Is your desk job compromising your musculoskeletal health? – 7 simple things to help you stay healthy

Why am I blogging about musculoskeletal health? Because it has become acutely apparent to me that this is fundamental to my wellbeing.  I have spent most of my adult life working in an office, sitting at a desk, typing on a keyboard.  Over the years I have suffered from occasional back pain but these episodes have been resolved fairly quickly.  In March of 2017 I suffered a period of acute pain and discomfort and visited my osteopath.  The pain not only affected my back but also caused a pain down my right leg and affected my ability to lift up my foot.  I developed a limp!  I have always considered myself to be reasonably fit and healthy but as I passed my 50th birthday it seemed that my body had decided it was time to make very apparent the results of the bad habits I had developed over the years.

To be honest I think what tipped things over the edge was a very busy time at work with long hours at the desk followed by 2 longhaul flights.  I also spent virtually a whole day in a small plane flying around Uganda, followed by a challenging trek to look for gorilla’s and my body said enough was enough!

My osteopath, Andrew Goldspink (Egham Osteopathic Practice) warned me that recovery was going to take some time and I needed to move more and strengthen my core (stomach) muscles that have become lazy after years of relying on my chair rather than my stomach muscles to keep me upright when sitting down.  My lower spine had become compacted as a result sitting for hours and hours and hours and now I was showing signs of nerve damage. This was scary.

The musculoskeletal system like all other systems that make up our body is incredibly complex.  It contains an interconnected network of bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments that make up the framework of our body and literally hold everything together and enable us to move effectively and support balance, co-ordination, muscular endurance as well as providing the foundations of our physical and mental health in general.  Our physical and psychological health is intertwined, if we cannot move effectively this starts to impact on our ability to care for ourselves and our dependants, this can contribute to feelings of low self esteem, and lead to more severe mental health issues.

Musculoskeletal issues have a huge impact, 1 in 8 people report having an MSK issue, and in 2013 in the UK 30.6 million days of absence were attributed to MSK problems.

Whilst of course individuals can get injuries resulting from active work in construction, building and other manual jobs I am writing to draw attention to the less obvious danger office workers face by sitting for prolonged periods at a desk. Our bodies were designed to move and sitting still with all our body weight static on our spine our muscles start to weaken.  Muscles that should be working don’t and others that shouldn’t be start taking up the slack to try and keep us going causing imbalances that increase over time.  Consequently, I have experienced incredibly tight leg muscles as my body tried to compensate for the lack of strength in my stomach.  Sounds strange?  You would be surprised how intricately linked our muscles in one part of our body are linked to another.

I have made a reasonably good recovery but I still have back niggles and I am not complacent about how easy it is to slip back into old habits.

I walk every lunchtime for at least 20 mins, I swim 3- 5 times a week, I attend both a pilates and yoga class once a week and also do a few exercise at home each day.  I need to get better at taking more breaks at my desk and know that sitting whether at work, in the car or at home still takes up too much of my time.  I have regular maintenance appointments with my Osteopath and have also found sport massages really helpful in helping to manage tight muscles.

 What can you do to maintain good musculoskeletal health?

  1. Move more

The current government guidelines recommend that adults aged 19-64 should try to be active daily and should do:

  • at least 10-15 minutes of moderate activity a day such as cycling or brisk walking every week, something that works up a bit of sweat and elevates the heart rate.
  • strength exercises on two or more days a week that work all the major muscles (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms)

That’s a minimum and it’s better to spread the exercise across several days rather than doing one long session.  Before embarking on any new strenuous exercise regime it’s worth getting advice from a osteopath or physiotherapist to get  advice on what’s suitable for you, everyone’s different and what you don’t want to do is exacerbate existing problems or injure yourself and dampen your enthusiasm.

  1. Move often

Sitting in a static position for too long is a big part of the problem it is generally agreed that office workers using PCs should spend about 10 minutes of every hour breaking; and that ideally these 10 minutes should be spread throughout the hour. Research has shown that its best to break every 20 minutes, a 2-3 minute break every 20 minutes would be the ideal. This may not be practical for many of us but it does give us an idea of what we should be working towards. And for those with aches and pains, diligent breaking of this order will go a long way towards reducing exacerbation of problems. Don’t feel bad either as taking brief regular breaks will improve your productivity.

  • Design breaks into your day
  • Drink plenty of water or herbal tea to keep hydrated which will naturally result in comfort breaks and trips to get refills
  • Move things away from your desk so you have to get up to use them, perhaps move the waste bins to the other side of the room
  • Set reminders on your pc to prompt you to take a break
  • Rotate Tasks so you vary what you are doing to avoid doing the same thing for long periods and stand up to take a phone call
  1. Move in different ways and s.t.r.e.t.c.h

Cat and dogs stretch naturally and we need to do it too.  In the morning, evening and during the day.

Most responsible employers will already be sharing resources on keeping mobile and showing simple exercises you can do during your day and there are lots of examples on the internet too.  Backcare.org.uk have produced this guide which illustrates some good exercises.

I am a great advocate of yoga, it helps to strengthen and stretch the body and mind. I guarantee there will be several yoga classes near you, try them and find a teach whose style suits you.  Pilates is incredibly good for re-training the body to adopt new habits to strengthen your core muscles and encourage mobility.  It’s really worth investing in a few one to one sessions before you join a class so you fully understand and master the basics.

  1. Choose something you enjoy to get more active and make it fun

Moving is good and if you don’t like standard exercise then try something else, dancing perhaps, choosing a social sport or involving a friend can help make things more enjoyable rather than slogging away at the gym on your own. Perhaps you could help out at local animal sanctuary or get involved with a volunteering project which involves being active.  Getting involved in something could end up adding a completely new dimension to your life.

  1. Make movement part of your day – every day

The more you move the more you want to move, I find the same with sugar, the more you have the more you want! Once you get past the initial resistance your body starts to crave exercise.  Keep moving every day.  Start with a few stretches when you get out of bed and gradually integrate movement into your daily routines.  Small consistent changes will have a big effect over the long term.  I would suggest starting slowly and building up rather than being too ambitious and getting disheartened when you don’t stick to an over ambitious routine or even worse hurt yourself.

  1. Seek expert advise

Maybe you are already suffering the ill effects; feeling stiff, sore or in pain on an ongoing basis is your body is giving you a sign that things are not right.  Consult musculoskeletal experts like osteopaths, who understand how to treat and guide you so you can feel strong and supple again and enjoy keeping fit and active.  Finding a good therapist is important, start by going to the governing body to find a qualified therapist and find out how long they have been in practice and what their specialism is.  A therapist should be hands on with a session lasting around 20-30mins with recommendations for rehab exercises given (stretching, strengthening) and/or recommending to a pilates/yoga specialist. Don’t be afraid to ring up and ask what you can expect from an appointment.

  1. Keep Hydrated and eat a balanced diet

It is recommended that we drink 2 litres of water a day. That’s water not tea and coffee! Herbal teas could probably be included in the total.  You can also add some lemon or slices of your other favourite fruit to a jug of water to add a subtle flavour if you don’t enjoy plain water.

As far as diet is concerned I could write 10 blogs on diet alone but eating a balanced diet with plenty of vegetables,  protein and healthy carbs and lowering intake of fat, salt processed food and sugar will also greatly contribute to your overall health.

Sources:

Andrew Goldspink Principle Osteopath Egham Osteopath http://eghamosteopaths.co.uk/

https://www.axappphealthcare.co.uk/health-information/musculoskeletal/taking-a-break-from-your-desk/

http://www.backcare.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Exercises-for-Office-Workers-Factsheet.pdf

https://wellbeing.bitc.org.uk/sites/default/files/business_in_the_community_musculoskeletal_toolkit.pdf

www.nhs.uk/Livewell/fitness/Pages/physical-activity-guidelines-for-adults.aspx

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