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Working from home: Six of the best exercises for stiff necks, backs & hips


As we adjust to life during Covid-19 and the restrictions this brings on travel and social distancing, one of the most significant changes for many is the need to now work from home. In April this year, figures from the UK's Office for National Statistics showed that 49.2% of adults in employment were working from home - many who had never done so before.

This new WFH routine undoubtedly has it's benefits, from an extra hour in bed in place of the morning commute, to unlimited trips to the fridge (free from the judgemental gazes of our colleagues).


But there can also be obstacles to overcome, including the aches and pains associated with sitting at our desks for too long. Away from the office environment, with nobody to get up and chat with, WFH often means we're seated for more extended periods - increasing the likelihood of us becoming stiff and sore.

Are you sitting too comfortably?


So how can we ensure we're avoiding the discomfort that comes with WFH? Before getting into any specifics, I have to be clear - if you stay sitting in the same position for too long, you're going to become stiff. It doesn't matter what fancy office chair or ergonomically superior keyboard you've invested in, the message is the same: 'Your next posture is your best posture.'


Our bodies weren't designed to sit in front of a computer for eight hours straight. They want to move and shift and stretch whenever they can. In an ideal world, we'd be getting up from our desks at least every 20 minutes, whether to make a cup of tea, to get some fresh air, or to do twenty squats on the spot.


But in the age of conference calls and endless Zoom meetings (Zoom has increased their daily users from 10m to 200m in the space of three months), this twenty-minute rule is an impossible task for most.


The following exercises focus on preventing and alleviating the most common complaints associated with desk-based work: neck-shoulder pain, lower back irritation, and hip flexor stiffness.




Chin Retractions


When we sit looking at a screen for too long, it's easy to fall into the 'poking chin' head position. Cervical retractions aren't the most flattering of exercise (oh hello double chin), but they work on stabilising and strengthening the extensors and deep flexors of the neck, improving the resting posture of the head over the trunk.


To perform this exercise:

Start in a seated position, sitting upright with shoulders back but relaxed.


Pull your chin in towards you, so you create that lovely double chin effect. Keep your eyes and chin level as you pull back, and try not to move anything other than your head.


Hold for a second or two and release. Repeat for ten.


If you find the exercise difficult, try it lying down with a small towel under your neck - this gives you something to push against and helps isolate the movement.

Too easy? If you have a resistance band, place it around the back of the head, and repeat the exercise, pulling back against the resistance. You can see a video of what I mean here.





Shrugs


One of the most common complaints I hear of from clients is that of tight, painful upper traps. The trapezius is a large, diamond-shaped muscle running from the back of the neck to the middle of the spine, and along the tops of the shoulder blades.


It's an important postural muscle, and after hours hunched over a keyboard, it unsurprisingly becomes tired, achy and fatigued. So keeping it strong and getting some blood pumping to the area is generally a good idea. The shrug, among others, has been shown to target the upper traps in particular - one of the areas most prone to pain in desk-based workers.


To perform this exercise:


Start in a standing position, with feet facing forward and hip-width apart. Arms should be by your side, with shoulders back, head neutral, and relaxed.


Use dumbbells if you feel comfortable to do so, but start light. You can always increase the weight as you get stronger.


With arms by your side and palms facing in, slowly raise your shoulders as high towards your ears as you can.


Slowly lower back down to the starting position, and repeat at least ten times. Work up to 3 sets of 10, increasing the weight to one that is challenging, but doable.




Cat / Cow


Your thoracic spine (the middle part), naturally has less mobility than the cervical and lumbar regions. But staying in one position for a long time (like when we sit at our desks) can reduce mobility even more, and create pain and tension in the area.


The cat/cow exercise helps mobilise the entire spine, with an emphasis on the thoracic region. It should feel like a good stretch in both directions, but if you have any pain, ease off or stop altogether.


To perform this exercise:

Start on your hands and knees, with hands under shoulders and knees under hips. Spine should be long and flat (referred to as tabletop position).


From this starting point, round your whole spine, including your neck, until you reach position A. Hold for a couple of seconds.


From this rounded position, arch the spine so that you reach the extended position B, again holding for a few seconds. Repeat 8-10 times, or as many times as you feel comfortable.









Bridges


One of the most versatile exercises, the bridge is especially useful for desk workers and those who sit for long periods. In this seated position, the hip flexor muscles become short and tight, and the glutes and hamstrings sluggish.


The bridge activates these hip extensor muscles and opens up the front of the pelvis, giving the hip flexors a well needed stretch. The exercise also promotes stability of the trunk muscles, helping with any low back stiffness that might also have cropped up.


To perform this exercise:


Start on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Hands should be at your sides, lower back pressed into the floor.


Slowly raise your hips until they are in line with your knees, squeezing your glutes as you go.


Hold for two, then slowly come back to the starting position, one vertebra at a time.


Repeat 10-12 times, or as many as you feel comfortable.


Tips:

  • Avoid bringing the hips too high, as this may irritate the lower back.

  • Keep both hips level all the way up and down - don't let one side do all the work.

  • Press into the heels as you come up - this ensures your glutes and hamstrings are working harder.


Want more of a challenge? Try the single leg bridge.


Repeat the same steps as before, raising the hips so they are in line with the knees.


From this position, bring the left foot off the floor, straightening the leg out in front. Make sure the hips remain level.


Hold for a second or two before returning the foot to the ground, then lower the hips to the floor.


Repeat on each side 10 -12 times or for as many reps as is comfortable for you.




Bird dogs


Another all-rounder, this exercise simultaneously strengthens and lengthens, working the shoulders, core, and glutes. It's great for waking up the posterior chain and helps build stability in those all-important postural muscles. The focus should be on control rather than speed.


To perform this exercise:


Start on all fours in table top position to begin. Hands should be directly underneath the shoulders and knees hip-width apart.

Slowly reach your left arm straight out in front of you, and at the same time, lift your right leg straight out behind you.


Your arm, trunk and leg should all be aligned and parallel to the floor, without any arching/rounding of the back or rotation of the hips.

Gently return the arm and leg to the starting position and repeat on the opposite side.


Try working up to a set of 10-15 on each side.


Too easy? Ankle weights and/or small dumbbells will add load to this exercise if you want to work a bit harder. Just make sure you've got your form perfected before you think about adding any load.




Calf raises


Last but by no means least, the humble calf raise. A simple, do-it-anywhere exercise that not only strengthens, you guessed it, the calf muscles, but can aid with circulation in both the short and long term.


The calf consists of two main muscles - the gastrocnemius and soleus. The soleus is deep to the gastrocnemius and has been dubbed 'the second heart' for its ability to help pump blood back up from the legs and feet. When we're sat all day these muscles won't be working particularly hard, so it's important to include some calf strengthening when we do get the chance to move.


Two calf raise variations target the primary muscles separately: the straight knee and the bent knee raise. The straight-knee calf raise targets the gastrocnemius, while the bent-knee raise targets the deep soleus.


To perform the straight knee calf raise:

Stand tall, feet firmly on the floor. Have a chair or something sturdy nearby in case you need to get your balance.


Slowly lift both heels off the floor so you come onto your tip-toes, or as high as you can go. Try to push up evenly across the entire ball of your foot.


Slowly return heels to the floor and repeat at least ten times.


Try adding some load to the movement by holding dumbbells in both hands. You can also work up to single-leg raises when you feel steady and strong enough to do so.




For the bent knee calf raise:


Stand in front of a chair or have something sturdy nearby to hold on to if needed.


Bend the knees so they are in line with toes. Keep your head up and back straight.


Keeping the knees bent, slowly lift both heels off the floor so you come onto your tip-toes, or as high as you can go. Try to push evenly across the entire ball of your foot as before.

Slowly return heels to the floor and repeat at least ten times.


Again these can be done as a single-leg exercise or with added weights for progression.




Try Your Best


Whether you choose to incorporate these exercises into your daily routine, or you try a couple of them now and again, the important message to take away is the need to get some movement into your day, whatever that looks like for you.


If you have any questions or want further advice on any of the above, feel free to get in touch!