It’s important to think creatively and use all the opportunities afforded to you in our home environment and its vicinity to replace your previous level of physical activity. You need to ensure that you don’t put off being physically active, but you also need to accept that it will be in quite a different format and setting.

The challenge is that this requires conscious effort and behavioural change. Something that we usually do in our everyday lives could be regarded as an established habit – “it just happens automatically” – and there is no need for us to make an effort to make it happen. But now we need to make a conscious effort.

Some questions it might be a good idea to ask yourself are: How has my level of physical activity versus sitting still during my working day/daily life changed due to the pandemic and being required to work from home? Do I usually walk or cycle to work? Does my job usually involve transporting myself between different campuses and meetings? What else has changed? Do I usually go out to buy lunch, visit the campus restaurant, take a lunchtime stroll with a colleague, walk to the printer/photocopier, lecture while standing up/move around among the students in laboratory settings, etc.?

A good starting point is that we ought to engage in physical activity that warms us up and leaves us slightly out of breath for 2.5 to 5 hours a week, which equates to a 30-60 minute walk per day. We should also train our big muscle groups at least twice per week. More physical activity at a higher intensity is better – up to a certain point of course. But some physical activity is always better than none at all.

We should also limit sitting still, which naturally can be a challenge when you’re working from home. Long periods of sitting still are associated with increased rates of mortality, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and type 2 diabetes. So sitting still ought to be limited, interrupted and replaced with physical activity. This is where the idea of the micro break comes in handy. Taking a break from your work, getting up from sitting still and activating your body is what’s most important. What you actually do is not that important, although it can be helpful for you to have a programme of exercises to follow.

It is in fact a myth that it is harmful or even downright dangerous to sit in certain ways or in certain positions. The real problem is when we remain seated for too long without varying our position. That can cause muscular tension, fatigue and muscle stiffness. If we have a good routine in place for switching between sitting still, moving around and physical exercise, these symptoms are often quickly remedied.

Your workspace at home should obviously be suited to working at a desk and online video meetings. The most important thing you can do is to supplement your laptop with an additional screen and adjust this to a height that you prefer. Grab some books from your bookcase to get it just right! Some people prefer to look straight ahead, while others prefer looking slightly downwards, and a handful prefer to look slightly upwards.

You should also invest in a good office chair for use in your home workspace. The very best option is one that allows you to adjust the seat, meaning that the seat is mobile and can tip backwards and forwards. This is ideal for achieving that all-important variation in your sitting position. A hard, level kitchen or dining chair can be a less optimum solution. After all, you will still end up sitting quite a lot. If you don’t want to buy your own office chair then consider borrowing the one you use at work for use in your home. It’s an extra bonus if you are able to alternate between working standing up and sitting down, although few people have height-adjustable desks at home. But you can still be creative. Do you have a breakfast bar or some other tall table suitable for standing up at? Why not make it a habit to always take telephone calls while standing? Why not take Zoom meetings while standing?

Think about what your working day is like right now. What are the biggest differences now compared with prior to the pandemic in terms of your daily exercise routine and what might be called low-intensity physical activity and movement? When do you take breaks? How long do those breaks last? What is your calendar like? Do you schedule Zoom meetings back-to-back without taking any breaks between them?

Consider how to plan your day so that you can compensate for what would otherwise be natural movement during your working day that you would otherwise take for granted and not think about as something you needed to actively plan in.

Write down what you would like to change. Set goals one week at a time – in fact, you might prefer to set those goals for just one or two days at a time in the beginning. Ask yourself: Is what you plan to start doing engaging or interesting enough to you? Do you think you will actually manage to do it? If the answer to either question is no: change and simplify! A common misconception is that people think they have to change everything all at once and they expect that they will cope with all these changes right away.

It is much smarter to start small and introduce maybe one or two new things during the first week – for instance, getting up and ‘getting your body going’ a couple of times each hour and also ensuring you set aside enough time for your lunch break so that you can get outside for a walk each day, even if it is only around the block.

Try switching off your camera every now and then during long meetings if this is possible. Stand up and activate your body. Personally, I have resistance bands, a few dumbbells and even a lightweight barbell in my workroom, and I do a few sets with the camera switched off while also listening to a lecture or a discussion where I am not expected to be an active participant the whole time.

Take breaks from your work and do a few chores around the house: take the rubbish out, water the plants, hang up the laundry or do something else that involves a bit of movement, does not take too long to do, and does need doing.

Try out walk-and-talk meetings with your colleagues. Either on the phone or in person – although remember to socially distance!

Make changes in small steps. A little is better than nothing, but make sure you increase your activities gradually until you achieve your ultimate goal. For the sake of your health, this goal ought to be a lifestyle that mirrors how much you would otherwise move around during the day – assuming, of course, that you usually do move around!

 

Pernilla Åsenlöf
Professor of Physiotherapy at the Department of Neuroscience