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Sore back, shoulder pain: here's what you can do

Saturday January 30 2021, 12.01am, The Times written by Peta Bee Long days at laptops have taken a physical toll. Here are the best solutions, says Peta Bee

There’s little doubt that living our lives largely online has had a significant effect on our bodies. In a study analysing changes in eating behaviour, exercise levels and weight changes during the first national lockdown psychologists at the University of Liverpool found that 56 per cent of their adult participants had been snacking more frequently, 44 per cent were eating larger meals and 36 per cent were drinking more alcohol than before lockdown began. Dr Eric Robinson, a behavioural scientist and one of the paper’s authors, also found that almost three quarters (73 per cent) had spent considerably more time sitting down.

Elsewhere, a recent YouGov poll commissioned by the Physiological Society and the Centre for Ageing Better revealed that almost one in three of those questioned had done less physical activity during lockdown.

In an accompanying report, entitled A National Covid-19 Resilience Programme, a panel of experts warned that the fallout of a year of lockdowns was likely to include muscle loss, a rise in body fat and falling levels of fitness and strength. So what are the effects on your body and what can you do to offset them?

Back pain

Prolonged sitting and inactivity is to blame for a rise in back pain. “Being slumped at a work station in one position has led to more people experiencing a tight thoracic spine, or stiffness in the mid-back,” says Sammy Margo, a physiotherapist. “Not moving your back enough also leads to less flexibility in the muscles around the lower back, causing problems.” Tight hamstrings in the backs of the upper legs — again from sitting with legs at a 90-degree angle for too long — will also raise the risk of lower back inflexibility and pain.

What you can do Strengthening the abdominal and gluteal muscles, as well as stretching the hip flexors and thighs, can help to relieve back pain, but back flexibility exercises are also important, so try knee hugs. “Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Keeping your back and head on the floor, pull your knees to your chest to feel a stretch in the lower back and hamstrings,” says Paul Hobrough, a physiotherapist. Repeat several times.


A poll this month found that 38 per cent of people in the UK who are using screens more during the pandemic believe that their eyesight has been affected.

“When you’re looking at screens you tend to be focusing with your eye muscles for long periods, which can give you eye strain, particularly if you’re on the borderline of needing reading glasses,” says Professor Jeremy Guggenheim at the School of Optometry at Cardiff University. “Your focusing muscles can get locked into that pattern of being switched on all the time, so it can become harder to relax your vision to look into the distance. You also tend to blink less, which can give you problems with the tear film, and your eyes dry out and become gritty and sore.”

What you can do The answer is to give our eye muscles a chance to relax by periodically looking into the distance. The charity Fight for Sight recommends the 20-20-20 rule when using a screen: every 20 minutes look 20ft away for 20 seconds.

Stiff hips

Sitting for hours every day plays havoc with our hip flexors, the muscles that allow our hips to flex at the joint. “When we sit for long periods these muscles tighten and shorten,” Margo says. “In the long run, tight hip flexors can cause pain in the knees and lower back.”

What you can do Strengthening, stretching and mobilising the hips with as wide a range of movement as possible is crucial, so walk, climb stairs and stretch as much as possible. Hobrough says you can release hip tightness by kneeling down and extending your right leg into a lunge position on the floor. Put your hands on your hips and, keeping your torso upright, bend the right knee to feel a stretch in your left leg. Hold for up to 60 seconds and repeat on the other side.

Shoulder pain

According to the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, there has been a sevenfold increase in visits to its website for advice since the pandemic started — with a surge in people seeking information about shoulder pain during this lockdown.

Spend hours in the same position at a makeshift desk or with your laptop on your lap and your shoulders will suffer. “Shoulder pain and stiffness are rife at the moment and largely a result of sitting with arms and shoulders squashed forwards for too long,” Margo says. “Left unaddressed it can lead to ‘shoulder impingement’, which is a really painful condition caused when tendons rub or catch on the bone in the narrow space at the top of the shoulders.”

What you can do Change position — and move — as often as you can to relieve tension in the shoulder muscles. “Try doing forward and backward shoulder rolls every 15 minutes or so,” Margo says. “And stand up, clasping hands behind your back — grab a rolled-up towel if your hands won’t meet — and stretch the arms upwards as far as is comfortable.”

Raised blood sugar levels

Paul Greenhaff, a professor in metabolic and molecular physiology at Nottingham University, says that changes to blood sugar levels can start to occur after just one day spent mostly sitting down.

“In a review to be published shortly we found that after 24 hours of inactivity there can be up to a 50 per cent drop in glucose disposal [in the body], causing a build-up of blood sugar and long term potentially leading to insulin resistance, which can itself be a forerunner to type 2 diabetes,” he says.

“Within two weeks, inactivity causes effects such as insulin resistance and reduction in muscle mass even in healthy young volunteers.”

No wonder so many of us have seen our waistlines increase in lockdown — a King’s College London and Ipsos Mori survey of 2,254 people found that 48 per cent of respondents claimed to have put on weight by the end of last May.

What you can do Make sure your daily walking steps don’t drop too low. Greenhaff found that a drop from 10,500 daily steps to 1,300 steps a day in young male volunteers led to insulin resistance in muscles as well as the loss of lean muscle mass.

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