In this article:
- Sitting and its effects on the body
- Proper desk ergonomics
- How to strengthen your back
Have you heard the phrase ‘sitting is the new smoking’? It was coined by Mayo Clinic director Dr James Levine who said: “Sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV and is more treacherous than parachuting. We are sitting ourselves to death”
Numerous studies have been done to learn more about the health impact that sitting has on our bodies. According to experts, sitting for long periods may be linked to a number of diseases and conditions like obesity, heart disease, depression, muscular aches and pains, and even cancer.
A number of employee wellbeing programmes now target back, muscular and joint pain as part of their main programmes. Employers have realised poor posture leads to a number of health issues which contribute to more absentee days and ultimately a drop in productivity. Many programmes now include back pain management as well as educational programmes which teach employees how to adopt a better posture at their workstations and encourage them to take regular breaks to stretch and exercise.
Why is sitting harmful to your health?
“Our bodies were not created to sit for the amount of time that we are sitting,” says Tracey Palay of Ergotherapy Solutions. “We were created for movement and because of technology we are sitting for much longer periods. People often sit incorrectly too.”
Palay says that just because you are sitting for long periods of time, don’t assume you aren’t working hard. In fact, your lower back muscles are working very hard to keep you up. “Think of a smile,” says Palay. “It’s much easier to smile and release than it would be to smile for the whole day. The same is true when you are sitting. Your lower back muscles support you against gravity to stay upright, which means you are in a constant state of contraction to keep you upright. When these muscles get tired, there is a tendency to slouch forward and the natural S-shaped curve (a neutral position) of the spine turns into a C-shape. A lot of pressure goes into that C and accumulates in the lower back area.”
A slumped or slouching position causes:
- a painful lower back – strains ligaments and muscles
- pressure on the discs between each vertebra
- neck and shoulder pain
- tension headaches
- fatigue in the core muscles
- injury, fatigue and pain in the superficial muscles of the back. These are surface muscles used for movement. The body pulls them in to help keep itself up – effectively calling on them to do a job they don’t normal do
- squashed internal organs – this includes the heart and lungs
- worsening depression and stress
Proper desk ergonomics
When it comes to office ergonomics – one size does not fit all. Consider the way you like to work and aim to improve your posture. Good office ergonomics start with a good chair. Find a chair with excellent built-in lumbar support to keep your spine supported in a neutral position.
People have been prescribed the correct way to sit, but in reality this isn’t how they work,” says Palay. “Instead of trying to fit you into a scenario of the ‘ideal’, let’s assess you and get you a chair that supports your body type and the nature of your work. For example, if you like to sit forward at your desk, a chair at a 90° would be better for you than a chair at 100° where you are more likely sit forward anyway and not use the chair correctly.”
If you are unsure about your workstation set-up or which chair to select for your personal needs, have an ergonomics consultant (usually a qualified physiotherapist or biokineticist) do a workplace analysis of your personal situation and make recommendations on how to improve your workspace.
General setup guidelines include:
- Your feet should be on the floor or on a footstool, hips slightly above the knees.
- Your monitor should be between 45 and 70cm away from your eyes (about an arm’s length). The top most line of work should be at approximately eye level. A good rule of thumb is to place the monitor as far away as possible while you can still see clearly.
- Keep the keyboard in close proximity and your shoulders relaxed. The mouse should be next to the keyboard. Your elbows should be in line with the keyboard, they shouldn’t slump down off the desk.
Don’t remain sitting for long periods of time. Every 20 to 30 minutes or so, get up and walk over to a colleague, stretch or just stand for a while. If you get distracted by work and forget to take your breaks, consider a reminder app on your phone, or a programme that blacks out your screen for a few minutes to force you to take a break.
Strengthen your back
- Consider a sit-to-stand work station, like the Varidesk, which allows you to sit for part of the day and stand for part of the day. This will give you some additional exercise.
- Experts advocate around 150 minutes of exercise per week. Palay says that it is important to find something you enjoy doing, and to do more of it. If don’t enjoy your activity, it’s unlikely that you will keep it up.
- Consider those exercise that help to strengthen core muscles. These include yoga, Pilates and swimming.
- Walking helps to strengthen muscles in the torso, hips, legs and feet and can work to increase spinal stability. This helps to condition the muscles which hold the body in an upright position.
- If you haven’t walked before, start off with a five to 10 minute walk and build up to at least 30 minutes three to four times per week. Either stretch your muscles before the walk or start off slowly for around five minutes to warm them up before pushing into a more brisk walk. “If you choose walking, pull in your belly button and maintain a good posture, don’t slouch when you walk,” cautions Palay.
Consider your employees
Have your considered the impact on productivity that an incorrect desk setup and poorly designed chairs can have on your employees? “Unless you are physically comfortable, you cannot be productive at work,” says Tracey Palay of Ergotherapy Solutions. “If you are spending your energy concentrating on your body and not on your work, you are going to be less productive.”
- Have workstations assessed by an ergonomics consultant who will make recommendations to improve the comfort of employees. By individualising workstations, you can help to improve the productivity of employees, resulting in better comfort and less absenteeism. Changes may be needed, but even small, inexpensive adjustments can make a big difference.
- Consider the sit-to-stand Varidesk for employees that spend long hours at their desks. The desk takes about three seconds to switch from a sitting to standing position, allowing workers to alternate between sitting and standing during the workday.
- Palay says that companies should seriously consider setting up new employees with the correct chair and workstations right from the start of their employment contracts.
- Consider wellbeing programmes or initiatives that encourage employees to take breaks at their desk to do stretches and office exercises.
- Tracey Palay- Ergotheraphy Solutions, www.ergotherapy.co.za
- Chiropractic Balance, http://www.chiropracticbalance.com/dr-coburns-blog/prolonged-sitting-can-lead-to-depression-and-other-mental-health-problems/
- Start Standing, www.startstanding.org/sitting-new-smoking
- The Mayo Clinic, www.mayoclinic.co.za
- UK National Health Service, www.nhs.uk