By:Dana G Smith
Photo: PeopleImages/Getty Images
Expert advice on staying active, where to sit, and what to snack on when your home becomes your office.
As a health and science writer, I have been working from home pretty much full time for almost three years. Full disclosure: There are a lot of bad habits you can fall into. And, yes, distractions, endless snacks, and having no technical reason to leave your bed or put on pants can leave you feeling blah mentally and physically. But I’ve also learned that with the right routine, your home can be conducive to a healthier work environment than the office.
Here’s a run-down on ways you can set yourself up for work-from-home wellness success.
Stay active using the “Pomodoro Technique”
While being cooped up in the house all day may hurt your step count, especially if you walk or bike as part of your commute, it doesn’t have to. The best thing about working from home is you’ve gained back all the time you normally spend heading to and from work. Put that hour (or more) to good use and get outside for a walk or run, ideally first thing in the morning to get some of that good morning light, which is linked to greater alertness, better sleep, and less stress.
In our new Covid-19 reality, the great outdoors where you don’t have to touch anything or come into contact with anyone is one of the safest places you can be. That includes parks, running trails, the backyard, even sidewalks — as long as you maintain your social-distancing six-foot radius — so don’t be afraid to get outside for some fresh air.
You can also get away with doing way more weird workouts throughout the day than you could at the office. Add them up, and you can fit a whole workout in without the gym (most of which are closed anyway at this point).
A lot of people swear by the productivity hack of the Pomodoro Technique where you set a timer for 25 minutes of focus, after which you get a five-minute break. During each break, try doing a different bodyweight exercise: push-ups, crunches, squats, tricep dips, jumping jacks, burpees (although maybe hold off if you have downstairs neighbors), walking lunges, planks, sun salutations — anything that gets your body moving is good.
If you realize that it’s past noon and you haven’t done any of these things yet, don’t despair, you can always head out for a lunchtime walk or run. Or you can multi-task and go out for a walk while you’re on a call. Whatever you do, make sure you get outside at least once a day.
“Laptops are much lower, and people tend to bend forward at the waist and curl over and look down at the screen, and they cause lots of back and neck issues.”
Create a routine and keep up social connections for mental health
Just as important for maintaining sanity is speaking with another human being. Tools like Slack are great for keeping open channels of communication, but don’t forget about picking up the phone and calling or video chatting someone from time to time. If you have a friend you always get coffee or lunch with, try to keep up the tradition over the phone, or use this as an opportunity to start a new one. (Remember, your co-workers will be just as stir-crazy and starved for conversation as you are.)
“Social isolation is a real thing — especially for people who really thrive on those connections with other people, but all of us benefit from social bonds,” says Cathleen Swody, an industrial and organizational psychologist.
Swody recommends setting up time with your team for daily or weekly check-ins that aren’t necessarily about work. “Have room for the watercooler aspect of the office. The chit-chat, the conversation down the hall, those little things that connect us to other people, even if it’s not 100% work related,” she says. “It doesn’t take a lot of time, so for those who really want to get stuff done it’s not a time suck, but there’s some humanity in it.”
Also be sure to set boundaries on your time, especially at the end of the day. Try to keep your normal morning and evening routines so you don’t experience work creep. “The key words are routine and ritual,” says Swody. “You don’t want to get lost in the ambiguity of the situation, so having some time markers are important.”
Create an ergonomic workspace.
One of the best ways to maintain that work/home boundary is to set up a dedicated office area. Even when people don’t have a room in their home to allocate as an office, they can still try to carve out a corner of the living room or kitchen table. When you’re in that area you’re at work, and when you’re not you’re at home.
This will also help you maintain an ergonomic setup that’s better for your neck than slouching on the couch. “You might feel comfortable doing that [slouching on the couch] for a period of time, and you’re like, ‘Well I’m not having pain, so I can work in bed or sit on the couch,’” says Susan MacDonald, owner of Bay Area Ergonomics. “But in reality, you’re doing damage, you’re causing a lot of muscular strain, and what that does is over time, when you start having pain, you’ve already done a lot of damage.”
Jonathan Cinkay, a physical therapist and body mechanics coordinator at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, says that the best ergonomic foundation is a desk and chair setup where your elbows can be bent to 90 degrees, meaning you’re not sitting too low or too high compared to the desk. Where your hands naturally land is where your keyboard and mouse should be. If your chair isn’t adjustable, you can always improvise with a pillow, and get a footstool if your feet don’t touch the floor to take pressure off your legs and lower back. Finally, the top of your monitor should be eye level so you don’t strain your neck. If you can’t raise it, set it on top of a few books or a ream of printer paper.
If you use a laptop, the same principles apply, the most important being to raise the screen up to eye level. This may mean you need to invest in a separate mouse and keyboard so you can keep those on the desk while your computer is propped up.
“Laptops are much lower, and people tend to bend forward at the waist and curl over and look down at the screen, and they cause lots of back and neck issues,” Cinkay says. It’s fine to use your laptop on the couch a little bit, but ideally for not more than an hour or two. And when you are working on your couch, you want to use your eyes to look down, don’t tilt your neck and head.
The golden rule, according to Cinkay, is to get up every hour and move — go to the bathroom, walk around the room, stretch, get a drink of water or a snack.
“Have room for the watercooler aspect of the office. The chit-chat, the conversation down the hall, those little things that connect us to other people, even if it’s not 100% work related.”
Snack as if nobody’s watching
When you’re working from home, there are no co-workers to shame you if you go back for second (and third and fourth) helpings of Thin Mints. And while this isn’t necessarily a bad thing — it’s okay to treat yourself while there’s a global pandemic happening — it’s something to be aware of when you’re stocking your pantry with quarantine snack options.
As someone with a massive sweet tooth and fairly low self-control, I realized the only way I can avoid eating an entire box of cookies in a day is not to have one in the house in the first place. Instead, I try to opt for single-serving protein-heavy snacks that fill me up the first time so I’m not craving more.
For example, I’m a big fan of hard-boiled eggs, avocado toast, turkey and cheese slices, or a banana and peanut butter. Also, be aware of Foods in Bags that you can mindlessly munch on until you realize the bag is gone. You’re a lot less likely to reach for a second apple than a second handful of Cheez-Its.
Much of this article is a case of “do as I say, not as I do.” Working from home can be really hard. Some days you feel like you’ve gotten nothing done, other days you’re so busy you realize it’s 4 in the afternoon and you haven’t left the house. The most important thing is to find out what works for you and do the best you can to maintain some semblance of healthy habits, balance, and normalcy. Be gentle with yourself; if you didn’t stick to the exact routine you wanted today, there’s always tomorrow. But whether you’re feeling distracted and unmotivated or stressed out and overwhelmed, I guarantee you will feel better if you get outside and go for a walk.
The coronavirus outbreak is rapidly evolving. To stay informed, check the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as your local health department for updates. If you’re feeling emotionally overwhelmed, reach out to the Crisis Text Line.