Orthopedic Implications of Working from Home

March 31, 2021

It has been over a year that many people have been working from home. Someone who may have walked 7000 steps a day getting from their car to the office, walking around at work, and then back to the car and home, now only has to travel 15 steps from their bed to their desk. Endless Zoom calls mean sitting still for hours. Boredom and stress alter eating habits. After a year of such behavior, it is not surprising that this lifestyle change is having an impact on health and wellness.

The mental health aspect of COVID lockdowns has been much discussed. However, there has also been a substantial impact on musculoskeletal health when behaviors changed this drastically literally overnight. Some studies have found a decrease in the number of motor vehicle accidents. For example, one trauma center reported a 70% reduction in traumatic injuries during a period of “stay at home” orders. There have been decreased numbers pediatric fractures, with less sports related injuries in children, but an increased number of injuries occurring at home or on bicycles.

The biggest lifestyle impact of COVID 19 restrictions may be on activity level. In one on-line survey, daily sitting time increased from 5 to 8 hrs per day during the last year. A study of college students found a 30 % decrease in those getting 30 min of exercise per day compared to before the pandemic. In the same group, caloric intake had increased by 20% for women. Limited access to restaurants has improved heathy eating habits for some. But studies have found weight gain in 27% of people overall, and those numbers are higher for those who are overweight.

The consequences of a year of being less physically active, spending more time sitting at a computer at home, and gaining weight are just beginning to be seen. Back and neck pain are common complaints, likely related in to non ergonomic design of many home office spaces, decreased physical activity, and weight gain. Pain in knees and hips is also a common complaint. Chronic decrease in exercise levels can make the pain from arthritis worse, as can weight gain. Overuse injuries are also occurring as some people resume going to the gym and exercising and find that they their prior exercise routine is now strenuous.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the world will never go back to being exactly how it was prior to March 2020. Many more people will work from home in the future. Some people will choose not to return to gyms or crowded places. Everyone is spending more time at home, even if you do not work remotely. How to adapt to this new reality?

Some suggestions: – If working from home, get up and walk or stretch every hour or between meetings. Use your phone, watch, or Fitbit to keep track of how many steps you take per day and make an effort to increase it. Make sure to schedule a lunch break and use that time for a quick walk outside. If you are retired or not working, make a schedule that includes dedicated time for some exercise or stretching. Try to reduce the amount of time you spend on electronic devices. Is your chair supportive? Is your desk at the right height? Are you answering emails from bed on your phone? Try to improve the ergonomics of your home office. If your back, neck, knees, hips or other joints have begun to ache, consider talking to your doctor. Sometimes a few visits to a physical therapist can help you find exercises that you can do safely even if you have arthritis or joint pain. Yoga and stretching can benefit both your body and your mind. Use an app to keep track of what you eat and calculate the calories you need based on your current activity levels, not on those from a year ago. If you are less active, you should also be eating less.

The past year has been challenging for everyone. There have been so many unintended and unforeseen consequences of social distancing and stay at home orders. We all need to try hard to ensure our personal health and wellness does not become negatively impacted as well.