The Challenges of Remaining Fit for Work

Andrew Lao 22 March, 2020

With recent announcements of Australian borders now being closed to non-residents and some non-essential businesses closing, the situation with COVID-19 continues to grow ever more complex and uncertain. Many workplaces have implemented policies in order to help the effort with “flattening the curve” by slowing the opportunities for COVID-19 to spread. Workers showing any signs of symptoms are required to self-isolated for 14 days and a large proportion of office-based staff being required to work from home in line with social distancing policies.

The question is then, what effects does this have for the worker? Does it matter?

Loading of the muscles– Use it or lose it

The effects of de-loading, a period of time where reduced physical activity and loading to the musculoskeletal system, are well documented particularly in the athletic population. Studies have indicated that changes to muscle composition itself can be found in as little as 4 weeks, with up to 50% reduction in the body’s neural efficiency to switch on the muscles to generate strength in as little at 2 weeks when completely unloaded.

So, what then?

If you take the example of a labourer that is required to self-isolate with this 14-day policy, the workers are not loading and working their muscles as they usually would with their job for 14 days. Although the worker is not completely unloading their muscles and is not isolated long enough for major changes to the muscle composition, the worker nonetheless begins to enter a period of de-loading.

It’s a similar effect that is experienced when workers took a holiday; the body begin to enter a de-conditioning phase where it is no longer expending energy into maintaining muscle mass, neural efficiency with switching on the right muscles, tendon strength and overall fitness capacity for their usual work.

This in turn places workers at a higher risk of injury upon returning to work. This is a topic which is covered very well by Russell in his previous articles “Loading” and “Is taking a holiday a risk for work injury” where he goes into much more detail.

Biopsychosocial model – More than just a contagious coronavirus

On top of these biological changes to the worker’s physical capacity, there is a significant effect into the psychological and social domains of work, which often gets missed. Unique to COVID-19, the effects of self-isolation and social distancing means that more and more time will be spent away from usual friends and work colleagues. In addition, many recreational sports and activities that workers may engage in: social sports training, team gatherings, sporting events etc. have been suspended indefinitely. All these effects can be quite taxing on the mental wellbeing of workers.

The Solution? Exercise!

To combat these effects, a great strategy for workers required to self-isolate involves a physical exercise that is specific to the capacity required for their role. For some, this may look like a program designed with plyometric exercises and heavy free-weights for the worker required to perform heavy rated manual tasks. For the office-based worker or work that is of light capacity, a general mobility and a pilates based program may be more appropriate. By engaging in specifically tailored exercise, workers continue to load their muscles in a meaningful manner that helps prevent the negative effects of de-loading. In addition, much research has shown exercise to have great benefits with improving overall mood and mental wellbeing. 

Take home message:

During such a critical and unknown time, it is important to perform exercises that will maintain physical capacity and mental wellbeing. Know the signs and symptoms of COVID-19, understand that everyone has an equally important role in the spread of COVID-19 and reach out to a health professional or GP if you are worried.