Many Shanghai expats spend long days at the office and/or commuting. This means they often spend too much time sitting, which leads to discomfort, headaches and restlessness. Over time, the muscles become imbalanced and many people experience chronic pain in the lower back, shoulders, neck, arms and legs. I would estimate about 90% of patients I see have weak core muscles and problems developed from a sedentary lifestyle.

So, when working hard is your reality, what can you do to stay pain-free?

  1. Sit dynamically. Your body needs to move. Sitting in one position for hours on end is unnatural. Try to stand as often as possible, or move positions in your chair. Even if you don’t have the best chair/desk setup, you can keep problems from developing by using your muscles. You should try to engage your core by moving forward on your seat (or see standing or exercise ball options below). You can exercise the core by tilting/rolling your pelvis and checking that your deep core muscles are engaged.
  2. Check your desk height. One of the biggest problems in Shanghai is that the desk is often too low for tall expats. If the desk is too low, it will be difficult to get the chair and body positioned correctly. You should be able to rest your forearms on your desk easily. If not, you will be forced to bend down and jut your head forward towards your screen. If your desk is too low, ask your Shanghai office manager or HR Department if there is any way to get a taller desk or raise yours.
  3. Fancy chairs aren’t always the answer. Arm rests can be a problem. If they’re too high to fit under the desk, you can’t get properly positioned. If the armrests are too low, you’ll likely hunch down. A comfortable chair which allows you to lean back also leads to poor alignment. When seated, the hip and knee angle should be 90 degrees or greater. A standing position offers a lot of benefits and you may have seen the “standing desk” concept, although this is still rare. Sitting on a large exercise ball (i.e. “Swiss ball” or “balance ball”) is a great solution as it engages the core muscles and promotes good posture. It may take some adjustment, so you might try alternating it with your chair to start. If you can’t replace your office chair, try different positions and shift around frequently.
  4. Beware of your computer position/using a laptop. Using a laptop all day or a computer that is too low or improperly positioned will cause you to bend over, create eye strain and possibly wrist and elbow issues. Try to raise your monitor to a proper eye level (you can use a laptop stand and separate keyboard if you must work on a laptop). Stretch your wrists and arms during the day (see below for exercise tips).
  5. Counteract long hours of sitting with some physical exercise every day. Schedule exercise like other appointments. Do what you enjoy as anything will help: going to the gym, cycling to/from work, walking, exercise classes, yoga, etc. During your work day, try to take a short walk (perhaps during lunch) or stand up to do tasks when possible (walk over to talk to a colleague, stand up for phone calls).

Office exercises

  1. Stand up, stretch and walk around for a short period, frequently. Focus your eyes in the distance and move your body. Stretch or move areas that feel tight.
  2. Roll your shoulders, focusing especially on rolling them back to counteract the tendency to slump forward.
  3. Stretch your elbow/forearm. Stand up and put your palm backwards on your desk or a table (fingers straight out if you can; if not bend them over the edge) and hold. Straighten the elbow and move back slightly to deepen the stretch. You can also put the arm the other way and twist the forearm as your wrist mobility allows.

If you are experiencing pain related to your office environment, consider getting a custom assessment and treatment plan from a physiotherapist. With simple exercises, we can target the muscle imbalances to reduce the pain and prevent it from worsening and becoming chronic.


Sarah Trost is a physiotherapist and personal trainer specializing in sports medicine and rehabilitation. Sarah offers services such as rehabilitation, lymphatic drainage, personal training and chronic pain treatment at Body & Soul – Medical Clinics’ Downtown, Jing’an and Hongqiao locations.

Shanghai | Body and Soul | Expat Essentials

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