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Self Care In The New Year

Rachel Morris, OT, is an occupational therapist with PresenceLearning. Rachel started her OT career in 1990 and started with PL as an OT provider in 2013.

January is a great time to set goals for taking good care of our bodies. Because teletherapists have unique challenges with the physical demands of sitting in front of computer screens, we reached out to occupational therapist, Rachel Morris, for her strategies for paying attention to physical well-being and keeping a healthy and happy body.

Let’s talk a little about routines you use to take care of your body while working. Will you share with us how your morning starts? Do you have any warm-up exercises you do before you sit down at your computer to meet with students?

  • Ideally, stretching is best to do in the morning. I also recommend doing a little planking for core strength (The Plank is a yoga/pilates pose—you can learn more about it here.)
  • Have a glass of water available and gather all of the materials you’ll need for your work at your desk before starting the day.

Can you talk a little about scheduling and how you can fit in regular breaks to get up from your computer and move?

  • When possible, I schedule break times in advance.
  • I recommend at least a 1-2 minute break every half hour (between every therapy session) and a longer break every 1-2 hours (5-10 minutes)
  • I also like to work movement into my therapy sessions as much as possible. Speech therapists can also do some simple warm up exercises and deep breathing at the start of sessions to help the students ready their bodies for work. If a student is being seen by an occupational therapist, SLPs can reach out to those providers to find out if there are exercises that will help the student focus and then you as the therapist can also do this movement at the same time.
  • Block off a lunch time and get away from your desk.
  • Standing for some meetings or sessions is another great option if you can raise your workstation easily.

Sitting at a desk for long hours can be especially hard on the lower back, shoulders, arms, and eyes. Do you have some recommendations for therapists about how to set up their workstation to minimize body strain and take care of their backs while sitting?

Yes, set up your workstation to minimize body strain:

  • Use a good adjustable office chair with lumbar support. A soft chair or couch will tend to make you slouch.
  • Be sure that your feet are flat on the floor and your seat height adjusted so that your knees are equal to or slightly lower than your hips. Your knees should be at 90 degrees or slightly less (extended slightly forward).
  • To achieve a good sitting posture, sit back into your chair. Slouch completely and then draw yourself up, accentuating the curve of your back. Hold for a few seconds and then release the position slightly. This release position is a good sitting posture.
  • You may want to use a small lumbar roll to help you keep your lower back slightly arched. An arched back prevents slouching.
  • You may also want to consider a therapy ball for sitting—just be sure that the ball is properly sized so that your feet are flat on the floor, and knees and hips are at about 90 degrees.
  • Position armrests so that your shoulders are relaxed. Your upper arms should be comfortably positioned next to your body and your elbows bent to 90 degrees so that your forearms are parallel to the floor. Place your keyboard so that your wrists are straight.
  • Your keyboard should be centered and close to your body.
  • Resting eye level should be at the center of your screen. To find this, the top of your monitor should be at eye level or slightly lower, allowing your eyes to look slightly down but not require your neck to bend. If you wear bifocals, you may need to lower your monitor another 1-2 inches. In between your therapy sessions, take eye breaks as well. Focus on a distant object for 10-15 seconds to reduce eye strain.
  • A standing desk can also be helpful. But you’ll need to be cautious of standing in one place too long. Put one foot up on a small stool for 5-15 minutes and then alternate to the other foot. You can also use a rubberized mat to soften the standing surface.
  • Hydrate.

One of the great advantages of working from home is that you can set up a spot for exercise near your workspace. Do you have any simple floor exercises that you can recommend for therapists to do between clients on a yoga mat near their desks?

  • I like to see a combination of stretches and core work. Some exercises that we commonly think of like toe touches, sit ups, and some leg lifts actually put a lot of strain on the spine.
  • Here are a few of my favorite stretches: hamstring stretch, upward facing dog (prone back extension), pelvic tilts on all fours (cat/sagging horse), lower back/leg rotational stretches, knee to chest, shoulder blade squeezes with arms extended, and neck/arm stretches. The Mayo Clinic and other reliable medical institutes have exercise programs on their websites if you want to check them out.
  • My favorites for core strengthening are: planks (front to side bridge too), wall sits, quadrapod arm/leg raises (bird dog), partial crunch with lumbar support (while putting your hand behind your back.) You can check out Mayo Clinic core-strength exercises here.

Coming back to routines, do you have an end-of-day routine after your therapy sessions end? Have you found any particular time in your schedule easier for exercising than others?

  • I have found it helpful to take daily walks after work. A 30-minute walk clears my brain and my body stiffness. It helps that my husband is a willing walking buddy.
  • It is just important to move.
  • The best thing is to move throughout the day.

Let’s end with a focus on students. Just like adults today, students sit longer hours as well. Our therapy sessions give us a special opportunity to model healthy practices around the computer. How do support your students in becoming more aware of their bodies and taking care of them?

  • Start therapy sessions with exercises or movement activities—typically I focus on some core strength and coordination and then move to more distal exercises.
  • Beginning with exercise activates the body and the brain.
  • I think it is also important to consider the desk/computer setup for our students. If a student is sitting in a chair with his or her feet dangling, they will be uncomfortable and have a poor base of support which limits movement. Providing a foot stool, box, or phone book as an improvised foot stool can provide a base for the student to move more freely with less effort throughout the therapy session.
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