Home & Garden
Take Your Seat
The office furniture you choose can alleviate pesky aches and pains.
By Joan Tupponce
Before rushing off to buy furniture for your home office, take a moment to think about the best way to make your workspace ergonomic. If you don’t, you may be headed for a frustrating bout of back, neck or shoulder pain. Proper posture along with the proper placement of furniture and equipment can save you from an ever-growing list of aches and pains in the future.
“A lot of the neck and lower back issues we treat are related to the posture of sitting,” says Jason Bridges, clinical director of Tidewater Physical Therapy’s Glen Allen office. “And that can translate into other issues with your extremities.”
Proper posture is the first defense against muscular problems associated with your workspace. Part of Bridges’ treatment process is educating his patients about the mechanics of good posture. “One of my goals is not just to get them stronger and improve their motion but also to get them to improve how they hold their body,” he says.
People who have desk jobs will often ask Bridges if a new desk chair would help improve or alleviate muscular issues. The answer is not necessarily.
“The key is sitting properly,” he explains. “Your buttocks should be all the way back in the chair with your lower back contacting the chair. You want to have your elbows resting at your side with your forearms parallel to the ground. Your feet should be underneath your knees.”
Desk chairs are usually made for people who are “5 feet 10 inches. When you get people that are taller or shorter you have to make accommodations,” says Lori Strobl, clinical supervisor for Bon Secours Physical Therapy and Sports Performance at St. Francis Watkins Centre. “Look for a chair that fits your body size.”
Manufacturers are making desk chairs in a variety of styles. Options include a sliding seat, adjustable arms and adjustable backs with lumbar support that can be lifted or lowered. “You can get chairs with a back that can go forward or backward and will lock into place,” says Mike Nash, account representative for Ball Office Products in Henrico. “You can also get a seat that you tilt forward or backward, that you adjust to fit your needs.”
When Nash works with customers he often lets them try two to three different chairs to find one that fits properly. Prices for good quality chairs with warranties usually start at approximately $250.
Another key to warding off muscular issues is to get up from your chair frequently. Remind yourself every 15 to 20 minutes to stand up. “The most compressive forces on the spine occur in a seated position, which is one of the most stressful positions for the spinal anatomy,” Strobl says. “A lot of people sit for two to three hours at a time. You want people to get up and move around more often.”
Crossing your legs while you sit can be troublesome as well. “That promotes asymmetry through the trunk,” Bridges says.
Your workspace as well as your keyboard and mouse should be at a height that would allow you to maintain the proper posture. “If your desk is higher and your feet don’t touch the ground, you’ll want to bring in a step stool,” Bridges said.
Wrists should always stay in a neutral line with the forearm. “If they are too high or too low, your wrists will be extended or flexed,” Bridges said.
Make sure that your mouse is positioned correctly so you are not putting strain on your back. “A lot of people will lean toward the mouse,” Bridges says. “Also people often sit too far away so they lean forward.”
Your phone should always be within a hand’s reach and you shouldn’t bend your neck to hold it while you talk. “I recommend getting a headset,” Bridges says. “If that is not an option, you should get a shoulder holder you can attach to the phone.”
When it comes to your monitor, you want your eyes to be 20 degrees down from your horizontal line of sight (slightly below eye level), Strobl says. “If your screen is too high, your head and neck will be extended. If you have a laptop, you want your screen to be at about eye level.”
Try to keep your monitor distance about “24 inches from the eye to the computer screen,” Strobl adds. “That can vary depending on the size of the screen.”
If you have a couple of monitors in your office, you may be turning your body to see both screens, especially if one is off to the side. “Ideally you want to have both in front of you so you just have to swivel your head and not turn your whole body,” Bridges says.
A document holder that sits between the keyboard and the screen or next to the side of the screen can alleviate lowering your head to look down at a document.
One of the newer types of office setups is a stand-up desk that can be lowered or raised throughout the day to accommodate both standing and seated positions. The same ergonomic guidelines apply to a stand-up desk – your keyboard and mouse should be parallel with your elbow and your elbow should be at your side.
“When you are using a standing desk, stand on one foot and put your other foot on the crossbar for a little better stability,” Strobl said. “When you are standing you are burning a few more calories, and it’s less stressful on your back.”
She encourages people to alternate between sitting and standing throughout the day.
“Anything done all day long is not a good thing,” she says. “You need a variety and availability of options.”
One of those options is sitting on an exercise ball or on a balance ball chair. You must still keep your hips and knees at a 90-degree angle with your feet flat on the floor.
“If you are sitting on it and your hips are below the level of your knees, you are too low,” Strobl advises. “If your hips are above the level of your knees, the ball is too large. It might require adjusting the height of the desk or putting a platform under the ball to raise it or adding a platform under your feet to raise your feet higher.”
And if you really want a workout while you work, there are treadmill desks. “That’s a whole new level,” Bridges says.