Earlier this year, researchers at the University of Washington identified an “epidemic” of neck and back pain, and sitting at a computer all day was a major culprit.
If that’s hard to avoid at your current job (even with perfect posture), there are ways to fine-tune your workstation ergonomics to reduce the strain and fatigue that contribute desk jockeys’ most common ailments.
We spoke with Dr. Waj Hoda of Totum Life Science’s chiropractic clinic in Toronto — an expert in workstation ergonomics — for tips on how to give your body the support it needs.
Start from the ground up
First, ensure your feet reach the ground, with both heel and forefoot firmly planted. This is a question of chair height, so adjust accordingly. If either your chair or desk height prevent you from placing your feet flat on the ground, add a box or low stool as a footrest.
Once your feet are in position — neither stretched out in front of you nor tucked under your body — your calves should naturally achieve a perfect vertical. Watch that your seat isn’t too deep: “They say that if your seat touches the back of your legs, it interferes with circulation,” says Hoda. “And obviously, you don’t want to interfere with blood flow.”
Hip to be square
“By the same token,” Hoda continues, “your hips should be either on the same plane as your knees, or slightly higher. What you don’t want to have is your hips below the level of your knees.” When that happens, your hips close up and your lower back slouches outward — which may feel comfy at first, but has serious long-term consequences.
“A small concave in the lower back, called lordosis, is proper posture,” Hoda explains. “That’s why chairs have lower back padding, it’s so that when you sit, you have lumbar support. But when your hips are below your knees, it doesn’t allow you to have the little curve that’s supposed to be there.”
Chair height affects this, but so too does softness: “You generally want to sit on a chair that doesn’t have a lot of softness,” he says, “because sinking down can let your hips drop below your knees.”
Back to basics
Next, ensure that you’re leaning slightly back into the seat, just past the 90-degree mark. “People tend to lean forward when they’re typing,” Hoda says, “but you want your back supported on the chair.” If you’re sitting up stock-straight, it’s only a matter of time before the muscles keeping you erect tire out, and you start to slump in your chair.
While leaning away from your keyboard could mean having to hold your arms out, zombie-like, while typing, a few small adjustments can correct this. Pull your keyboard as close to your body as you need to to reach it while keeping your elbows at your sides. You may be able to achieve this by pulling your chair closer to your desk, but if it has armrests, that might not be possible; in this case Hoda recommends installing a move-able tray that allows you to position your keyboard exactly where it’s needed.
While you might be tempted to just do away with armrests, they do play an important role in supporting your arms while you type. “When your arms are suspended in space, with your elbows just hanging, your neck and upper traps — the muscles connecting your shoulder to your neck — are constantly in a low-grade contraction to hold them there.”
Hoda suggests placing armrests at a height where they offer just a bit of support under your elbows when your arms are hanging comfortably at your sides, with your elbows bent 90 degrees. Too low, and armrests won’t support your extended arms; too high, and you’ll be hiking your shoulders up towards your ears. “With your elbows right under your shoulders, resting on the arm rests, you can just roll your change towards the desk until your hands are perfectly on the keyboard. You shouldn’t be stretching out for the keyboard, because that’ll create neck pain.”
A flick of the wrist
As for whether or not to rest your wrists on the desk as you’re typing, there’s no convincing evidence one way or another. “Do what feels right for you,” Hoda suggests. On wrist position, the evidence is clearer: “When you stretch your hands out, the keyboard shouldn’t make your wrists bend upwards — if you look at them, they should be the same plane as your lower arm. You may even want a negative angle, where your wrists are just slightly reaching down.” This is where desk height, or at least the height of your keyboard tray, comes in; situate your hands comfortably first, then elevate your keyboard and mouse to the point where they’re in position.
But, Hoda adds, “Every human has a different body shape, and a different preference. I always tell people, ‘This is the starting point, and you might feel like it feels better or worse for you.’”
“Your chin shouldn’t be jutting forward,” Hoda says. “A lot of people, when they’re stressed, tend to poke their chins out. That’s something you have to be aware of.” Finally, your monitor should be an arm’s length away. “When you reach out, the tips of your fingers should be touching the monitor. As for monitor height: the top of the screen — not necessarily the monitor hardware, but the screen itself — should be eye-level.” There are fancy monitor stands if you want them, but a stack of books will also do the trick.
Now that you’re in position: move!
While standing desks have become popular in recent years, they should never fully replace traditional work spaces. Hoda also suggests a conservative approach. “The first time you use one, you may want to stand for 10 minutes,” Hoda says. “The second time, you may want to stand for 10 minutes and then, 4 hours later, another 10 minutes. You want to build yourself up.” The ideal is to alternate between standing and sitting throughout the day. Remember: if you’re at a standing desk, the screen needs to move up to the point where your eyes are level with the top of the monitor again.
“There are challenges to standing desks,” Hoda says, “but in general, moving around is better than not moving around. So an even better situation is, if you’re sitting a lot, just get up a lot. Go get some water, go for a walk!”