Working from home: The importance of keeping active

 

Because of government advice regarding the current COVID-19 pandemic, many people who are used to working in an office environment have been forced to work from home. This sudden change can be difficult, especially when it is required for an extended period of time, and challenges can include:

  • Difficulty concentrating on and/or switching off from work
  • Sleeping problems
  • Loneliness
  • Stress
  • Poor posture and back pain

This article briefly addresses each of these difficulties, outlines techniques that can be used to ease the transition from working in an office environment to working at home, and highlights the importance and benefits of keeping active.

Difficulty concentrating on and/or switching off from work

An altered routine can have detrimental consequences on our ability to concentrate when we need to work and to switch off when we need to rest. One of the most important coping mechanisms when making a major lifestyle change for the foreseeable future is to replicate your daily routine as best as possible. For example [1]:

  • Have a shower in the morning and dress in clothes you would often wear to work, or would feel comfortable with colleagues seeing you in, to psychologically prepare yourself for a day ‘at work’
  • Change out of the clothes you ‘wore to work’ at the end of the working day to help your mind disassociate from work and to allow yourself to wind down
  • Have a designated ‘work’ area that is separate from your living space, if possible
  • Stick to standard working hours with regular breaks, frequently moving around as you would in an office environment to avoid staring at your computer screen for long periods of time – many use the Pomodoro Technique, which involves working solidly for 25 minutes followed by a 5-minute break, repeating this process throughout the day
  • Maintain normal sleeping and waking hours, replacing your daily commute with another activity (for example, yoga, reading a book or going on a local walk) to ensure you are ready for the day ahead; waking up 5 minutes before starting work can be detrimental to your productivity and mindset for the rest of the day

Sleeping problems

Sleeping problems are common among people who start working from home, perhaps because many people go to bed progressively later and stay in bed longer in the mornings because of the extra time available from the absence of their daily commute, as mentioned above. As well as maintaining normal sleeping hours, expending excess energy through exercise can be a good method to tire yourself out and enable you to sleep at a reasonable time. Exercising regularly can also introduce a routine into an otherwise monotonous day.

Loneliness

If you live alone, working from home can be a lonely experience compared with the daily bustle and social interaction experienced in an office environment; therefore, it is important to maintain contact with colleagues and friends [1]. This can be done using an array of different methods, including video conferencing platforms, phone calls and instant messaging, but it is important to remember to not overcommunicate in order to avoid social interaction becoming a hinderance to productivity.

Because of the current government advice, social exercise is restricted as exercising in groups with people outside of your household is not possible; however, there are still ways to exercise and socialise at the same time. Video conferencing platforms, such as Zoom, can enable gyms to run group exercise classes online, allowing both physical and social stimulation. Social apps can offer both social interaction and motivation to stay active; one example is Strava, which provides a platform for users to upload completed physical activities and view the activities of friends and colleagues.

Stress

Stress can often be associated with work, especially when getting used to a new working environment, and can negatively affect your mental and physical well-being. Severe stress is characterised by exhaustion and can manifest in symptoms such as difficulty sleeping, fatigue, guilt and an inability to focus on work [2], thus further compounding some of the issues already presented by the change in routine.

Moreover, when the body undergoes a homeostatic change, which often occurs as a result of stress, a neuroendocrine system called the HPA (hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal) axis is activated [3]. This has several physiological effects, one of which is the release of glucocorticoids such as cortisol [3]. Prolonged activation of the HPA axis can present a health risk, as glucocorticoids can increase blood pressure and antagonise the effects of insulin, leading to an increased risk of diabetes and hypertension [3]. Other potentially harmful effects include impaired functioning of the immune system and a negative psychological impact, increasing the risk of mental illnesses such as depression [3].

Physical activity has been proven to have a positive effect on alleviating the symptoms of stress; however, the mechanisms by which it does this are not fully understood [4, 5]. Biological explanations include the release of endorphins and neurotransmitters such as serotonin, anti-inflammatory cytokines, and increased cerebral blood flow. The psychological benefits of exercise, such as distraction, a feeling of self-efficacy and, when possible, social interaction, are also thought to contribute to relieving stress [4, 5].

Poor posture and back pain

An improper desk set-up, which is likely when working from home if a makeshift workstation has had to be created, can result in poor posture and a high risk of lower back injury. Lower back pain is the most prominent cause of disability around the globe [6] and contributes to approximately 12.5% of all work absences in the UK, with 60%–90% of adults likely to experience it at some point in their lifetime [7]. Some of the most common causes of lower back pain in the workplace include poor posture and working or sitting for too long in one position. Additionally, poor muscle strength in the thigh, dorsal and abdominal muscles can also cause back pain indirectly [7, 8], and poor core strength can lead to reduced lumbar stability, which can reduce the flexibility of the lumbar spine [7]; therefore, appropriate exercise may help to alleviate symptoms.

Although early intervention through physical activity is likely to help prevent the exacerbation of back pain, the first step to tackle this problem should be to adjust your posture by identifying and rectifying any issues with your desk set-up. Yoga has proven to be an effective method of combatting lower back pain, as it increases core strength (which helps to support the lumbar spine) and improves the flexibility of tendons and ligaments in the back to improve range of motion [7, 9]. Aerobic exercise, such as walking, running and cycling, has also been linked to improvements in cases of lower back pain because it increases blood flow to the soft tissues in the back; this aids the healing process that needs to occur after a back injury and eases stiffness, which helps to relieve lower back pain [7].

How can you exercise?

Although gyms, leisure centres and public fitness apparatus are currently not accessible, there are many other ways to exert yourself physically. Walking, running, dancing, cycling, gardening and body weight circuit training are all excellent ways to help alleviate stress and maintain a positive attitude, and can all be done without unnecessary interaction or travel [5]. There are many helpful resources online giving ideas and inspiration for ways to keep active, including a helpful resource from the BBC about how to work out at home without equipment [10].

Advice on working from home and staying active

To summarise, steps can be taken to help overcome some of the challenges that are associated with the change from working in an office environment to working in a home environment, including:

  • Replicating your daily routine as much as possible and maintaining a separation in your work and home life
  • Making use of technology to maintain social contact – joining virtual exercise classes can be a good way to do this
  • Engaging in daily exercise to help establish a regular sleeping and working pattern, provide a form of social interaction, alleviate symptoms of stress and prevent exacerbation of back pain

People should take solace in the fact that this situation will not last forever; however, starting a healthy exercise regimen now will have lasting results beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, providing additional benefits such as a heightened immune response and a lower incidence of illness [11].

References

  1. BBC News. Coronavirus: Five ways to work well from home. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-51868894. Accessed April 2020.
  2. Toker S and Biron M. Job burnout and depression: Unraveling their temporal relationship and considering the role of physical activity. J Appl Psychol 2012; 97 (3): 699–710.
  3. Lupien SJ, Fiocco A, Wan N et al. Stress hormones and human memory function across the lifespan. Psychoneuroendocrinology 2005; 30 (3): 225–242.
  4. Conn VS. Depressive symptom outcomes of physical activity interventions: Meta-analysis findings. Ann Behav Med 2010; 39 (2): 128–138.
  5. Sharma A, Madaan V and Petty FD. Exercise for mental health. Prim Care Companion J Clin Psychiatry 2006; 8 (2): 106.
  6. World Health Organization. Musculoskeletal conditions. Available at: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/musculoskeletal-conditions. Accessed April 2020.
  7. Gordon R and Bloxham S. A systematic review of the effects of exercise and physical activity on non-specific chronic low back pain. Healthcare (Basel) 2016; 4 (2): E22.
  8. Oldervoll LM, Rø M, Zwart JA et al. Comparison of two physical exercise programs for the early intervention of pain in the neck, shoulders and lower back in female hospital staff.
    J Rehabil Med 2001; 33 (4): 156–161.
  9. Tilbrook HE, Cox H, Hewitt CE et al. Yoga for chronic low back pain: A randomized trial. Ann Intern Med 2011; 155 (9): 569–578.
  10. BBC Sport. Everyday exercise: How to work out at home without equipment. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/get-inspired/32416767. Accessed April 2020.
  11. Nieman DC and Wentz LM. The compelling link between physical activity and the body’s defense system. J Sport Health Sci 2019; 8 (3): 201–217.