increased time spent at home has affected most of us in one way or another. The negative effects that a sedentary lifestyle has had on our posture can lead to pain and discomfort. With the right set-up and action plan to increase movement, build strength, and reduce sitting, these effects can be prevented.

For any pain or stiffness that doesn't go away after two to three days, you should refer to a physical therapist or doctor for examination. If any soreness worsens or is becoming quite painful, get care right away as putting it off can create further dysfunction. 

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