Ergonomic essentials: How to take care of yourself while working
How much time per day do you spend sitting? Do you have neck or back pain? Whether performing a computer-based job, enjoying leisure time on electronics, performing desk work or watching TV, Americans clock an average of 12-13 sitting hours per day!
With the amount of sitting that we Americans do, it’s important to consider that multiple studies show sustained sitting is a major cause of neck and back pain and contributes to decreased productivity and efficiency. In addition, researcher James Levine found that prolonged periods of sitting slows down metabolism, even in comparison to simply standing.
While standing during work may be a different practice for many of us, it is not without tradition. Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway and Benjamin Franklin were all said to have worked at standing desks.
Taking into account that standing is also a primarily static position, foot fatigue and low back discomfort may set-in with prolonged standing work. A great option for people who spend more than 30-60 minutes at a time working at a desk or computer station is changing to work at a “sit-to-stand” or “adjustable” desk. The average person will feel best alternating sitting and standing, moving from sitting to standing after 30 minutes, then moving back to sitting from standing after 30-60 minutes. This is an approximation and will be variable depending on personal preferences and physical status.
Adjustable workstations are a wonderful option that allow easy and quick alternation between standing and sitting. These types of desks have been around for many years, but have not yet become a mainstay at offices and homes. They could go a long way in alleviating neck and back pain in the workplace, at personal desks at home and for students who use them as study stations. These desks come in more expensive models with an electric motor, and less expensive manually-adjustable models.
There are also more recently modified versions which sit atop a stationary desk, that are basically shelves made to hold computer screens and keyboards that have the ability to raise and lower easily. These tend to be affordable and liked by those who have adopted them. They are also so easily adjusted so that sharing a workstation with others that have different preferred desk heights is not a problem.
There are a few other aspects of comfort that you can consider to make your experience even more comfortable, enjoyable and healthy. Do a little walking and/or stretching to add movement into your day between sitting and standing. In physical therapy practice we commonly tell clients that, “Motion is Lotion”, meaning that when we move our joints, they lubricate themselves, become less stiff, easier to move and spread nutrients throughout the joints to help keep them healthy. Adding these movement breaks also moves the blood throughout the body and can reinvigorate the mind.
Other options include adding an anti-fatigue mat under the feet and to choose an ergonomic chair for sitting. The word ergonomic refers to adapting your environment to fit you, rather than your body having to adapt to the environment. Most sitting surfaces and chairs made these days are not made to fit the body. Primarily, a chair should feel supportive and good to sit in. If a chair is too deep for you, it will put your spine into a C-curve or slouch position, placing increased stress on your intervertebral disks and spinal joints. If feet do not touch the floor or rest on a footstool, the weight may pull on your lower back, causing stress and discomfort. Ideally, a chair will support your back and help you sit upright with your feet on the floor and your spine in a nice, tall position. It should feel good to sit.
Ergonomic chairs can be researched on the web, a couple of examples are the Capisco chair by HAG which offers alternative sitting positions with spinal support that can be at your back, side or front, and the Tic Toc chair by Fully which allows for proper posture and micro-adjustments for your pelvis and spine.
Consult with your local physical therapist if you feel that your work set up is causing you body pain, as there are many ways this can be helped. Move better, live better.
Corey Vanderwouw, MPT, is co-owner of Fit for Life Physical Therapy.
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