The Five “P’s” of Posture: Prolonged Positions Promote Poor Posture
If people really knew what sitting at a desk all day did to their bodies, they’d probably freak out. This is why quotes like “sitting is the new smoking” is gaining traction in the world of desk employees and for good reason. Although there’s nothing wrong with the act of sitting itself (our bodies are designed to do it), the problem lies in the prolonged durations and postures you adopt as a result. Common problems associated with faulty sitting arrangements include low back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, and neck stiffness to name a few – I’m sensing a lot of you are rubbing your necks right now as I say this. Many companies spend thousands of dollars on ergonomists to make sure desk employees minimize their work-related injuries while maximizing their efficiency. In the short run, investing so much money into ergonomics seems unreasonable. However, these companies understand that keeping employees working and avoiding sick days is actually profitable in the long run. If you spend a lot of time sitting at a desk, it’s time to save yourself. A lot of what I’m about to tell you is simple, quickly actionable, and best of all, only requires your attention. With an open mind, let’s go over some simple things you can implement right away to fix poor posture and make your work environment more ergonomically friendly.
How Do Ergonomics Fix Poor Posture?
Without ergonomics, there would be a lot more work-related injuries, insurance claims, and money lost from both the employees and employers. Ergonomics is the science of fitting the job to the worker. It decides what aspects of a job (and not the worker) need to be changed or altered to minimize the risk of work-related injuries. The key word is “minimize” since every job has a certain amount of risk that can’t be controlled. Three key risk factors assessed by Ergonomists include the following:
1) Does the job create an external force that is higher than what the body’s tissue can tolerate?
2) How repetitive/long is a specific task, that is, how long does it take before it starts hurting?
3) Why type of posture is adopted while performing certain tasks?
These three standard questions can be used for any type of job but let’s focus on desk workers. Very little force exertion is required as most of their time is spent moving hands, wrists, and fingers to type and click. Their issues come from posture and time spent repeating the same task of word processing. We can all agree desk workers spend too much time sitting next to a computer screen. What we have a little more confusion about is the nature of the posture most of us get into while spending hours on our butts. Since we have less control over the duration/frequency of the task (i.e. we can’t make someone work 4 hours instead of 8), let’s first explore the signs of poor posture.
What Is Poor Sitting Posture?
The following are 5 typical problems encountered while sitting and typing for long periods of time:
1) Chin Poking:
Our heads tend to get into a position known as forward head posture (FHP). It literally looks like you are poking your chin forward to get a closer look at the computer. This puts lots of stress on your upper neck over time causing aching pains and tightness, and eventually headaches when it gets worse.
2) Hunched Upper Back:
The upper back adopts a hump-back position called kyphosis over time. This curvature happens the more you slouch and becomes a habit you eventually take on while standing. It occurs because it requires the least amount of energy to maintain. The hunched back is an issue that causes multiple other problems including rounded and hiked shoulders, impingement, tight trap muscles, weakening of muscles that stabilize the shoulder blade, and so on.
3) Curled Low Back:
Then there’s the low back and here’s where most people can relate. Sitting for long periods of time can cause certain muscles to fatigue or turn off. This holds true for muscles that stabilize the low back. The result is slouching which causes the pelvis to rotate backwards in a position known as “posterior pelvic tilt”. This puts your lumbar vertebrae into an awkward flexed-forward position which increases the stress on joints and ligaments of your lower back. It’s also the position that increases the risk of disk herniation which can lead to a whole list of other problems.
4) Leaning on Elbows:
This becomes a habit when a desk worker is late into a shift. At this point, they just want something to rest their arms on from a day of bad head posture. What they do is place their bent elbow on the desk and lean their chin onto their bent wrist (see image below). This exact position puts undue stress on one particular nerve called the ulnar nerve for two reasons: a) a bent elbow stretches the nerve and b) the area where the elbow makes contact with the table is also a position where the nerve is exposed (i.e. the cubital tunnel). Maintaining this position for a few seconds doesn’t cause any problems. Do it longer and you’ll start noticing pain and weird sensations that travel from the elbow down.
5) Bent Wrists:
Having your wrists bent while typing is carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) waiting to happen. This occurs when your wrist is lower than your knuckles (check this the next time you begin typing). Prolonged wrist-bend decreases space in the already small carpal tunnel (located at the wrist). Combined with prolonged finger movement, you’ve got a recipe for disaster. This is because the tendons for finger muscles and the median nerve both travel through the carpal tunnel. Compression from continuously bending the wrist eventually causes all these tissues to press and rub against each other more frequently. The result is inflammation in the wrist. Inflammation leads to swelling which further decreases the space in this tunnel! However, the biggest victim by far is the median nerve that controls a large portion of hand movement and sensation. This is why you will see symptoms of pins and needles, numbness, tingling, and loss of sensation in the hand with CTS. Once you get into later stages of CTS, muscle weakness will cause gradual loss of hand and finger function.
What Can I Do About Long Hours in Front of a Computer Screen?
Adjusting your posture is great in theory but may feel uncomfortable to sustain over long periods of time. The body tends to adapt bad postures in the first place from fatigue so it is no surprise why it’s often easier to maintain bad postures over good ones. This is where we can address the other part of the equation – frequency & duration. For the 9-5 workers, you often have between a half-hour to one-hour break for lunch. This means the majority of the day is spent sitting. To negate that, two options are available, one more realistic than the other. If possible, try taking a small 5-minute break after every hour of work to get up, walk around, and do some stretches. This will get the blood flowing, decrease joint stiffness, and alleviate sitting pressures.
If that’s not possible, a second more realistic strategy is to modify your position frequently. This can be done by organizing your day so that you alternate between tasks that require different postures more frequently as opposed to spending long periods of time in each. For desk workers, this could mean walking to nearby colleagues instead of emailing them, filing papers every hour, using time on the phone to move around with your chair, etc. Be creative. Make your goal to minimize the amount of time you spend stuck in one position. Still limited in how often you can move around? Then my best piece of advice is to move more frequently later on in the day. This is when you’re fatigued from work and least likely to be supported by your postural muscles.
Modifying Your Workspace to Fix Poor Posture
I always thought that the desk was a simple environment back when I knew little about ergonomics – man was I wrong. There’s tons of details to consider when adjusting your workspace! So you may want to pay close attention to this section and even print it out as a helpful guide. The goal is to modify your desk, chair, light source, position, and organization to create the most efficient posture. Generally speaking, we’re aiming for “neutral joint positions” throughout the entire body. The neutral position is the point at which there’s least stress to the joints, ligaments, nerves, tendons, and muscles. In turn, any deviation from this position leads to a reduction of blood flow to muscles and stresses the joints at awkward angles where muscles and tendons have the least strength and leverage to stabilize the body. Here’s how you can modify your work environment to achieve the ideal sitting position while keeping neutral joint positions in mind:
Set up the monitor height so that your eyes are level with the top of the screen. This prevents you from bending your neck downwards or poking your chin forwards. Have the monitor directly in front of you if you spend most of your time using it. The last thing you want is a neck that is stuck in one direction from looking at an off-center monitor all day. This is one easy way to fix poor posture.
The desk height should be at elbow height, especially if you need to do a lot of writing on paper. Otherwise, the keyboard should be at a height that places your elbows at a 90° bend, and your wrists at a neutral position (i.e. no bend in them). The mouse should be right next to your keyboard to prevent your arm from sticking out to the side (which can cause your shoulder to fatigue). Desk items that you use the most should be directly in front of you or close by, otherwise remove any unnecessary clutter on the desk.
The chair height should be adjusted so that your entire back is straight. Your feet should be flat on the floor, and your hips, knees, and ankles at a 90° bend. This will require a chair that is adjustable and provides good back support. Avoid chairs that bent back too far as this will only promote poor posture. It should also have armrests that can support your elbows and forearms. Make sure there’s a small space between the back of your knees and the front of the chair while sitting.
Glare from light can make it hard to see what’s on your computer screen. This forces you to lean your head forward into faulty neck postures just to see better. To avoid glare from your monitor, turn it away from outside lighting and orient it between (and not directly underneath) ceiling lights.
What about laptops?
Laptops replace desktop computers in a lot of work settings since they’re small, portable, and minimize the need for extra equipment. Employees can take their work home in case there’s lots to get done. However, there’s less that can be done to modify its setup. If your laptop becomes your primary computer, we have a few suggestions to improve ergonomics:
a) Get a stand so the top of the monitor is at your eye level
b) Purchase an extra keyboard and mouse to keep yourself in the ideal seated position.
c) Follow the advice mentioned before about the desk, chair, and lighting arrangements.
Prolonged positions promote poor posture – it’s really that simple. There’s obviously a limit to how much we can prevent prolonged postures (i.e. we can’t leave work early). However, there’s a lot we can do to modify our environment, add daily movement, and adopt healthier posture habits. It just comes down to how willing you are to make the change.