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FIGHTING FIT

Why you need a back-up plan

Working for long hours from home in makeshift settings can take a toll on your body. Stretching and pilates can ensure a pain-free range of motion.

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Forward Bend (left) and Side Bend (Right). The exercises that Joanne Chong Rodrigues assigns as homework for her students work equally well for sedentary office workers looking to ease their sore backs after a long, WFH day. Ms Chong Rodrigues demonstrates four exercises that should be done twice daily, morning and night, at 10 repetitions apiece.

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Twist (left) and Backward Bend (right). The exercises that Joanne Chong Rodrigues assigns as homework for her students work equally well for sedentary office workers looking to ease their sore backs after a long, WFH day. Ms Chong Rodrigues demonstrates four exercises that should be done twice daily, morning and night, at 10 repetitions apiece.

REMEMBER the crowds that swarmed Ikea before the circuit breaker kicked in on April 7? Apparently, it wasn't just Ikea's famous Swedish meatballs calling to them.

Many shoppers were desperate to get their hands on proper office chairs as their backs were already killing them after a week or two of working from home (WFH). Others were scrambling because the prospect of home-based learning meant that workstations for kids as well as parents had to be quickly set up under the same none-too-large roof.

Says Koh Kai Ling, principal physiotherapist at PhysioMotus which specialises in orthopaedics conditions: "Small living spaces limit the choice of ergonomically designed workstations. I have a client who bought an office chair online as the dining bench gave him backaches. Another client's home has a Japanese theme, so WFH meant sitting cross-legged on the futon and working off a low table."

Even under regular office conditions, sitting for long hours at a workstation can result in a range of complaints from muscle pain in the neck, to lower back pain and sciatica as well as wrist problems like Carpal tunnel syndrome, Ms Koh points out.

WFH, which has seen some people working for longer hours in makeshift home settings, has made things worse. So how can we be kind to our much-abused backs in such circumstances?

The first rule of thumb, Ms Koh says, is to get up and move more. "Set an alarm on your smartphone as a reminder to move at 45-60 minutes intervals. Moving helps circulation, prevents stiffness and engages other parts of the body otherwise laid stagnant while we were too engrossed with our work."

Next, set your sights right. Says Ms Koh: "Our eyes help us to maintain balance and coordination. Give yourself eye-breaks. It not only relaxes our eyes, but also our neck muscles as our eyes send signals to these muscles to help maintain our work posture, and sense of body balance. Anti-glare monitor screens, laptop risers, an additional monitor, and opting for bigger font sizes all help our eyes to relax."

Also fundamental to back health is how we position ourselves when we are working. Ms Koh, who has 22 years of experience as a physiotherapist specialising in orthopaedic manipulation, recommends ticking off this checklist before sitting down to a day at the home office:

  • Ensure that the top of the screen at eye level and place the monitor about 45-90cm from the eyes.
  • Use the table or the armrest to support your elbow and wrist so that your shoulders can be relaxed. Your arm should be bent at a 90-degree angle
  • Use a lumbar cushion or back roll to support the curvature of your back.
  • Set the chair at a height that ensures the hip is higher than the knee when you are seated. The knee should be bent at 90 degrees. The feet should be resting comfortably on the floor.
  • Ensure that there is a 5-8cm space from the back of the knee to the edge of the chair.

Self-awareness is key

Whether at work or at rest, self awareness is key, says Ms Koh. "Listen to what your body tells you: Is your back aching? Are you starting to have a headache from an overly tensed neck? Do you need a shift in posture? Or a quick break to help circulation?"

Regular exercise is another essential ingredient in ensuring a pain-free range of motion. Says Ms Koh: "At least twice a week, for an hour each time, do a regular set of exercises to stretch your muscles and work on your core. Pilates is a good and safe example."

PhysioMotus, Ms Koh's physiotherapy clinic, offers its clients Pilates sessions with clinical Pilates teacher Joanne Chong Rodrigues as a continuum to rehabilitation.

Ms Chong Rodrigues has a special interest in helping people with common back issues such as lower back pain and slipped disc to heal through accessible, thoughtfully sequenced Pilates exercises.

Since the start of the circuit breaker, Ms Chong Rodrigues has taken her Pilates Back Care classes online for clients of The Pilates Works, one of Singapore's most established pilates studios with over 100 classes a week across three studios.

In early morning sessions, Ms Chong Rodrigues takes her working professional students through the paces of a routine that includes the likes of mat work, against-the-wall forearm push ups and psoas releases.

The virtual space, Ms Chong Rodrigues says, has its advantages. "In face-to-face classes, I barely have five minutes with students before class. With Zoom, I can call students up ahead to discuss their specific issues so they can show up for class confident that I am looking out for them."

Forward Bend

Seated on a thick book or yoga block, lift and lengthen your spine, reach your arms forward with your legs slightly bent. Breathing lightly and naturally, lower your head, ensuring a plum-sized distance between chin and chest. Slowly bend forward till half of your spine is in a forward bend shape. Avoid hinging forward. Slowly return to your original position and feel the spine stack on top of each other.

Side Bend

In a seated position, lift and lengthen your spine. Reach one arm up towards the ceiling. Inhale to reach the crown of your head to one side as your spine comes into a side bend. Lift the lower ribs up to avoid crushing the side of the spine. Avoid lifting the opposite hip as you bend. Exhale to return. Repeat on the other side.

Twist

In a seated position, lift and lengthen your spine and fold your arms into a genie position. Inhale to twist towards one side while keeping the sides of the waist long. The arms should be in line with the shoulders or slightly lower. Anchor the sit bones, avoid lifting the opposite hip. Exhale to return. Repeat on the other side.

Backward Bend

Lie on your stomach. Legs are parallel and hip distance apart. Draw your belly button towards your spine to avoid straining your lower back. Place your hands next to your shoulder, palms down.

Inhale to lift the chest off the floor, lengthening the back of the neck while gazing at the floor. Reach the tailbone back towards the heels and point your toes away. Exhale to lower.

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