These days, we do a whole lot of sitting. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, 62 percent of working Americans use the internet as part of their jobs. That’s a lot of people spending a lot of their time at a computer, and it’s a lot of potential for pain caused by extended sitting with poor posture.
In 2014 The Washington Post interviewed a team of experts to learn exactly what problems sitting all day was causing our bodies. The list they came up with included heart disease, overproductive pancreas, multiple types of cancer, muscle degeneration, poor leg circulation, soft bones, foggy brain, neck strain, sore back and shoulders, inflexible spine and disk damage.
Because of its unhealthy effects, you might have heard that sitting is “the new smoking.” But it’s a habit that might be even harder to break. After all, you can stop buying cigarettes. You can’t stop going to work and using a computer every day if that’s your job.
Luckily, there are ways to make positive changes in your posture and other habits to keep health problems at bay.
Theodore Choma is the director of the Spine Surgery Division at the University of Missouri School of Medicine. When it comes to preventing pain from sitting at work, he said core strength is key.
The core musculature, which surrounds the spine, is key to protecting it. Keeping those core muscles toned helps your spine stay in tip-top shape.
“The data is all pointing to the same direction, that it’s very important to have a toned core musculature to protect your spine,” Choma said. “Now that so much of our work has been turned digital we just find ourselves sitting at computer screens. There’s nothing nefarious about the computers themselves, but we’re not activating our core musculature. We assume a sagged posture for our spines, and they can only take so much of that.”
Choma suggests taking regular breaks to get up and walk around throughout the day and avoiding sitting for hours at a time. You can also exercise off the clock to help keep your workday pain free.
Telling people that they have to exercise so they can do their desk job, you don’t hear that too often,” he said. “But that is the case. There are a whole multitude of exercises that strengthen your core.”
“Just simply saying, ‘Well, I walk,’ probably is not sufficient,” he said.
If you have the option to move beyond the standard-issue office chair, the Mayo Clinic recommends you choose one that supports the curves of your spine. Adjust the height of your supportive chair so that your feet are flat on the floor (not tucked under!) and your thighs sit parallel to the floor.
The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons says you should sit back in your chair, not perched on the edge. According to the AAOS website the chair should also:
If you want to really put the “roll” in rolling chair, Choma offered another alternative.
“Another thing that some of the staff in our offices will do is trade out their chair for a Swedish exercise ball,” he said. “That requires them just ever so slightly to balance themselves on the ball and they have to use their core musculature to do that, so it helps remind their bodies to keep the core muscles activated.”
Once you have your sitting arrangement sorted out, remember to leave it every now and then. Changing your position and taking time to walk around and stretch can help prevent back pain, according to the Mayo Clinic.
The placement of your monitor could be causing you eye, neck and shoulder problems. AAOS suggests monitors be separate from keyboards. The monitor should be centered and placed 20 to 26 inches away from your face.
The top of the screen should sit at eye level “so you can see it clearly without looking up.” You should also organize your workstation so that the glare from windows or lighting doesn’t shine into your eyes.
You shouldn’t have to hunt for your mouse when working at your computer. Keep it front and center, or at least close by. You should be able to keep your elbows at your waist and move it around without twisting your shoulders or arms. The AAOS says you should hold your mouse gently and keep your fingers relaxed while moving it around.
You should also be kind to your keyboard. The AAOS recommends “a soft touch on the keyboard instead of pounding keys with unnecessary force.” Taking breaks to relax your hands and fingers every so often can also help avoid too much tension.
Laptops make following many of the recommendations for being kind to your body at work difficult. The fact is that the screen and keyboard being connected creates problems for either the arms and hands or the neck and back, depending on how you’re sitting.
Cornell University Ergonomics provides tips for using a laptop based on what kind of user you are. “Occasional users” work on their laptops for short periods of time, while a “full-time user” uses his or her laptop as a primary workstation.
CUErgo states that occasional users are better off sacrificing perfect posture than wrist posture. For short-term use, sit back in a comfortable chair and keep your laptop in a neutral position on your lap with the screen angled in a way that makes it easiest to see without much neck strain.
Full-time users have more potential problems, but these can be solved by creating a desktop-style workstation with your laptop when using it for extended periods of time. CUErgo suggests elevating the laptop up off the desk with a stable surface such as a computer monitor pedestal and connecting an external keyboard and mouse. These additions create a more ergonomic workstation setup.
Laptop use isn’t the only thing causing workplace posture problems. CUErgo also provides suggestions for working from the floor and healthy computer use for people who are differently abled, left-handed people and children. Those guides and more can be found online through CUErgo.
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Christine Jackson is a Missouri-based writer and editor who loves the arts but never seems to write about them. Her holy trinity includes the St. Louis Blues, David Bowie and whoever invented iced coffee. You can find her on Twitter sharing snarky quote tweets @cjax1694.