Over 2 years ago we were all asked to stay at home. With schools, offices, gyms and classes closed, and permission to go outside for only one hour of exercise each day, our usual routines were thrown into disarray. Even the most sedentary of us can normally manage at least 3,000 steps in a day, but during the pandemic, most of us were lucky to hit 300.

This was life for at least 8 months over the past two years and although many of us are back in the office a little more and getting back a structured exercise routine, working from home has become a significant part of the new normal. But how has this change and new way of working impacted our posture and risk of musculoskeletal disorders? We chat to Alex Bell from the Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Occupational Health and Ergonomics, a specialist network that works in conjunction with the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists, and Clare Chapman, qualified teacher of the Gokhale Method® to find out.

It’s a historical issue

Back pain is a common condition that affects as many as 7 out of 10 people at some point in their lives. Esther Gokhale, founder of the Gokhale Method®, experienced this herself during her first pregnancy, Clare tells me, which set her on a lifelong crusade to vanquish back pain.

Following years of research in Brazil, Africa, India, Portugal, and elsewhere, Esther developed the Gokhale Method®, a systematic approach to restoring musculoskeletal health that teaches people how to sit, stand, bend, walk, and even sleep, in ways that are therapeutic rather than damaging for the body. The principles and techniques it teaches are based on the posture found in traditional communities around the world, where people, regardless of age, gender, and occupation, share the same highly functional posture and movement patterns. Their bodies often serve them well far into old age, without the back pain and other problems that plague modern cultures. Interestingly, the current body of research indicates that back pain is more prevalent than ever, especially since the pandemic when there was an increase in remote working as, where possible, activities that had been done in-person switched to online platforms. Activity levels in general plummeted in lockdown, while emotional stress and tension rocketed. 

Clare’s own experience with back pain led her to the Gokhale Method® which delivered such transformative results for her, that she went on to learn directly from Esther in California and has been teaching the Gokhale Method® for 12 years. Clare shared some interesting observations on the subject of back pain, “both sitting and activity are important. Both can do damage, or can be done well. The key is knowing how to do both well—both can cause damage, or actually be therapeutic because of the posture used; that knowledge is preserved in traditional societies, but is a wisdom we began to lose across industrialised areas of the globe over a century ago. 

While physical activity is essential to health, the Gokhale Method® also celebrates the fact that sitting is a natural, universal, and important human activity. We would go so far as to say that human civilization requires it. There are many tasks that benefit from the rest, stillness, and mental focus you only get by sitting. Imagine nursing a baby, playing the piano, writing a book, creating pottery, watching a film, eating a meal, or taking a flight, without being able to sit!”

A change in routine

Alex from ACPOHE tells me there has been an increase in Musculoskeletal Disorders over the last few years because no-one was going anywhere and it became common not to move, or move very little. “At the office you’re more likely to get up from your desk more frequently even if it’s to have a quick chat with a colleague, or go up a couple of flights of stairs to a different location for a meeting, whereas when you’re working from home you don’t have that reason; even commuting into the office entailed lots of activity, like walking to the office or catching public transport.”

“A lot of the problems we’re seeing is because of a lack of activity. Another factor, is that people are working in environments that are often not best suited to their needs. At the office, the employer has a responsibility to set you up with a decent desk, a decent chair, but at home, the lucky ones are working from makeshift offices at the kitchen table, whereas those that don’t have any dedicated space to retreat to have had to work from their beds or the sofa. It’s really opened my eyes to inequalities”.

Although some of us are still working from these makeshift workstations, Alex encourages you to make the best with whatever you can do. “If you work on a laptop or PC every day for an hour or more, your employer must protect you from the health and safety risks associated with using this equipment.  This applies whether you are working in the office, at home, or hybrid working.  So, if you are experiencing difficulties working from home, be sure to voice any concerns with your employer so they can assess the risks with you and together you can find some solutions.”

Movement is key

Alex echoes Clare’s earlier comments on movement “research has highlighted the effects static postures can have and the ailments and illnesses that can be linked to it. Sitting bolt upright is just as bad as sitting slumped if you do it for a long period. Just moving in whatever way possible as frequently as possible is best. Try micro movement breaks where you change position, stretch or move around the office at regular intervals rather than getting up every 4-5 hours. At the end of the day, you could be sitting on the best chair in the world but if you’re not moving, it’s not going to help.”

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