It’s no surprise that coronavirus has triggered a massive boom in digital communication. Social networks have helped us foster resilience by reducing isolation and facilitating remote learning and work from home. Yet as technology deepens inroads into almost every aspect of our lives, it dislocates us from nature, from sensory experience in the body, physical activity and internally focused moments. Using devices affects the brain and research shows that our cognitive processes, attention span and ability to take in new information is changing. Virtual meetings devoid of embodied communication signals can be mentally fatiguing and physicality so diminished that after prolonged screen-bound activity we come back to a body full of small repetitive strains, tension, dull aches and pain. Across the globe our world has been turned upside down, yet, as summer 2020 gives way to a new term we are tentatively finding our feet in the so-called ‘new normal’ – one thing’s for sure, digital technology and our reliance on it to mediate our lives is here to stay. As we adapt it’s important to in-build good habits for self-care and wellbeing.
When we think of exercise the body, we often do not consider the face or eyes, yet the tension held here can influence the whole body and even how well we breathe. These areas together with the neck, shoulders and low back are adversely affected by prolonged screen-based activity.
So, here are a few simple but effective exercises to do at regular intervals at your desk that can help:
Blinking relaxes the muscles of the eye: Blink slowly as if your eyelashes are softly opening and closing your eyes. Then blink quicker – a series of ‘butterfly’ blinks.
Simply See: Take your eyes away from your screen and for a few moments simply look around your room, trace slowly the outlines of whatever you see, notice shape, colour, light, shade, textures. Become aware of the edges of the room. The key is to slow down and notice your breath. Bring your gaze to parts of your body that you can see, acknowledge your physical presence in relation to the space and a sense of being in the here and now.
Palming: Rest your elbows on your desk or table, rub the palms of your hands together, then cup them over your eyes. Feel warmth radiate from your palms to relax the muscles around your eyes and visualise darkness soothing the optic nerve. At first you may see after images or lights, which will gradually fade as the optic nerve relaxes. Breathe slowly and deeply, gently drop your shoulders away from your neck. Stay ‘palming’ for 3 to 10 minutes (or longer) to calm your mind and refresh tired eyes. To finish softly blink your eyes and let light in around the edges of your hands then slowly take them away from your face. Take a few more deep breaths before you move on.
Touch your Face: Walk your fingertips along the ridge of your eyebrows and trace around the bony orbits of the eyes, onto your cheekbones beneath your eyes and up to bridge of your nose – close your eyes, go slowly and take your time. Smooth gently open across your forehead, lightly dust your cheekbones towards the front of your ears, drop down to the corners of your jaw and relax your bite, and track along your jawline to the tip of your chin. Smooth beneath your chin, out to behind your ears. Trace your fingers around the back of your head and cradle the back of your head in the palms of your hands. Then place one hand on the crown of your head and the other on your breastbone on the centre of your chest – stay there for a few breathes and take a moment to sense your head in relation to your heart.
Smile & Yawn: Smiling is naturally uplifting – it also relaxes tension held by a glazed over facial expression. Yawning stretches tight jaw muscles, stimulates the production of tears that lubricate the eyes and expels stale air from the lungs.
Upward Stretch: Staring at a screen causes us to slump and to crane the head forwards which puts strain on the neck, shoulders and upper back, and drains our energy reserves. This uplifting and energising stretch releases the tension in the upper body, opens the chest, creates space for the internal organs and helps us to regain a sense of vertical alignment and improves posture. Interlace your fingers (over the backs of your hands) and press your palms to the ceiling with arms raised overhead. Take 3-5 deep breaths – open your arm pits and lift up out of your waistline. Open and lower your arms to press your hands down into your seat, roll your shoulders back, lift the breastbone, your gaze and take 3-5 more breaths. If your wrists don’t agree with this hand position you can put your arms out in front of your shoulders, then bend them to place your hands/fingers around the opposite elbow (similar to cossack arm position) and then raise your arms up as if framing your face, aim for arms level with your ears. Try not to poke the ribs out in front.
Figure 4 stretch: Sit squarely on your chair, root your sit-bones and soles of the feet. Try not to disturb your pelvis, lift your R foot and place it across your L knee (don’t rush or force your way into this position and do not do this exercise if you have a replacement hip). Keep your spine straight, sides of your waist even and fold forwards from your hips to stretch behind the R hip. Stay in this position for at least 5 breaths and then come out of it slowly. Repeat with the L foot over the R knee. Prolonged sitting deadens the hips and spine, and tightens deeper muscles of the hips and pelvis which finding this position can help to restore their length.
Stretch your Back: Stand in front of your desk with hands on the edge. Walk your feet back and fold forwards from your hips to make a tabletop with your back. Feel the underneath of your arms stretching, and the backs of your legs (bend your knees slightly and stick out your butt), connect your arms to your shoulder blades in the upper back – stay for at least 5 breaths. Rise above it all: Curl your tailbone under and press your pelvis towards your desk. As the upper back begins to uncurl press your hands into the desk, let your heels lift, engage butt muscles to stretch the front of your hips. Stay for a few breaths with your chest lifted, arching backwards and looking up. Then lower your heels and flex your hips back into tabletop and repeat both moves – try to connect them into a flow. Benefit after a period of being in static seated positions to open the front of the hips and chest. Folding forwards creates length through the spine and lifting up into a back-bend tones spinal muscles and revitalises.
Heel Rises: Standing in front of your desk, lift your heels and rise up onto the balls and toes of your feet, feel tall through your whole body (try not to hold your breath). Lower your heels to the floor and bend your knees. Repeat several times slowly. Touch your fingertips onto your desk if you need to steady your balance. Tread on the Spot: Rise up onto your toes, then lower one heel to the floor, bending the opposite knee, rise up on to the toes of both feet again and then lower the other heel, continuously and rhythmically lowering one heel then the other. Soften the ankles and knees to bend with each lowering to alternately lengthen and contract the calf muscles. This is great for getting the circulation moving as the calf muscles act as a pump sending the flow of blood back up to the heart.
Place a plant or some flowers near your workstation: The natural colour, forms and beauty of plants can be a relief for the eyes and mind during long screen meetings – research suggests the presence of plants can increase our concentration levels and have calming effect on the nervous system.
Natural daylight is important for the health of our eyes – this means going outside folks! The full spectrum of natural daylight is only available outside and it is even more important during the approaching darker months ahead. A daylight lamp on your desk is worth considering if you are working or studying from home and your budget can stretch that far. But nothing beats the real thing! See far: Looking out to a distant and wider horizon relaxes the eyes, respiratory diaphragm and eases mental tension.
For further reference: Eye relaxation techniques have been pioneered by Meir Schneider building on the earlier work of Dr. W. Bates. Often when we think of exercise we do not factor in the face or eyes, yet the tension held here can influence the whole body and especially how we breathe. These are areas that together with the neck and shoulders are adversely affected by prolonged screen-based activity. Practices such as Yoga, Feldenkrais, the Alexander Technique and contemporary Pilates are holistic approaches that can help as they have resources to support and integrate eye health and relaxation. Some are intuitive and part of our bodies’ natural responses. Please listen to your body when you are exercising and stop if you experience any pain. Consult a medical professional if symptoms persist.
©Karen Hall, 2020. Reproduced by permission of author.