How to be a digital nomad without getting back pain

Picture this. You’re sitting in your refurbished camper van (complete with Scandi-wood paneling, LED spotlights and a sheepskin rug you bought for a hilariously huge amount of money at a farmer’s market). Your unrealistically good-looking partner has just brewed up a coffee on the gas stove. You’re sipping it in a earthenware mug, gazing out at an unobstructed view of the ocean, which glitters enticingly in the morning sun. Your labradoodle Alan is curled up by your feet, dreaming about all the recent adventures you’ve Instagrammed together.

Photo by PNW Production on Pexels.com

You sigh deeply, contentedly. Life is good – you’re exactly where social media says you should be.

There’s just one problem.

Your whole body hurts because in order to fund your adventurous lifestyle, you have to work for eight hours a day cramped up inside a teeny tiny camper van, or in coffee shops with antique chairs designed by someone who’s clearly never seen a human being before.

What can you do? You can’t fit an ergonomic office chair in your minimalist van. You can’t go to a shared office space every day – that would defeat the whole point of being on the road.

Well, luckily for you I have the answers.

Photo by Armin Rimoldi on Pexels.com

But before we get to the bit where I dish out advice, here are some things it might help to know:

  • I’m not a medical professional but…
  • I spent half a decade as the content editor for an ergonomic office equipment company – which means I researched and wrote a LOT about posture and healthy working habits.
  • ‘Digital nomad’ is the somewhat obnoxious term for someone who works remotely while travelling.
  • I’ve been digitally nomadic for three months and have worked remotely in some capacity for over six years.
  • I have first-hand experience of trying to be a carefree, fun-loving young person while dealing with chronic low back pain and sciatica.

So without further ado, here are my top tips for being a remote worker or digital nomad without dying of crippling back pain or any other horrible health condition:

1. Move around loads

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This point is first because it’s probably the most important piece of advice you’ll ever get in your entire life, second only to ‘don’t be a dick’.

Forget splashing out on fancy ergonomic equipment (it’s so refreshing to write that after so many years of marketing it). While some products can help a bit (which I’ll get to in a moment), the single most important thing you can do for your health, whether you’re a digital nomad or not, is to move frequently. Get up from your desk or sofa or wherever you’re working at least every 30 minutes. Ideally every 15 minutes.

Stretch, go for a brisk walk, do some lunges, press ups or star jumps. Anything that gets the heart rate up for 2-3 minutes.

Be weird about it. Annoy the hell out of whoever you’re digitally nomading with. It doesn’t matter what the world thinks of you because frequent activity has been shown (by actual scientists) to be more effective at staving off health problems like heart disease, obesity and diabetes, than going to the gym every day.

This is because the act of sitting for long periods is really bad for your body. It slows your circulation, which can do disgusting things like cause your blood to pool. Prolonged sitting may also change the way your body reacts to insulin, the hormone that helps turn sugar into energy (slow metabolism buddies, where are you?). Plus you’re more at risk of staying too long in slouchy postures, which can lead to those nasty aches and pains.

Basically: sitting for too long makes your body slow and sluggish, so you need to keep it on its toes – literally, to activate your muscles and remind your heart that you are in fact alive.

Think you might forget to move that often?

Buy a wearable that buzzes every hour with a motivational message. Set an alarm on your phone to remind you. I know when you’re in The Zone it can be really tempting to just sit and work for hours on end, but you’re probably sitting yourself into an early grave, or at least chronic back pain and other musculoskeletal disorders.

When I worked from a camper van in Florida, I made sure to get out frequently and walk briskly for about 10 minutes wherever we were parked. Or I’d get the yoga mat out and do some stretches until my body felt OK again.

2. Work out

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Not everyone likes working out vigorously, and that’s OK. As the previous point mentioned, the most important thing is to move frequently.

Keeping fit is important because you don’t really want to be the one lagging behind when the zombie apocalypse strikes, do you? On a more day-to-day level, functional fitness keeps you able, alert, energetic, less prone to injury – and it can even perk up your dopamine levels to get you out of low moods (if you can muster up enough motivation to do the exercise in the first place).

When you’re travelling – especially if your accommodation is small, it’s easy to let your workout regime fall to the wayside. But try not to, because keeping your body strong is the best way to reduce injury from sitting for too long (apart from not sitting for too long). Here are some quickfire mini tips for working out when you’re a digital nomad:

  • Focus on core strength – not for the elusive six-pack, but for the pure fact that your core holds your organs in and supports your entire body. Back pain is often caused by a weak core. When you’re sitting in your van or trendy tiny house, you need to sit in an active way – don’t just slump and let your spine do the hard work. Engage your core and support your lumbar spine with a rolled up towel.

  • Check if a nearby gym has a day pass – you might be able to workout for free! If you’re in the U.S where there are gym chains that allow you to use your pass at different locations, invest in a monthly membership (this is a great way to get a shower if you’re in a camper van too).

  • Buy a workout band – this is small enough to be travel-friendly, but adds a little resistance to your body weight exercises so you can build lean muscle.

  • Try an online exercise programme – I use Les Mills, which is accessible from most countries. You can even download workouts if you’re going off grid.

3. Set up ergonomically

Photo by Skylar Kang on Pexels.com

There are a few fundamental rules for an ergonomic set-up. I am breaking all of them, as I’m currently lying face down on my bed as I type this. Don’t worry too much about always being in the perfect posture because if you’re moving frequently, it won’t have enough time to do any damage.

  • Your eyes should be in-line with the top of your screen. You may need to elevate your laptop on a box (or use a laptop stand with a detachable keyboard and mouse).
  • Both feet should be supported on the floor.
  • Your entire back should be in contact with the back of your chair. You may need extra support for your lower back, so roll up a towel or stuff a cushion behind you.
  • Your knees should be lower than your hips.

This posture isn’t always possible for digital nomads so don’t worry if it’s impractical for you. Just heed the first two pieces of advice: move frequently, and keep your body strong.

Back pain is such a mysterious condition influenced by many factors – some of which are quite surprising, like emotional stress.

In conclusion, back pain is not inevitable even if you’re living in a van or travelling about a lot. Maintaining a strong core is vital, and so is regular low-impact movement – especially yoga, which helps you to listen to the signals your body sends you.

I hope my tips prove useful but remember, I’m not a health professional. Good luck!

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