Your Desk, Your Chair and You: How to Sit Better at Work

As a nation, we spend a lot of time sitting down: when driving, eating or watching TV. For many of us, we also sit for long periods of time at a desk as part of our work. If we’re not sitting properly or comfortably, that can have a serious impact on our back, knees, hips and neck. At our busy physiotherapy clinics in Ingersoll and London, we see many patients suffering from a whole variety of muscular pain and tension caused by their working posture.

Sound familiar? Our expert physiotherapists can help assess exactly what’s causing the pain or discomfort, devise a treatment plan and also suggest ways to improve your working practices to avoid issues in the future. Call us for an appointment.

The desk or the chair: which comes first?

Many of us arrive at a job where both the desk and the chair are already in place. Desks tend to come in standard heights from the floor, but humans don’t! That’s why it’s so important to have a chair than can be adjusted to the desk. In an ideal world, both desk and chair would be at customized heights for the user, but in the real world where the desk comes first, a good quality, adjustable office chair is a must.

Correct posture when sitting

The key to a proper posture is the 90-90-90 rule. You should have your chair at the proper height to maintain a 90 degree angle at your knees, your hips and at your elbows.

To achieve this:

  • your chair need to be at the right height to place your feet flat on the floor
  • your chair back needs to support your back and keep you straight
  • your desk needs to be at the right height so your elbows and wrists are at the same level when typing
  • your chair arm rests should support your elbows in this 90 degree angle

Long legs and shallow seats

As anyone who has even walked into a jeans store is quick to realise, as a nation we Canadians have very different leg lengths! So, just as some jeans will be too short, so might some seats on office chairs. If placing your feet on the floor also involves the edge of the chair seat digging into the middle of your thighs, that is not good news. Check that you can sit back in the seat with your hips close to the seat back. If required, move the seat back away from the padded seat itself to create more room. Then check that 90 degree angle again with your feet flat on the floor.

Correct eye level with your monitor screen

The top of your screen should be at eye level or just below. This way you can drop your eyes slightly to read the screen without moving your head. You screen should also be between 50-65cms from the tip of your nose. If you find you cannot read normal sized text or things are out of focus at that distance, you should have an eye exam to ensure you don’t need glasses for that distance or that the glasses you do wear have the right focal point.

Back to basics

When we’re at home and maybe looking up something on a laptop or iPad, if we sit at the kitchen table or similar, we’ll soon feel it in our backs. This is because the table will be the wrong height, possibly the chair too and most time we won’t have our backs properly supported. A good ergonomic office chair will have a long seat back with good padding, and preferably an adjustable lumber support. This can be moved to nestle in the natural curve of your back, ensuring you can sit in a comfortable position without strains caused by leaning forward to slouching. (Known as a neutral spine posture.)

Hunching and slouching

As the day progresses, you may find yourself slouching down and not maintaining that nice upright posture. Think of a vertical line running through your ears, your shoulders and your hips. This posture causes the least fatigue. Equally, make sure you are not hunching over your keyword, especially if (like many of us) you don’t touch type. Make sure you are close in to your desk, and that your shoulders and back and down rather than rolled forward.

Tech neck

If you’re reading this, you’re at risk from tech neck. Our necks naturally support about 12lbs of pressure when our heads are in balance. However, sticking the head forward to look closer at a screen, for example, can place up to 50lbs of strain on your neck muscles. Research suggests that you should ideally take a 17-minute break for every 52 minutes of work to prevent tech neck AND boost productivity. However, if that seems excessive, simply reclining in your (ergonomic) office chair to an angle of around 15 degrees will relieve the pressure and give your neck muscles a rest.

Work, look, move, stretch, repeat

One of the simplest things you can do to keep desk-based strain at bay is to move. There is no hard and fast rules on this, but generally you should:

  • Change your focus point at least every 20 minutes. The 20-20-20 rule says that you should take a break every 20 minutes for at least 20 seconds and look at something 20 feet away from you. That means looking away from the screen at a distant object out of the window, or even at a colleague across the room. (Not the same one every time we suggest – they might get paranoid!) This keeps the eye muscles flexible and responsive.
  • Have a little wriggle in your chair every 15 minutes or so to avoid getting ‘stuck’ in one position. Turn your ankles, raise your feet, and adjust your sitting position if required.
  • Get up and move as often as possible, preferably for five minutes in every hour. Get a coffee, visit the bathroom, ask a question of a colleague across the office rather than email (yes, we’ve all done that!). Or just stand up, stretch and move your legs.

Standing desks

Standing desks are a good solution for those who tend to hunch and slouch at their desk. The key to successfully using a standing desk is an anti-fatigue mat that helps cushion your feet from the hard surface of the floor. You should also add a footrest at about mid calf height so you can use alternative standing positions during the day. However, standing desks are not for everybody, and you should consult your physician first if you have any conditions that might be affected including circulatory issues.

Exercises to help with posture

There are lots of simple exercises to help with posture – just ask us at your next appointment. You can also join an exercise class designed to help, including Tai Chi (good for balance) and Pilates (great for posture. Both promote sustained stretches and a measured approach to building core strength and flexibility. Many people find classes vey relaxing too!

If your work is causing you aches, pains or muscular strain, call us. Our team of physiotherapists can help with a treatment plan to alleviate the pain, and devise an approach to working practices that will help prevent any re-occurance.

And if that requires new office furniture, do talk to your employer. After all, the more comfortable you are, the better you’ll work, the less time you’ll take off due to strain, etc. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health has some guidelines and legislation you can refer to