I would say it’s safe to say that most of us don’t think too much about our body’s positioning and posture throughout the day, unless something has happened that forces us to think about it. I never realized just how important living and working ergonomically was until I started having problems. I think it’s even harder to recognize because often the problems are insidious little maladies that come and go and just sneak up on you in general. At least that’s how mine started.
I had mistakenly believed that my good posture (courtesy of horseback riding) would protect me from the strains of working at a desk 8-10 hours a day. I have been at my current work station for a little over two years. During this time, I developed various little aches and pains before things really started to nose-dive in 2013. Now, I had a lot more going on than just bad workplace ergonomics, but it certainly wasn’t helping matters. My chair didn’t fit me, which forced my hands and arms into a bad angle to my standard slab keyboard and cramped my wrists into unnatural angles. The way my monitor and keyboard tray were mounted made it impossible for me to center myself, so I was constantly looking slightly to one side, which contributed to significant tension in my neck. In conjunction with this, I had to stretch my uncentered self quite a bit to the right to reach my computer mouse, creating a bad situation for my shoulders. It was just one big snowball!
The human body was never designed to be sedentary, never mind sedentary in a sitting position staring at a computer screen typing 70+ words a minute (repetitive stress anyone?). The body was designed to move and be mobile. Unfortunately, in today’s ever-urbanizing society and lifestyle, we sit more and move less. Combine this with small but extensively repetitive tensions and demands on select muscles, and you have the optimal environment for tension, pain, and injury. Left unattended or undiagnosed, these circumstances can lead to debilitating conditions like carpel tunnel syndrome, chronic sciatica, or worse.
Once I got a new chair that fit me, a split keyboard with a detached number pad I could place on the left side, and my monitor/keyboard tray mount adjusted and centered, I noticed a world of difference. It’s hard to gain ground with chronic problems when you start with a flawed platform forcing you back into bad positions/patterns. In addition to working with the office team to ensure my work station was set up for me correctly, there were several other things I started doing that helped me overcome the issues arising from poor work station ergonomics for the last two years.
- Take Breaks
Everyone knows that taking breaks is healthy and helpful, mentally and physically. Some offices go so far as to have their employees’ computers lock them out for 5-10 minutes after a certain number of keystrokes/clicks or at certain times. For others, it can be harder to remember to take those breaks, especially when you are in the middle of a task or project or are having a very busy day (this is totally me!). But they are very important!
Depending on who you talk to, you will get different recommendations as to the frequency and length of breaks. Some will say every 20 minutes, others will say every one to two hours. If you smoke, you are likely already a lot better about taking regular breaks than those of us who don’t! I began escaping to the wheelchair stall of the ladies bathroom for 5-10 minutes every hour or so to do some stretches and gentle movements to help keep my tight muscles moving and to help retrain them. This was a huge help! There are a lot of resources online with exercise and stretching recommendations for those of us who work at desks. I couldn’t believe the difference this made!
- Stand When You Can
Because I work a fairly demanding desk, a break away from my desk every 20 minutes is just not an option. What I did start doing was standing more when I could. Recent research has suggested that standing more, rather than sitting all the time, has a myriad of health benefits, from reducing the risk of obesity and cardiovascular disease to lowering long-term mortality. And it’s easy to incorporate into your day! Searching a binder or file for a document? Why not stand? Calling a client? You can do that standing up. Filing? Yep, you can stand while you do that, too! Look for little things that get you into a different position, even if you can’t leave your desk. Some work places are accommodating enough to make sit/stand stations available to employees, but that is still quite rare in my experience. Either way, it doesn’t hurt to ask!
- Move When You Can
Our bodies were made for lots of varied, low intensity movement throughout the day. We just have to be a little more creative about how we get that in an office setting. Looking for errands to run throughout the day will add up to a lot more movement than you might think. I started making excuses to go walk about around the office to help retrain my muscles and get them used to moving again, plus it’s nice for a change of scenery every now and then. Look for opportunities to go for little walks during your work day. That interoffice envelope that needs to be delivered two floors down? Perfect opportunity to go for a walk. Bonus points if you take the stairs instead of the elevator! Walk over to someone’s desk or office rather than calling or emailing. Use smaller bottles/glasses of water so you have to get up and go to the kitchen more frequently to refill them. It all adds up!
- Use Your Lunch Break for You
I work in a very busy firm, in a very busy department, with some very busy people. I know the pressures you can face that keep you working through your lunch hour. And there are times when you really just can’t get away. I found it much easier to take my lunch hour when I started thinking about it in terms of boundaries. My lunch hour is mine and no one can take it away from me unless I allow them to by not maintaining my boundary. If people are accustomed to overstepping that boundary, they may not be happy about you starting to enforce it. Just remember, you are responsible for looking out for you. Your health and wellbeing is worth it!
Using your lunch break for yourself will make a big difference to your day and your body. Get outside, go for a walk, read a book. Most importantly, move! I try to take at least 20 minutes each lunch hour to go for a walk. I usually don’t have a destination in mind, I just go. You can listen to your favourite music, window shop, people watch, but keep moving. When I first started doing this, I was still pretty sore and didn’t get too far too fast. Just go at whatever pace feels good to you. Walking is one of the best things you can do for yourself! In addition to improving circulation and getting the blood flowing again after sitting most of the morning, going for a walk after a meal can help to lower blood pressure and triglyceride levels, improve blood glucose control and cognitive abilities, and boost immune function, among many other benefits.
I know this is going to sound cliché, but breathing, particularly deep breathing, is so, so important to everything. When sitting locked in at a desk for periods of time, I have found it really easy to “forget” to breathe, as silly as that sounds. No, I don’t turn various shades of blue and purple before passing out at my desk, but just sitting there, often heavily focused on the task at hand, I began to notice that I reverted to fairly shallow, superficial breathing. My chest would start to feel somewhat compressed and my body felt short of oxygen, usually without me even noticing what was going on. Now, when I catch myself falling back into that habit, I purposely take five deep breaths (in through the nose to the count of five, hold for two, out through the mouth to the count of five) before continuing on with what I was doing. Huge difference! Deep breathing releases stress and endorphins (nature’s feel-good/painkiller hormone), helps remove toxins from organs and muscles and improve sleep, and boosts energy levels. Who knew something so simple could be so effective! And it can be done sitting (or standing) right at your desk. Do you need more of a reason to practice some deep breathing? There are some simple and effective resources online with tips and techniques for deep breathing exercises to help you get started.
Just like a lot of little ergonomic stresses can add up to big, long-term problems, small, proactive, positive changes incorporated into your day can add up to big, long-term benefits! What kind of changes have you made to your day at the office to make your life more ergonomic and healthful? I’d love to hear about them!