If watching Netflix for hours makes me feel like a couch potato, then working from home has turned me into a bent French fry. Our ergonomic chairs and properly heightened desks have been replaced with the dining room table or, worse, the couch or bed—and it’s affecting our posture.
In 2019, the research journal Work published a study on how working in makeshift offices affects neck and shoulder posture, muscle activity and perceived pain. Twenty participants were separated into three groups, assigned to a table, sofa or bed, and told to type and click for 10 minutes. Neck pain was the complaint of those on sofas and beds, due to significantly greater neck flexion—the movement of lowering your chin to your chest. Shoulder flexion—moving your arms from a resting position—was greatest at the low-height table, and unsurprisingly, those test subjects reported the most upper back pain. These results were after 10 minutes: Imagine what happens to our bodies when we work for hours in the same position.
Since home offices will be the norm for at least a few more months, here’s what you need to know to improve your posture, now.
Slumpers and slouchers
Even if you start your workday sitting up straight, “if you stay there for too long, eventually those muscles get tired and they begin to sag a little bit,” says Dr. Cassandra Laleye, a chiropractor at the Health Institute in Toronto. “So your shoulders start to go forward, your upper back starts to get a little bit more of a curve.” Working on a laptop that’s not at eye level causes your neck to move forward, and you end up looking down.
She recommends using shoe boxes or textbooks to lift your laptop high enough to look straight forward. Don’t raise your arms, though—instead, get a wireless or plug-in keyboard that can stay on the table. If your chair is too low, put a
pillow or couch cushion underneath you. To improve lower back support, place a rolled up towel at the base of your seat.
Smartphone use affects your posture too: A 2016 study in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science found that concentrating on a relatively small screen, especially for long periods of time, causes poorer forward head posture and a “lower scapular index,” or rounded shoulders. There’s even a term amongst healthcare professionals for consequences on the neck due to technology use: “Text neck” or “tech neck,” caused by prolonged forward and downward positions.
“I think that was definitely common before COVID but it’s increasingly common now,” says Amber Harper, a massage therapist in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.
Laleye recommends bringing your phone up to eye level. If you are standing up, use your opposite hand to support under the arm holding your phone. If you’re scrolling lying down, bring your phone up to eye level (be careful not to drop your phone onto your face in the middle of an Instagram reel).
But I have Zoom meetings all day
“Your back and neck don’t like one position for too long,” says Fadi Salama, owner and physiotherapist at Revive Physiotherapy and Wellness in Ottawa. He advises clients to set a timer that goes off every 30 minutes. “You’re gonna get a cue to get up, grab a drink of water, do a quick stretch and then come back to your setup.”
You might also consider a new bra: If yours rides up in the back, the straps dig into your shoulders or your breasts fill over the cup or underarm area, it doesn’t fit properly. “You can literally see people who have worn a bra that hasn’t fit for years and they have an indent from the top of their shoulders,” says Laleye. A bra that is too tight in the straps can cause pain in the top of your shoulders; if it’s too tight around your torso, you can get rib and upper back pain. (Here’s a guide to buying a bra online that actually fits.)
Laleye recommends her patients get up every 45 minutes to an hour, for a minimum of five minutes. “Think about having a string attached to the top of your head. You wanna take that string and pull it up,” says Laleye. Opening your chest, rolling your shoulders back and ensuring your ears are directly above your shoulders can subtly adjust your posture during video meetings. To help with eye strain from staring at a screen for too long, says Laleye, use the 20-20 Rule: For every 20 minutes looking at a screen, spend 20 seconds looking away.
Fixing your posture at home doesn’t have to be expensive. “Using your furniture to your advantage is a lot better than going out and buying 20 different things,” says Manpreet Saini, a chiropractor at Riverview Chiropractic in Winnipeg. Lacrosse or tennis balls can be used as pressure point balls by putting them in a sock, lying down, and rolling them around between your shoulder blades to work out trigger points. “I use my dog’s tennis ball and it does the trick for me,” says Saini.
If you work out already, integrate some moves that will help with posture. According to Salama, engaging your core is step one to stabilize the spine to prevent any injury with movement. He recommends front and side planks (with your knees bent if you’re a beginner), held for 15 to 30 seconds, for five sets.
Some easy stretches
Salama recommends spreading these exercises over a workday to avoid fatigue.
Dead bug: On your back, flatten your belly button towards the ground, with arms outstretched above with knees raised at 90 degrees, and hold for 10 to 15 seconds for three to five sets.
Superman: Lay on your front with arms and legs outstretched straight, as if you were Superman flying, and alternate lifting opposite arms and legs.
Scapula retractors a.k.a. scaptor tractors: An at-home version of a row. Tie a resistance band around the handle of a closed door and hold it with both hands, pulling towards your chest, elbows tight and squeezing your shoulder blades together.
Y and W on the wall: Standing with your back against a wall, touch the pinky side of your hands against it. Keeping your elbows in towards your chest, push your pinkies into the wall and then move up the wall in a Y or W position, for 10 repetitions in five sets.
Doorway stretch: Put your hands on either side of a door and take a step forward, and an interior neck stretch, where you put your hands just underneath your collarbone, put a little bit of downward pressure and look all the way up.
Cat/cow: On hands and knees, round your spine towards the ceiling then drop down into extension and round the belly towards the ground, says Harper.
Arm circles: Lay on one side, with your arms and knees outstretched at 90 degrees, and open your hands by bringing your top hand over your body all the way to the other side of you towards the floor. “We get a lot of thoracic spinal rotation which is kind of what we’re going for,” says Harper.
Pendulum: Grab a can of soup for this shoulder exercise. Hold a can with the arm that has shoulder tension and let it hang, using gravity, while your opposite hand rests on a desk. “Not a very big movement, but that light stretch helps to offload any tension in the shoulder,” says Salama.
This story has been edited to update Manpreet Saini’s place of work, and correct the name of the exercise “dead bug.”