Even though lockdown restrictions have largely lifted, a lot of people are still working from home and doing living room yoga in lieu of the gym. And even if you're making time to move throughout the day, you might find yourself uncharacteristically sore. If the last few months have left you perpetually achy, it has to do with more than the lack of movement, and there are some easy ways to deal with the stiff muscles caused by pandemic stress.
"If you’re working from home, spending more time inside, or aren’t sleeping well due to stress, this can place you at risk for a significant back or neck pain episode," Dr. Mona Zall, D.O., a physical medicine and rehabilitation physician at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute, tells Bustle.
How To Sit While WFH To Prevent Achiness
Even if your couch is the comfiest spot in your apartment, the way you sit while you WFH can be a major source of muscular grief. "Sitting while looking down at a device on your lap can bring on some severe neck pain and strain," she says. "If sitting at a desk with an appropriate, ergonomic-friendly chair is out of the question, try to get as close to this scenario as possible." She suggests using a table and chair, with both feet planted on the ground in front of you, and focusing on your posture. "Good posture involves the alignment of the spine over the pelvis," she says. Be mindful to sit on your sits-bones, not your tailbone, with your chest facing up and out for some relief.
You probably know this, but it bears repeating: regular breaks from sitting down help. Dr. Zall recommends getting up every 30 minutes as a baseline, but you can tailor that interval to your body's needs. "Assess when your aches start to increase, then set a timer for 10 minutes before that," Elizabeth Lombardo Ph.D., a psychologist and physical therapist who is a spokesperson for Voltaren, tells Bustle. She recommends moving around in any way you want for a few minutes, whether it's stretches, jumping, or marching in place (though be careful the Zoom camera is off first).
Exercises Can Help With Feeling Stiff
When you can fit in exercise, focus on movements that will limber up your spine and muscles, like Pilates or core exercises. "Think of your abs as the bodyguards for your spine," Dr. Zall says. "Though stretching your muscles can be beneficial to your spine, one of the best ways to reinforce and protect it from future injury is to focus on strengthening your core and abdominal muscles." She recommends crunches and plank exercises — which require zero equipment except a floor. Follow along with an expert online, or have somebody in your quarantine bubble check your form if you're a newbie. Strength training (with or without dumbbells) can also help make your back and spine stronger. If you can't fit in a brief workout, Lombardo recommends warming up your muscles with stretches focusing on the neck and hips, for at least 30 seconds per stretch.
Handling Stress Can Reduce Your Aches, Too
Even if you're fitting movement into your day — doing crunches, dancing to Lizzo, working your biceps while you knead sourdough — you might not feel like the spring chicken you were in February. "Many people tend to carry stress in their muscles," Dr. Neel Anand M.D., professor of orthopedic surgery at Cedars-Sinai Spine Center, tells Bustle. "When we are anxious or worried, our body's physiological response is to tense up. And these are arguably some of the most stressful times of our lives." He recommends looking into things that calm you down and relax your muscles, including mindfulness meditation, deep breathing techniques, or yoga. "You may initially find the practice of quieting your mind awkward or strange, but many people see lasting and positive benefits — including a reduction in neck and back pain," he says.
Sleep problems might be making you stiff, too. If you're sleeping badly because of stress, Lombardo says, you might have difficulty focusing and feel achy the next day. This can set up a negative cycle: stress-induced muscle pain can keep you up at night, limiting your sleep, and giving you a literal pain in the neck the next day. Meditation before bed might help, as might getting some supportive pillows for your neck.
"The good news is that by making just a few minor adjustments to your daily routine, you can have a positive, lasting impact on your spine," Dr. Zall says.
Dr. Neel Anand M.D.
Elizabeth Lombardo Ph.D.
Dr. Mona Zall D.O.