First – Start With Your Chair
If you’re not blessed with the luxury of an at-home office or study, chances are you’re stooping awkwardly over your coffee or dining table, sitting for hours in a chair that’s not designed to support your back. “A decent, supportive chair is essential if you’re spending most of your day sitting,” stresses Dr Amy Hoover, physiotherapist at P.volve. “Sitting in a chair that’s too soft or too hard, or looks good but doesn’t function well, will undoubtedly leave you uncomfortable in the long run.” Osteopath and founder of Canamis Ed Buckwald agrees, adding that a sub-par set-up can have a domino effect on the body, resulting in a variety of aches and pains. “Your body is a complex system” he explains. “With the correct posture, everything is in alignment and no one part of the body is working harder than the other. Poor posture, however, pushes everything out of alignment, which can lead to relentless pain that only seem to get worse. Also consider that your head weighs around 5kg, which is a lot of weight for your neck and shoulders to support when you’re slumped forward all day.”
It goes without saying good workstation ergonomics start with a supportive chair, but it doesn’t end there, says Amy. “Chair height and seat depth can affect hip and knee angles (which should both be close to 90 degrees). Keeping neutral lumbar posture allows the thoracic spine to also sit neutral, but you need to think about your shoulders and neck, too.” Amy recommends keeping your keyboard and mouse close to you so that your upper arm is parallel with your torso. You should also have a 90-degree bend at the elbow while typing and a neutral shoulder and wrist position. “This will allow your neck to be neutral, relaxed and not too forward, as the neck will follow the shoulders,” she adds. Lumbar support appears to be key, according to both experts, so if you are looking to invest in a desk chair, look for one with adequate lumbar support. “You can also use a pillow, rolled-up towel or lumbar support pillow in the lower back, which can easily be added to your chair.” Amy says.
Check Your Screen
If you’re suffering from tight shoulders and back pain, chances are your screen is at the wrong height. When sitting at your desk, your gaze should be fixed straight ahead, which will position your head above your shoulders instead of allowing it to slump forwards. “If your screen isn’t at eye level, you can use a couple of books to raise it, and you should also ensure your screen is exactly in front of you, not off to one side,” Amy advises. “If you have a double screen setup, make them evenly spaced or angled so you aren’t constantly turning to one side. Wrist rests can also help support and maintain a good neutral wrist position while typing or using the mouse.”
Think About Your Feet, Too
Ideally, your feet should be firm on the floor, but if you’re a little shorter and your feet don’t reach the ground, consider investing in a footrest. “A footrest encourages active sitting,” Ed explains, “Which can be great for preventing lower back and leg pain. If you are shorter in height, a footrest will also allow you to place your desk chair a little higher (if it’s adjustable) so your gaze is fixed straight ahead at your screen.”
Remember, It’s Okay To Cross Your Legs
For years, we were told crossing your legs at your desk was the worst thing you could do for both your circulation and back health, but don’t beat yourself up for doing this, says Amy. “It’s very normal to shift positions when we sit for long periods of time, and crossing your legs is an example of how we make small adjustments to avoid pressure points and discomfort. A neutral position with support is always a good place to go back to, but it’s not realistic to maintain for eight hours a day. Therefore, crossing your legs is fine as long as you are alternating legs and not staying in one position for too long.”
Don’t Necessarily Fork Out For A Standing Desk
“If you’re going to be spending seven plus hours per day, five days per week, sitting in your chair, it’s imperative to make sure you stand up and move around regularly,” Ed stresses. “A standing desk can be helpful for this, but they aren’t right for everyone. The debate we should be having is not standing versus sitting; it should be about active versus sedentary. Moving between standing, sitting and stretching is the best way to combat a long day spent in front of a screen.” Ed says that investing in a desk riser could be a better choice, enabling you to switch between standing and sitting throughout the day. If, however, you are prone to sore hips, Amy says a standing desk could be worth the investment. “Standing can prevent you from slouching and may feel better on your hips because they are more neutral. The key is to not stay in one position too long. Prolonged positions, whether sitting or standing, will cause muscles to tighten up.” The answer? Whatever type of desk you have, make sure you are getting up and moving around at least once per hour.
Make Time To Stretch
“The body is designed for motion, not inaction, and our muscles and spines love stretching and contracting,” says Jayden Arnold, consultant physiotherapist at Ten Health & Fitness. “Giving your body small doses of these throughout the day can make a huge difference. When you’re sitting down for prolonged periods of time, some of the body’s most important muscles, such as the glutes, switch off, so it’s always a good idea to get up and reactivate them as often as you can.” For the neck and shoulders, Jayden recommends doing some simple neck rotations throughout the day, and for the lower back, doing a piriformis stretch or ten squats onto your office chair every couple of hours can help.
Stay Active Outside Working Hours
Optimal back health isn’t just about a decent desk chair – what you do outside office hours matters, too. Ed says that any exercise is good for the back, but workouts that focus on building core strength will provide greater support. “Pilates and yoga are great low-impact choices that will work the core while easing any back problems, if you have them. Those with back pain may struggle to run, but walking is a fantastic low-impact alternative.” Amy adds that those who suffer from back pain tend to have poor movement patterns, muscle imbalances and weakness in the abs and hip muscles, which leads to more stress on the smaller joints of the spine. “Try to find a workout that addresses back strengthening, posture, flexibility, hip strength and core strength. The P.volve method is great for this – it teaches your body how to properly activate and move with correct muscle balance, which relieves postural stressors.”
Know When To Seek Help
Physiotherapist Sammy Margo says persistent pain that bothers you for more than two weeks is worth getting checked out. “Back pain will usually go away with topical treatment, gentle stretching, good posture and strengthening exercise. But if you have back pain that lasts for longer than 14 days and you have shooting pains down your legs or arms, or any associated numbness, then it’s time to call your doctor.” Amy adds this could be a sign of nerve compression, which is not normal. An osteopath, chiropractor or physiotherapist (all of which can currently operate in lockdown) will be able to diagnose the source of your back pain and provide advice and support to help you on the path to a stronger, more resilient body.
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