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How to avoid injuries while you work from home, according to a physical therapist

Reyna Gobel
Reyna Gobel's basic home fitness center, workspace, and canine co-worker.
Courtesy Reyna Gobel

As a freelance writer who has worked from home for over 10 years, I've always had to think about how my office is set up to maximize productivity and minimize injury, especially after I broke my tailbone in a spin class in 2012. Between taking time off from work, special seat cushions, and two doctor's visits, that one injury cost me $1,500. 

As you may be currently working from home for the first time, you may not realize the ways remote work can lead to unintentional aches and pains. Over the last few weeks, Ray Ednie, owner of Ednie Physical Therapy in New York, says he has seen a big uptick in clients with newfound neck and hip injuries from prolonged sitting and bad ergonomics. 

And with gyms closed and all manner of virtual exercise classes available right now, you run the risk of potentially getting hurt trying something new while working out at home, too.

Four sessions with someone like Ednie can range from $200 to $500 total, depending on the length of the appointments and what your insurance covers. 

Here's what he and Elisabeth Halfpapp, the co-founder of fitness company CoreBarreFit, suggest you can do to reduce any potentially expensive injuries from working, and working out, at home.

1. Consider ergonomics when setting up your workstation

A desktop computer is more ergonomic than a laptop. That's because you're more likely to have your screen at eye level and your keyboard at a height where your arms can be straight and not slanted up or down.

You don't need to purchase any additional tools to mimic the desktop setup you might have in an office. Ednie says you can simply pop up your laptop with books or magazines and use a wireless keyboard. Keep other items like your phone or Post-It notes close enough that you don't need to stretch to reach them.

2. Work in your kitchen

You don't need to shell out for a standing desk. Depending on how much space you have to maneuver, Ednie says a kitchen counter can be a makeshift standing desk, and a dining table can host your normal desktop activities.

Choose a chair where your feet can be flat, your knees aren't below your hips, and you have back support. Logging work hours on your bed or on the couch means you're not getting proper back support, and that can lead to real and costly issues down the line.

Reyna Gobel's ergonomic kitchen office setup.
Courtesy Reyna Gobel

3. Make time to stretch and breathe

Every 30 minutes, or whenever you start to feel stiff or stressed, take a moment to stretch or adjust to a different position. At home, you can reset your body doing something as simple as lying on your back on the floor for a moment.

Ednie also recommends practicing diaphragmatic breathing. Breathe in through your nose. Then breathe all the way out until your tummy touches your spine when your sitting or standing posture seems off-balance. 

4. Don't spring for an expensive at-home gym

Easy movements like rolling your shoulders back and down whenever you feel your alignment is off can help in everything from work ergonomics to shoulder presses, says Halfpapp, who's also an instructor specializing in barre fitness.

The basic components of a health fitness routine are cardio, strength, and flexibility. A few pieces of equipment, like a small set of weights and exercise bands that you can purchase for under $50, should be enough for an operational home gym. No expensive gadgets needed. 

VIDEO3:4103:41
5 tips for working from home

Video by Jason Armesto

5. Use your existing gym membership

Before you go off and try something completely different in your new workout environment, Halfpapp says the easiest way to avoid injury, and save, is to work out with an instructor you're familiar with or do a type of exercise you've done repeatedly. If you already belong to a gym, for example, continue to utilize your membership: See if your favorite instructors are providing familiar classes you can do from home.

6. Be attuned to how you feel

As you work out, or even as you work at your desk, check in with yourself. If you feel any sharp, shooting, or radiating pain, Halfpapp says, stop and adjust immediately.

Don't return to the same workout or position until you understand what is causing the problem. And if you want to try a new workout, make sure that you go for the lowest level, or one that teaches steps or movements one at a time. Go slow. And when you watch a screen during your workout, make sure it is at eye level.

Proceed into a routine only when you aren't feeling any signs of pain and when you feel confident in your posture.

Reyna Gobel, M.B.A. and M.J., is a financial and physical fitness journalist, author and professional speaker who's been quoted by Money Magazine, Real Simple, and The Washington Post. She's been published on reuters.com, weightwatchers.com, and theatlantic.com.

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