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Exercises to help stop work being a pain in the neck

Last updated: 05-08-2020

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As the Christmas-New Year break draws to a close, many of us will trudge back to office buildings and sit down in our cubicles to start the working year.

If the prospect of sitting in front of a computer for 40 hours (or more) a week for another 12 months triggers a sudden need to massage or stretch your neck, you're not alone.

A 2010 study reviewing the global burden of diseases ranked neck pain as the fourth most common disability, and it's a common problem affecting men and women in the so-called knowledge workforce.

Employers often rely on ergonomic adjustments to improve the health and comfort of their staff — lifting or lowering chair heights, repositioning computer screens or fiddling with the angle of keyboards.

However, a researcher from the University of Queensland has found regular exercise can do a better job of reducing neck and shoulder pain than ergonomic adjustments alone.

Dr Xiaoqi Chen, a physiotherapist and post-doctoral researcher, asked 760 Brisbane office workers to pair ergonomic adjustments with a set of regular strengthening exercises to study the effect on pain levels.

Those who performed the exercises regularly (at least two-thirds of the time) reported a reduction in neck pain at work.

"We found that general fitness exercises such as walking, running and cycling were useful, but neck and shoulder-specific strengthening exercises were more beneficial and there was a larger effect size with our meta-analysis," she said.

Despite the high prevalence of neck and shoulder pain around the world, a lack of research means little is known about the numerous causes of neck pain and the best methods of prevention and treatment.

"Neck pain is a very complex phenomenon," Dr Chen said.

"Some risk factors are modifiable, such as a lack of physical activity, a lack of physical capacity of the neck and shoulder muscles or a poor ergonomic set up.

"That's good news because these are factors we can modify to improve neck pain."

Two factors that can't be controlled are age and gender.

Dr Chen said current research showed women were at a higher risk of developing neck pain, especially those with office jobs.

"It's not to say that ergonomic adjustments are not useful, but perhaps we could start doing a combination of ergonomic adjustments as well as introducing exercises into the workplace which might benefit more people."

These exercises strengthen your deltoid, trapezius and rhomboid muscles.

So why is it so hard to keep your back strong if you're sitting at a desk all day?

"I reckon this is related to the computerisation of work in recent years," Dr Chen said.

"And also these days people are using iPhones and iPads a lot more so they're having to look down on their phones and also having to be in stationary postures for long periods of time.

"It's definitely not a natural position to adopt and I reckon that might be related to why some of these people are getting neck pain."

Strengthening your muscles takes time — up to 10 weeks if you're making it a regular part of your routine.

Dr Chen said finding an exercise buddy and tracking your improvements was a good way to keep motivated and stay on track.

"We suggest people to start off with a weight that is about 50 per cent of their one repetition maximum to be safe and do about 10 to 15 repetitions of those, maybe about 20 minutes each time, three to five times a week for 10 weeks," Dr Chen said.

"We would also strongly suggest to people, when they're starting a new exercise, to consult their doctor and physiotherapist before doing so."

Associate physiotherapy professor Dr Venerina Johnston is collecting data from Dr Chen's research to see how employee exercise at work affects productivity.

She said many workplace health initiatives required staff to participate after work or during their lunch hour, but in this case employees were allowed to exercise during work hours.

"One of the criteria was that the organisation had to give the staff time off to do the exercises, which is about an hour a week, so that's why we looked at productivity as one of our outcomes," Dr Johnston said.

She and Dr Chen said employers looking to incorporate exercise into strategies to improve employee health could foster competition by setting up a leaderboard or offer incentives to groups that completed strengthening exercises regularly.

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