Ramrod Straight Ain't So Great
Everything You Know about Sitting Ergonomically Is Wrong
Sitting is hard. It’s certainly hard on our bodies, which are long and agile and meant to be moved, stretched and used — not crumpled into unnatural postures for hours upon hours each day. It’s also hard intuitively, because most of the time we don’t think about it. We just plop ourselves down in a desk chair and really, honestly think it’s okay — that sitting is sitting, and that nothing bad can come of such a simple act.
But according to Alan Hedge, Director of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Laboratory at Cornell University, that line of thinking — that ergonomics don’t matter — is extremely dangerous. The way you sit, and the chair you sit in, and the desk you sit at, all matters. Even more alarming, Hedge says most of the “knowledge” we hold about the ergonomics of sitting is a sham. Sitting bolt upright with limbs at 90 degrees isn’t just unhelpful, it’s bad for you. Wrist rests don’t help prevent carpal tunnel — they can, in fact, increase the risk of it. Standing all day isn’t the answer — according to Hedge’s research, it decreases fine motor skills and increases risks of atherosclerosis (a dangerous thickening of artery walls) and varicose veins. And those stupid balls people sit on? Yeah, they don’t work either.
The scariest part of bad sitting posture isn’t just the threat of carpal tunnel, or obesity, or back pain. It’s all of those put together. So how should you really be sitting? According to Hedge’s research, more like this:
1 Find a good chair. Not all desk chairs were created equally, which is good, because you’re not looking for the same chair as everyone else. Ergonomics is essentially the science of compatibility. You want a chair that fits your proportions, desk and task. In most cases, assuming you’re working at a computer most of the day, that means you should look for something supportive, dynamic (it’s got to be adjustable) and, if possible, something that looks good doing it. Any of these should work well.
2 Your chair has a back. Use it. You’re going to want to sit as far back in your chair as possible, so your back is right up against the back of your chair — which, ideally, will have some kind of lumbar and neck support. Don’t sit on the edge of your chair. Don’t hunch over your computer. Don’t slouch. Really feel that backrest and let it do most of the work for you.
3 Don’t put your computer at eye level. Put it above eye level, about two or three inches. That’ll help lengthen your body and keep you in the right position (unhunched) as you work.
4 Make sure your monitor is about an arm’s length away, centered in front of you. This is also conducive to the correct, lengthened sitting position. If you’re going to refer to documents, use a document holder at the same level as the monitor. They’re kind of nerdy looking, but they work.
5 Plant your feet on the floor. It’s like they always told you in hockey drills: plant your feet and your body will stay strong and upright. When you’re sitting, keeping your feet flat on the ground will stabilize you, keep your back up and your body grounded. If you can’t reach, use a footrest.
6 Keep your wrists flat and your arms and elbows relaxed. And if possible, tilt your keyboard downwards, away from you — the opposite of the way most keyboards are set up. The reason, according to Hedge’s research, is that a gentle slope downwards is a more natural position that keeps your arms and wrists more “neutral”. If the keyboard is flat or sloped up, your arms tighten and your wrists have to work to stay upright to meet the keys.
7 If you’re using a laptop… don’t. Ideally, you’d use a separate mouse and keyboard and follow the advice above. But if you absolutely have to, try using it on your lap, to “sacrifice neck posture rather than wrist posture”, says Hedge.
8 Take lots of short breaks. Repetitive motion (or non-motion) of any kind is bad for you — even if you think you’re being productive.