OFFICE LIFE

The Ultimate Guide to Office Ergonomics

Mitchell Starkman, Physiotherapist, The Movement Centre

27 October 2017

Working in a modern office can be hazardous to your health. And we’re not talking about the quality of the “coffee” or how Mo from the mail room keeps trying to tackle you in the lunchroom.

You have a fancy new desk chair, or you’ve read about a fancy new desk chair online. But can it really make a difference? And if a new desk chair can make a difference what kind of chair would work best for you?

Let’s explore some of the myths and misconceptions about office furniture and the best desk chair option for you.

I like to call this The Ultimate Guide to Your Ergonomic Desk Setup.

In this blog I am going to tell you about the problem with:

And as I review these options I will answer your real questions about:

Photo by Bethany Legg on Unsplash

What’s The Problem With Your Chair?

I hear these questions every day. The problem with this kind of question is that it leaves you sitting in a chair, whatever that chair ends up looking like. Whether that chair is a Swiss ball, it has revolutionary swivel technology or it makes you feel like you’re floating on a cloud – it’s all the same. You end up the same stationary position each and every day.

If there is one tip to take away from this blog it should be this; “Your next position is your best position”. Regardless of how fabulous the chair you had handcrafted and imported from Germany is, it still has one fundamental flaw. It forces you to sit in the same position all day long.

Our bodies crave movement and placing them into German engineering isn’t going to fix that problem.  

To summarize, no matter what chair you have you are forced to keep the same position for long periods of time and that problem doesn’t get corrected with a more expensive chair!

What’s The Problem With Sitting on a Ball?

If I had a dollar for every time someone with lower back pain told me “It can’t be my desk set-up, I sit on a Yoga Ball”…I’d be very rich.

Utilizing a swiss ball as a chair is great in theory. It bounces, it rolls side to side and is unstable enough to make you use your big strong core muscles and help your lower back stay strong, right? Maybe.

Here’s the twist.  Most people who use a Swiss ball sit up nice and tall and keep a “good posture position” for about the first fifteen minutes. Then, things start to go a downhill. As soon as you get focused on that cute cat video, an email from Sally, or the spreadsheet that never ends you begin to sink into the ball. Your pelvis rolls backwards, your lower back flexes, and your neck begins to hinge. Now you are in a worse position than you would have been had you stayed in your normal chair.

Now don’t get me wrong, a Swiss ball chair isn’t all bad! If you’re constantly using your legs to rock back and forth on the ball, continually changing your hip and knee positions and taking breaks it isn’t all that bad! The problem is that the majority of people using them are not doing that.

To summarize, sitting on a ball is a good idea in theory, but in practice it doesn’t turn out the way you would want it too. If you are going to do this, use the ball to constantly rock back and forth, make sure to change positions often, and above all take breaks.

“What we are talking about here is why ergonomic set-ups don’t work.”

What’s The Problem with Lumbar Support and Back Rests

There is a time and a place for lumbar supports, just not all or even most of the time! People love using backrests, they look cool, they feel good and people assume they are doing something great for themselves; and who doesn’t like to do something great?

When are they useful? Well, when someone has an acute bout of lower back pain, an impacting injury, or are recovering from surgery, using a lumbar support can be a very helpful tool. That being said, for the majority of us, this is not the case.

So why are they bad?

Well the answer to that is in the name of the product. A lumbar support does just that, it supports your lower back with all it’s might. This sounds like a good thing right? Wrong! You’re lower back has these revolutionary things attached to it called muscles. These muscles make up our core.

When you sit back and relax by using a lower back or lumbar support you are telling your muscles to take a break, go on vacation. This ends up placing more stress on your spine, discs and ligaments! Now, by itself this is not detrimental, but do this for weeks, months and years on end and you have a problem. The more important thing to remember here is that you are training these core muscles to deactivate. So when you bend down to pick up your baby, put on your shoes, or swing a bat, these muscles are not primed or ready to support you and that is a problem.

To summarize, lower back supports may be comfortable but are definitely not doing you any favors when it comes to back health.

Photo by Breather on Unsplash

So how should I sit?

Thank you for asking! We get it, sitting can’t be avoided it’s ingrained into your daily life. So the obvious question becomes, if you have to sit for your job what is the best way to do so.

So here we go:

You want to be seated with your bum towards the edge of the seat and your back off the back rest, use those muscles to support yourself.  The easy thing to remember here is the “rule of 90”. All the major joints in your body should be bent to 90 degrees. Your knees and hips should be at 90 degrees and your elbows at 90 degrees.

Your shoulders should be relaxed and your neck should be straight over your shoulders.

Your feet should be rested flat on the floor.

Check out this video on How To Sit At The Office

What is the Best Desk Setup

The best desk setup facilitates not only a good starting position but encourages more movement. You want to make sure you have an external keyboard and mouse and that your monitor is elevated. When sitting up nice and tall and staring straight ahead your eyes should hit the screen about two inches below the top.  This will encourage you to stay upright and maintain a good posture!

But What is the Best Chair And Where Can I Get One?

This is an easy one, the best chair isn’t an expensive one, it’s an uncomfortable one. Now, hear me out! The best desk chair is one with a firm seat and back support. Something like a kitchen chair. You want to be sitting in something that promotes movement breaks and what better tool to do that than an uncomfortable chair.  That being said, a little cushion can go a long way!

In a hard chair your bum can start to get sore after about 30-40 minutes of sitting, great! Time to get up and take a quick movement break. Walk around for a couple of minutes, stand up, stretch, do something to get out of that chair.  These chairs also force strong core activation because if you overextend or slouch your lower back on one of these chairs it get even more uncomfortable. The final reason why this type of chair is a great option is because it’s cheap! No specialized engineering is needed for this chair, (although I’m sure they could do wonders with it).

Now it’s is important to note there is no holy grail solution to all of our ergonomic worries. What I am recommending here are guidelines and best practices when it comes to movement. But what it really comes down to variability. Research tells us that there is no one perfect posture. Instead the secret is movement variability, Just remember, your next position is the best position.

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