If "sitting is the new smoking," what are office workers to do?
For millions of Americans, an average workday means sitting at a desk and computer for eight or more hours. This type of work can lead to a host of musculoskeletal problems such as back pain, spinal disc hernias, carpal tunnel syndrome, neck and shoulder pain and more.
"For someone who sits at a desk all day, there are things that can be done to combat the effects of sitting," said Anita Addlesberger, a registered occupational therapist and certified ergonomic specialist at Franciscan Health Crown Point. "First, get up and move every half hour. Taking a quick walk around the office or stretching at your desk can greatly help. Second, take time to arrange your workspace in an ergonomically correct way. Third, pay attention to your movements like posture, leaning and straining."
What is Workplace Ergonomics?
Workplace ergonomics attempts to reduce strain, fatigue and injuries by improving product design and workspace arrangements, such as properly positing your chair, keyboard and monitor. Having an ergonomically correct workspace can result in less body strain, slouching, twisting and reaching, which can cause musculoskeletal problems and pain over time.
"We see a lot of patients with neck, shoulder and back problems as a result of desk jobs," says Addlesberger. "They are always surprised how much better they feel after setting up their workspace correctly. It really does make a big difference."
How to Set Up Your Workspace
Choose a chair with good back support. You may need to invest in a lumbar roll or a support cushion that fits over the back of the chair.
Adjust the chair height so feet rest flat on the floor and thighs are parallel to the floor.
Adjust chair armrests so your arms gently rest on them when your shoulders are relaxed and where your elbows are at a 90° angle when using the keyboard.
Keyboard and Mouse
When using your keyboard or mouse, wrists should be kept straight and supported by a wrist support pad.
Wrists should be at the same level as your elbows.
Place your mouse within easy reach and on the same level as your keyboard.
Elevate your monitor so that the top of the screen is at or slightly below eye level.
Monitor should be placed close to you, approximately an arm's length away.
Keep key objects such as your telephone, stapler and writing utensils close to your body to reduce reaching and straining.
Use a document holder to aid in typing large documents to reduce bending your neck. Keep the document holder close to the monitor to keep from turning and twisting the neck.
If you use the phone a lot, use a headset.
Use a footrest if the height of your chair is too high or if your desk height requires you raise the height of your chair.
The Long-Term Dangers of Sitting
In addition to musculoskeletal problems, prolonged sitting also causes long-term health problems, such as obesity, increased blood pressure, high blood sugar and abnormal cholesterol levels. In fact, a newly published medical study has shown that sitting for excessive periods of time is a risk factor for early death.
Prolonged sitting can cause:
A drop in good cholesterol
An increase in blood sugar levels
Blood to pool in the legs
Brain function to slow
Electrical activity in the leg muscles to shut off
Fat fighting enzymes to drop
Reduced blood flow and circulation
Research has also shown that exercising a few hours each week does not seem to significantly offset the damage. Addlesberger says moving as much as possible throughout the day can help ward off the dangers of sitting. Her tips include:
Find reasons to walk such as talking face-to-face instead of sending an email, not keeping a printer in your office and using the stairs instead of the elevator.
Invest in a standing desk.
Keep a pair of light hand weights or an exercise band at your desk and use them twice a day.
Set a timer to remind you to get up and move.
Sit on a yoga ball intermittently throughout the day.