You’ve likely heard the ‘new adage’ that sitting is the new smoking. While this important topic could fill another blog post entirely, it is important to realize that many occupations and past-times require a person to sit.
Technology has changed the way we work so significantly that we spend more time sitting than ever before. Now, this post is not condoning sitting behaviour – new research shows that sedentary time is associated with a host of negative health outcomes, including a higher risk for developing diabetes, heart disease and cancer.1 And this holds true even if you exercise regularly2 – so just because you squeezed in that morning workout, it doesn’t mean you have a pass to sit around for the rest of the day – it is important to move, and keep moving.
But sometimes we need to sit and there are a few quick adjustments you can make to your work- or play- station to optimize your sitting posture and behaviour. A poor setup can lead to awkward postures and repetitive stressful movements, and result in increased muscle tension, fatigue, neck, back and/or wrist pain. Here are a few ergonomic tips to help maintain good posture and habits while you are working at your desk:
1. Check your posture
Before getting anywhere near your desk, check your posture against the following characteristics:
- Shoulders and upper arms should be relaxed, with elbows at your sides.
- Elbows bent at ~90° with forearms held horizontally or supported by arm rests.
- Check that your head is over the neck and shoulders – not translated forward.
- The backrest of the chair should support the lower back and the natural curve of the spine.
- The back of the thighs should be supported horizontally by the chair with 90-110° at the hips.
- The feet should be fully supported on the floor or on a footrest.
This optimal posture should be adopted while sitting and the workstation arranged to facilitate it. While optimal postures may reduce stress on the body, maintaining any posture for a prolonged period of time can lead to fatigue and discomfort. Again, it is important to move regularly.
2. Adjust your chair
Sometimes it is not practical to make your workstation fit you – most desk heights are fixed not matter how tall or short you may be, making the chair the most important part of the setup. An ill-fitting, uncomfortable chair will contribute to poor posture and increase fatigue.
- Height – Adjust so that with your elbows bent at 90° and forearms horizontal, your elbows just clear the top of the work surface and your wrists are straight when contacting the keyboard or mouse – there should be no bend at the wrist. If your feet no longer contact the floor, use a footrest.
- Backrest – find a chair that offers good lumbar support, and adjust it so it fits snugly against your lower back. A small foam pillow may also offer support. The backrest should be at an angle of 90-110°.
3. Screen, mouse and keyboard check
- Screen distance – sit back in your chair and extend your arm. Your fingertips should just touch the screen.
- Screen height – adjust the height so that the top line of text, or address bar, is at eye level. Prop up with a book if needed.
- Keyboard and mouse –the keyboard and mouse should be positioned to maintain elbows at your sides and bent at 90°, and wrists neutral. This usually means installing a keyboard tray that can be adjusted to the correct height and distance. Along with the chair, the position of the keyboard and mouse is crucial for maintaining good posture and preventing forward lean and rounded shoulders.
4. Organize your work area
- Improve the viewing angle of documents by using a document holder that is placed close to the screen, ideally directly below it. If not, alternate sides to reduce repetitive movements.
- Organizing your work materials into primary (within easy reach; items frequently used) and secondary (occasionally used) work zones will improve efficiency, create more working space, and reduce the distance and frequency of reaches.
- Improve lighting and minimize glare. Make sure the monitor is not placed in front of a window or bright background.
5. Keep moving
No matter how “ergonomic” your workstation, it is important to keep moving throughout the day and limit long periods of sitting:
- Take phone calls standing up or moving around the room. TIP: Place a sticky note on the back of the phone as a reminder.
- Invest in or make a simple standing desk. Standing burns more calories than sitting and helps to maintain bone and muscle strength through weight-bearing gravity. But remember to change your posture regularly because maintaining a static standing position for a long period of time can also lead to stress and fatigue.
- Set an hourly timer to remind you to stand, take a short walk and stretch. Most new fitness trackers are motivating and have reminders to move after periods of inactivity.
- Ensure to follow these simple tips – eat lunch away from your desk, use at least half of your allocated break times to take a walk outside or around the office, and take the stairs.
So if work has you sitting down in front of a computer for most of the day, be sure to take a moment to check your setup. Get someone to snap a picture of you at your desk and bring it with you to your next physio appointment for more advice on optimizing your workstation and posture. Exercises targeting postural faults can also be developed to help improve your day at your desk.
- Biswas et al. Sedentary Time and Its Association With Risk for Disease Incidence, Mortality, and Hospitalization in Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Ann Intern Med. 2015, 162(2):123-132.
- Ekelund et al. Does physical activity attenuate, or even eliminate, the detrimental association of sitting time with mortality? A harmonised meta-analysis of data from more than 1 million men and women. The Lancet. 2016, 388(10051):1202-1310
- WorkSafe BC – Ergonomics. Access at: https://www.worksafebc.com/en/health-safety/hazards-exposures/ergonomics