In the world beyond lockdown, online meetings will most likely become the norm. That will mean a great deal more time at desks and on screens than before. Here is a life-changing, two-minute exercise set that you can do in between Zoom sessions.

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THE WORLD is gradually moving on from total lockdown and into the world beyond. It’s a world that incidentally kicked off with the news that Warren Buffet—the world’s leading long-term investor, also known as the Sage of Omaha for his predictive abilities—selling his shares in the four major American airlines (he owned roughly 10% of each of them). In other words, one of the world’s best-ever predictors of the future value of companies is saying we’re going to travel less.

Perhaps people and their employers have realised that they can work efficiently from home, so companies will cut down on office space. Hopefully, many people will stay home and attend conferences online instead of flying, in order to take more care of the environment. And maybe a good part of it will be due to simple efficiency.

So I’m expecting a lot more time working online, from home, and therefore sitting at your desk.

Another thing about online work is that you’re not getting up and walking between meetings. Many people are going from one Zoom session straight into the next, without a break. That’s a real problem when it comes to physical health, particularly back and neck problems. When it comes to mental clarity, energy and mood, very little is more debilitating than a sore back and neck. It exhausts you, steals your concentration, and can cause you to become irritable and grumpy.

Muscles thrive on contraction

In this post, I’ll share some quick ’n easy, yet also high impact, exercises you can do in between Zoom sessions, or at the very least between your tea and lunch breaks. You do have those, don’t you?! The full set of exercises literally takes no more than two minutes. I’ve been practising these for some 20 years now, and I can honestly say I very seldom have a day of back and neck trouble.

I have to give the credit here to my ex-father-in-law, Dr Athol McLean, who’s a chiropractor in Swakopmund, Namibia. He taught me these exercises and a lot of these ergonomic principles. The most important principle that he taught me was that any muscle that gets overextended for a long time loses its blood supply, it becomes hardened, and inelastic.

When it comes to mental clarity, energy and mood, very little is more debilitating than a sore back and neck. It exhausts you, steals your concentration, and can cause you to become irritable and grumpy.

To reverse that, you want to make sure that those muscles are contracted as often as possible, in a way that brings back the blood supply and elasticity. It’s a simple principle, however, we seem to neglect that. In fact, Dr McLean often says how we spend 20 years in bad posture and then expect someone to fix it in 10 minutes, not recognising that those little actions are cumulative in terms of our long-lasting health and level of fitness.

Your chair and desk setup are crucial for good posture

First things first, let’s start with your chair and desk setup. These are the core determinants of your posture. The better this setup, the easier it will be to maintain good posture, and so it’s crucial to get it right. Obviously, you want to have a good chair. You want that chair to be able to tilt forward, and you want to sit as far forward on that chair as possible. That enables you to keep the lower part of your back—your lordotic curve—in shape. You don’t want to slouch or overextend any of your back or neck muscles. We’ll go to some more details in a future post about that.

desk exercises back neck painThe second thing is your desk height. So you want that to be at the right height. If you’re tall like me—I’m about six-foot-four—you can raise your desk by putting the legs on blocks or, as I’ve done, placing a heavy slab of wood on blocks placed on top of the desk. My slab is the size of the door. It’s actually two 16mm sheets of melamine board stuck together to make it strong and heavy, and finished with a 32mm edging. The weight is important because that keeps it in place. You don’t have to fasten it, it just stays in place because of its weight.

Once you’ve got your desk at the right height, you can sit without slouching. That’s an important start. The next important item is your screen height. If you do the research, you’ll see laptops are one of the biggest culprits for people having back and neck trouble, because we slouch over them and all those muscles of the back and neck are stretched out for long periods of time. That’s exactly what you don’t want.

Get your screen height right

Instead, you want to raise your screen to a height where your back and neck muscles are neutral and can be easily and lightly contracted by tilting your head gently upwards and backwards. And that’s not the main exercise, it’s just a description of the ideal posture. The undesirable alternative is when you realise you’ve been hunched over for hours, your neck is painfully stretched, and you have to heave it up into a neutral position.

I also like to work with an external monitor so it gives me a lot of space and I can spread out the windows while I work, turning my head from side to side. It’s easier to work that way and it ensures that I mobilise my neck. You can also see in the picture that I’ve placed both my laptop and external monitor on a raised stand. These stands are also homemade. Each one consists of a piece of wood, cut to size at the hardware store, with some veneer edging, and legs—from the same hardware store—screwed onto the bottom.

You could use a pile of old telephone directories instead, if you still know what those are and you have any lying around! Encyclopaedias would also work, although those are also not common these days. Of course, you also get fancy stuff where the stand is on a manoeuvrable arm, so you could go that route if you want to spend a bit more money.

Use an external keyboard

Now comes the keyboard. You could raise your arms and use your keyboard on the mounted laptop—as long as you keep your back straight and don’t stretch any muscles to reach it. This would activate your shoulder muscles and make them strong, fit and shapely. However, you’re going to get tired like that. So an external keyboard is preferable, and you want this as close to you as possible. The ideal position is to have it near the edge of the desk, just far enough in so that you can rest your wrists on the edge of the surface. Then, when you’re typing, your head can be straight and your back and neck can be tucked in nicely.

I’ve been doing these for about 20 years now. When I started out, I had a lot of back and neck pain. These days I seldom have any.

The other nice thing about raising your laptop and sitting back is that when you’re on a Zoom meeting, everybody’s not looking up your nose. Don’t you find it annoying and distracting when you can only see the top half of the other person’s face?

Do these exercises as often, and as regularly, as possible

As mentioned, there is also a set of exercises that you can do. Remember, you need to contract those muscles of the back and neck as often as possible, in order to get the blood supply and elasticity back into those muscles. That’s what makes for happy muscles and happy back and neck muscles make for a happy person.

You’ll see that they’re very quick. The whole set takes no more than two, maximum three, minutes. You’ll also see, once you start doing them, that they’re very effective. That should incentivise you to do them as often as possible—ideally in between every meeting or Zoom session. If not that often, then you should at least do them when you get up for your morning and afternoon tea breaks, your lunch break and at the end of the day. Oh, and if you’re not taking that many breaks, when are you going to start?! Research has shown—and smokers will tell you for sure—that productivity improves when you take regular, short breaks.

Make it a habit

If you turn this set of exercises into a habit, you’ll experience surprisingly quick benefits. If you continue over the long term, you’ll gain lasting, stable back and neck health. I’ve been doing these for about 20 years now. When I started out, I had a lot of back and neck pain. These days I seldom have any—and if I do, it’s usually because I’ve slacked off and haven’t done them for a while. Luckily, having done them for all those years, I’ve got some “money in the bank” with regards to back and neck health. So, if I do slack off, and I pick them up again, I recover quickly. The same possibility awaits you!

The Exercise Set (Instructions)

Here is the set of desk exercises. You can do these in between your online meetings, or at least three or four times a day—for example, when you take your tea and lunch breaks, and again at the end of the day:

desk exercises back neck pain

1 Cat Stretches Reach up and look up to the ceiling for a slow count of 20 (you could try and go for longer, but you’ll see that you don’t need much more than that). While you do that, feel the contraction of the muscles in your neck and down your back. Work that contraction by tightening those muscles, then relaxing them ever so slightly. If you’re doing it right, you should develop a slight rocking motion as you contract and release.

2 Aeroplane Wings Spread out your arms and pump them backwards by clenching and releasing the muscles in between your shoulder blades. Do this for a count of 20.

3 Doggy Lifts No, they’re not quite to the side as a dog would, but rather straight behind you! Lift each leg behind you and pump it backwards and upwards about 10 times. You can repeat each leg if you feel up for it.

4 Twists This one is apparently good for the discs, but do it slowly and gently. Only go as far as you feel comfortable and don’t overextend. Keep your feet parallel and firmly planted, then twist your torso gently around while extending your arm. Turn your head so that you can keep your eyes focused on your hand. Hold for a count of 10. Do one in each direction, and repeat the set if you feel you need it.

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