If there’s one thing that feels very different about the work-life balance in 2020, it’s the huge surge in home working.
In June, the Office for National Statistics reported that almost half of us were working from home in some capacity. That’s a big shift! And it’s looking increasingly permanent: a raft of major companies has unveiled plans to roll back their office-based work, post-lockdown.
Many people are delighted by the changes. We’re spending less time on commutes and more time with our families. Some of us are reporting a rise in our productivity and sense of wellbeing.
But there is a flipside to that brave new world behind the home office desk, and that’s the effect that sitting around for longer, and moving less frequently, can have on our physical health – even, believe it or not, on our knee joints. Here in clinic, we’re seeing a number of knee-pain cases that seem to have been triggered by lockdown-related lifestyle changes. So what might be going on there? Here are three things to watch out for if you find yourself newly working from home…
1. DEVELOPING BAD POSTURE
The idea that sitting could impact a knee joint in any significant way sounds unlikely. But it does. Think about your biology for a moment. When you stand, your kneecap sits above the bone in the joint with very minimal contact. Sit down, however, and the kneecap comes down into the groove of the femur (the femoral trochlea). Overloading that part of the knee for long periods can stress the cartilage surface and, in time, cause stiffness and soreness – particularly if your chair isn’t well positioned, your knee is more constrained and flexed, and you’re remaining immobile in that position much longer than you normally would. There are lots of potential solutions here. One is to look at an adjustable chair or desk that will give you a better posture and allow you to shift your knee position more frequently. An even simpler solution is to take intentional breaks from the desk. Setting a timer to get up and move every half hour to 60 minutes will make a huge difference – not just to your knees, but to your all-round health.
2. PUTTING ON EXTRA POUNDS
You may have heard people joke about ‘lockdown belly’. But, actually, weight has a big impact on knees. They bear more load than most other parts of the body. When we climb stairs, that load-pressure rises six-fold. In a weight-gain situation, the increase pays out in our joints, pressing and rubbing the smooth cartilage covering on the bones and raising the long-term risk of osteoarthritis. Prolonged sitting also appears to slow down the metabolism. This alters the way the body regulates blood sugar and blood pressure, and how it breaks down fat – which in turn leads to further weight gain. As with so many things in life, these changes can creep up on us. So if you’re new to the home working scenario, now would be a good time review the impact. Have you become more sedentary? How has it changed your diet or eating patterns? Could you switch the sugary snacks for something healthier?
3. UNDERUSING KEY MUSCLES
Research into space travel has found astronauts can lose up to 20% of their muscle mass on spaceflights lasting just five to 11 days. Why? Because muscle fibres need to flex and contract regularly in order to maintain strength and function, which is suppressed in zero gravity (a typical International Space Station astronaut spends 2 1/2 hours a day exercising to compensate). Home workers may not be circling earth at 250 miles altitude, but it’s surprisingly easy to spend long chunks of the day on laptop and email, with muscles immobile and no commute to break the pattern. For knees, muscle wastage can lead to conditions like patella maltracking (an imbalance in the kneecap). That in turn can cause a spiral of weight gain, stiffness and muscle atrophy that makes exercise even more difficult. So it’s worth analysing the shape of your working day to see where immobility is creeping in, and where you might build in more movement. The UK Chief Medical Officer recommends an accumulated 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity (such as brisk walking or cycling) every week for most adults, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity (like running). That sounds like good advice to us. The key is to be intentional: keep active and flexible, and keep moving regularly. Your knees will thank you for it.
If you’re being troubled by knee pain – new or otherwise – we’ll be happy to help you get to the bottom of what’s going on. To book an appointment, please visit our contact page and fill out your details. Or drop the team a line direct on 01962 826107.