Did you know that October is National Ergonomics Month? Yup, ergonomics is such a big deal that it gets its own month! And being ergonomically correct is much more than having a fancy, curvy keyboard and sitting on an exercise ball instead of a chair.
So what exactly is ergonomics… and why is it so important? In this blog post, you’ll learn what ergonomics is all about and how to ensure that your office setup is ergonomically correct, as well as look at a few moves you can do anywhere to reverse the effects of hours, days, and even years of sitting!
Let’s begin with defining ergonomics.
What is Ergonomics
According to the dictionary, ergonomics is the study of how individuals interact with manmade objects, with a focus on someone’s efficiency in their workplace environment. Ergonomics is utilized to develop the most ideal work environment for a person, based on their physical needs. Engineers rely on ergonomic studies to understand how humans use equipment and technology, and will frequently design workstations that are comfortable and functional based on these studies.
For instance, an engineer may design an ergonomic desk that can be adjusted to the height that’s ideal for you, allowing you to view the monitor at the proper level and preventing you from slouching. They may also create an ergonomic chair that supports your lower back and helps you sit upright, as well as that curvy ergonomic keyboard, with a small slope on each side meant to promote a more natural hand position than a flat keyboard.
Why Sitting is the New Smoking
Ok, sitting probably won’t cause lung cancer. But sitting for extended periods of time has been linked to several health risks.
Here are just a few of the effects that remaining seated at your desk has on your health:
COMPRESSED ABDOMEN AND LUNGS
When you are sitting all day, your abdomen becomes compressed. This includes compression of parts of your gastrointestinal tract and often results in digestive distress. According to a 2015 Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease study, bloating, stomach cramps, gas, and heartburn, are just a few of the gastrointestinal issues you may experience after eating at your desk.
When you're sitting, your lungs cannot function at their optimal capacity since they just don’t have sufficient space to expand as you breathe. With less space for expansion, your lungs can’t deliver a healthy amount of oxygen to the rest of your body, which may lead to confusion, lightheadedness, increased heart rate, shortness of breath, and other symptoms.
Most of us sit down while we eat, and that’s fine. But if you can help it, have lunch in the breakroom or a coworker’s office, which will force you to walk away from your desk, and back to it after you eat. Better yet, eat outside at a picnic table while the weather’s still nice. Not only will your stomach thank you, but your lungs will too!
It’s inevitable that you’ll start slouching after sitting for hours at a time, no matter how impressive your posture may be otherwise. Sitting causes your back to bend forward and your shoulder blades to slouch, pushing them to curve inward and forward. Noticing some shoulder pain during your work day? It’s possible the pain is from this added shoulder strain.
The muscles along your legs and back are responsible for maintaining your posture, and are therefore known as your postural muscles. These muscles start to shut off and stop firing the way they should after as little as one hour of sitting without a break. Essentially, they forget how to engage properly! As a result, you may notice increased back pain and poor posture.
After spending an hour or two sitting, your sacrum (the bone located just above your tailbone) will be prone to shift position and stiffen. And the longer you sit, the more your postural muscles around the sacrum will weaken, leading to inflammation of the sacroiliac joint. This joint inflammation can cause discomfort and even pain that emanates down the legs, up the entire back, and / or out from the hips.
The good news is that you can mitigate this pain by ensuring that these muscles are activated regularly. And we’ll dive into that later on in this post.
DECREASED BLOOD FLOW
By now you’ve caught on to the fact that the strength of your postural muscles is integral to staying pain-free at work. In addition to maintaining proper posture and minimizing joint inflammation, your postural muscles are associated with blood flow.
If the firing power of these muscles is reduced, this results in decreased blood flow in your lower extremities. A 2011 British Medical Journal study reported that long hours spent sitting was linked to poor circulation, most notably in the legs, which in turn can result in the formation of blood clots.
How to Ensure an Ergonomically Correct Office Setup
Whether you’re in an office cubicle, at a desk at home, or at a coffee shop, you’re probably spending most of your work day sitting in front of a computer. And you’re not alone! The majority of adults spend between 40 to 60 hours per week working at a computer.
Now that you’re aware of how this sedentary lifestyle can negatively impact your body, get ready to counter the effects of all that sitting and staring and typing, and prevent on-the-job pain (well, the physical kind anyway)! Here are a few changes you can make to your work setup right now to create a functional environment, whether you’re working from your kitchen or from a corner office:
For improved comfort, decreased pain, and a more productive workday overall, make sure that your desk setup is ergonomically-friendly. Begin by determining the optimal height of your chair and desk. For the posture that is best for your back, neck, and shoulders, your desk should be around the height of your elbows (this applies to sitting and standing desks). With your desk at this height, you won’t have to worry about rounding your back or overreaching when using your keyboard or even writing in a notebook.
Although standing desks were all the rage a few years ago, they don’t address the overarching problem: Remaining in the same position for hours at a time is a health risk, whether you are standing or sitting. The ideal work setup is one in which you can change up where you work throughout the day, and move back and forth between standing and sitting.
Once you have your optimal desk setup established, you can shift your focus to setting up your computer. To minimize any twisting of the neck or head, sit at your desk with your chair at the adjusted height, and set your laptop screen or monitor directly in front of you.
Next, adjust your monitor until it is at eye level. This will ensure correct upper back and neck posture. If you’re working from home, and you just can’t fork out the money for a high-tech desk with adjustment options, not to worry! Place a sturdy box or thick book under your monitor or laptop to boost them up to eye level (finally, a use for those dusty encyclopedias)!
Put the final touches on your workstation setup by adding a wrist rest, which has been shown to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome (a pinched nerve in the wrist). Making a few small changes, such as adjusting your monitor so that it’s at the proper height, can prevent neck strain and strain on your eyes.
Paying attention to ergonomics and taking the time to make some changes to your setup now can help you avoid the pain and discomfort caused by poor posture and responsive stress injuries in the long run.
PT Tip: Even if you have an ergonomically-correct workstation, remember that many of the problems related to desk work stem from staying in the same position hour after hour. Which brings us to our next tip for creating a functional work environment...
2. WORK BREAKS
Our bodies were built to move… Not sit or stand at a desk for eight hours a day. In a perfect world, we’d all be able to stand up and walk around every 30 minutes throughout the workday, and we’d feel better and think clearer because of it.
In an office setup, we can choose to take the stairs instead of the elevator. Or look forward to walking to the water cooler or to the conference room for a meeting.
In a home office, where virtual meetings make it easy to just stay put, you’ll have to get creative. If possible, walk around your house or even outside while on a call from work. Set up a standing workstation using something like the kitchen island, and move back and forth between that and your actual desk every 30 minutes to an hour.
A work break can even be as simple as walking outside to check the mail, doing downward dog before your next meeting, or even trying some lunges across the living room and back. Better yet, try this workday workout!
3. WORKDAY WORKOUT
A 10 to 15 minute office workout can be just as invigorating as a coffee break, with considerably more benefits.
Push ups (hands on the ground or your desk) x 10
Side plank on the right, then the left x 30 seconds per side
Supermans x 15 seconds
Reverse lunges x 5 per leg
Perform 3 to 5 reps of this set, as time permits.
Wherever you work from these days, an office workout can re-energize you, improve your creativity, and boost your productivity.
What if I only have a few minutes?
It’s important to set aside some time to reverse the hours, days, and even years of sitting most of us have been doing. Not convinced? Consider that since you were in grade school, you’ve likely been sitting at a desk in a classroom. As you got older, you got a job that requires sitting at a desk in an office. You sit in the car that takes you to and from work, and then get home and sit on the couch.
All this sitting has its repercussions, including shortening your quad muscles over time. To undo the years of sitting that you’ve done (and are probably doing right now as you read this) try performing this stretch for a few minutes every day:
The Dynamic Hip Flexor/Quad Stretch
Kneel down with your right knee on a mat or foam block, and the top of your right foot resting on a bench, or against the wall behind you. Place your left foot in front of you, as far out as possible while still keeping your shin vertical and knee behind your toes. Then push your hip forward until you feel a stretch.
Your focus should be on getting a good stretch in your hip flexor and upper quad, so don’t worry about pushing your foot too close to your glutes. Rock back and forth, leaning into the stretch, for 20 to 30 seconds, then switch sides.
What if I’m stuck at my desk?
A Zoom call goes long. You’ve got an urgent deadline to meet. It happens! Guess what? You can still get a good stretch in!
While seated, try placing your right hand on top of your right thigh, just above your knee. Keep your elbow locked out as if you’re trying to stop your leg from moving.
Then try lifting your leg toward your hand while creating resistance with your hand. While keeping your foot on the ground, pull your leg up against the force of your hand for about 5 seconds, then relax.
You should feel your glutes engage and your upper quad muscles working when you do this. Your upper hip flexors will be activated as well.
Perform a set of 5 contractions, then switch sides.
Other variations of this stretch that will benefit the desk bound include:
ACTIVATE THE LATERAL HIP
To get blood flowing to glute muscles that would otherwise be sedentary, place your hand on the side of your knee and push your quad into your hand, then relax.
You should feel your gluteus medius working. Perform a set of 5 contractions, then switch sides.
FIRE UP THE ADDUCTORS
Push your right hand against the inside of your left thigh, just above your knee. Try pushing your knee inward while creating resistance with your hand, then relax. Perform a set of 5 contractions, then switch sides.
These exercises can improve circulation throughout your body and retrain lazy muscles, in under 5 minutes!
Change Your Workstation Game
If all of these ergonomic adjustments seem overwhelming, remember that having a productive, pain-free workday will make it all worth it! Just like any habit, it will take time to make your workday workout and regular walking breaks second nature. If you’re working from home, then this is the perfect time to develop your new work habits.
Just think of setting up an ergonomic workstation and making a workday workout part of your routine as smart moves for your career… and your health!
If you have made these ergonomic improvements to your workstation and tried the above isometric exercises, but your pain persists or gets worse, schedule an appointment with one of our physical therapists. For more information on how we can help you reverse the effects of a sedentary workday, contact Change the Game today!