Two and a half years into the pandemic, work-from-home set-ups are still being cited as a cause for neck and back pain. A mid-August 2022 article in the Irish Times reported that there has been a noticeable increase of people in their 20s and 30s seeking help from physiotherapists to address back pain. A similarly timed article in Fortune stated that the “shift to remote work has aged our bodies by about 10 to 15 years.”
But these pain points—tight lower back, slumped upper back, stiff neck—actually aren’t anything new. “Ever since they invented the couch and people sat on it to watch TV, this has been happening,” says Dr. Andrea Furlan, a physician and senior scientist at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute.
Addressing these issues is about more than just releasing an annoying crick. Good posture is inherently linked to spinal health—something that’s particularly important as we age. “Your posture when you’re in your 70s is not the same as when you’re in your 30s,” says Rochelle Chung, a Toronto-based physiotherapist. “There’s less bone density, you lose water content in your spine, there’s less elasticity, and the ability to resist stress becomes affected.”
The good news? Regular movement and a few daily stretches can help straighten you out.
“Every joint of the spine needs lubrication. And the only way we can increase the lubrication of these joints is by moving around,” says Furlan. “Motion is lotion.” She points specifically to weight-bearing exercise—anything that involves standing and carrying your own body weight, which also helps prevent osteoporosis—as the gold standard. Aim for 150 minutes of weight-bearing movement, which can be as basic as walking, every week.
The spine is divided into three areas: neck, mid back and low back. The spinal twist is a useful exercise for the latter two, says Chung. “Lie on one side with your head on the ground and your arms straight out in front of you. Then open your top arm like a big rainbow, so that you’re twisting your back.” This also helps to open up chest muscles, which, when tight, can pull your upper back forward, creating a hunch. Do five to eight reps, holding for five to 10 seconds per stretch. Repeat on the other side.
“With sitting, there’s a lot of bending forward. So if you go in the opposite direction, that helps alleviate a lot of the stress on the body,” says Chung. A cobra stretch can help. Lie face down on the floor and place your hands under your shoulders. Keeping your neck neutral, looking straight ahead, slowly press down with your arms to lift your chest off the floor. Everything from your pelvis down should stay rooted on the floor. Hold for a few seconds, then return to your starting position. Do 10 reps.
“A lot of people end up poking their head forward when they’re looking at the computer,” says Chung. A chin tuck, which she describes as giving yourself a double chin, helps combat this because it brings your ears on top of your shoulders. Hold for two seconds, then repeat 10 times.
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