Sitting…The Silent Killer

“ Stand Up & Save a Life, Your Life ”

Are you currently reading this on your computer while seated at your desk?

Or while gazing down at your phone screen?

      I highly suspect that you are. We spend hours of our day sitting in front of a computer or phone screen without thinking about the physical impact and stress it is creating on our bodies. COVID-19 has brought about an increased “work from home” culture, and many people have been working from a desk in their home for multiple hours a day over the past year, or maybe are now back in a company office, still sitting at a desk all day long.

As a full time student in a world where academics has transitioned to mostly remote work, I spend the majority of my day in front of my laptop doing various assignments. I typically have my laptop at my desk like most others, where I am constantly hunched over, gazing down at my screen. I find myself constantly feeling the need to stretch or crack my neck and upper back because it feels tight from gazing down at my laptop screen. However, in this past year of my occupational therapy program, I have learned the importance of adapting the environment around your client or yourself to promote optimal occupational performance in the occupation being engaged in, which in this case is work.

If you are someone who works at a desk all day, you may be experiencing the same neck tension and poor posture that I have been noticing in myself. Sitting for an extended period of time increases our tendency to sit with slouched posture. Sitting slouched promotes rounded shoulders and a forward head posture. In this position, the weight of the head is now in front of the base of support of the body. Thus, increasing the tension and load on the neck and upper back. Over time, this can cause musculoskeletal issues in this area. Before you know it you will end up being treated here at ProForm PT. Keeping the head in line with your spine and overall base of the support will decrease the strain on the neck and back throughout the day.

So, to promote better focus on my work and less pain in my neck, fixing the environment and ergonomics of my desk was vital to decreasing that terrible posture I had been enduring. Ideally, a desk should be adapted to your individual body. The chair should be raised to a height so that the elbows can reach the keyboard at a 90 degree angle without having to abduct at the shoulders. The computer screen should be propped up to eye level, and for laptop users, when the screen is propped up, use of an external keyboard is encouraged. The image below distinguishes poor sitting posture and desk ergonomics of the person on the left, and a proper positioning for a person to do their work seated in the middle.

      Tension in the neck has also been shown to be increased for individuals who don’t take breaks to move their body throughout their work day. Here at ProForm PT, we know that movement is medicine and that your body will thank you for varying positioning between sitting, standing or taking your laptop to the floor if applicable. And, it is actually quite easy to adapt your desk environment to promote mobility. Yes, it can be a pain to set up, but worth it to save you the pain you could be feeling in your neck and back! As you can see from the image above, when the laptop is flat on the desk, naturally the person’s head is following their eye gaze downward. Lifting the laptop screen with a laptop stand or textbooks is a great way to get the screen to eye level where it ergonomically should be. This way, there’s no longer a forward head posture, and the head and spine are in line.

As you can see in the image above, standing desk posture is appropriate when the keyboard is at elbow height and screen at eye height. Adapting your desk into standing can be done with the use of stacking textbooks or even boxes lying around your home. Or, walk to the kitchen counter with your laptop where the surface is taller and closer to elbow height. While you're standing, you can even wiggle your toes and march in place to “wake up” those tired legs that have been sitting for the last few hours.

Another great way to promote mobility during your work day is by taking your laptop to the floor. Although it sounds much less comfortable than the couch or your bed, while on the ground, you could sit in various positions such as criss cross applesauce, kneeling, side sit, straddle sit and laying on your belly. Feel free to stretch your body while you’re down there as well. Who could pass up an opportunity to stretch and get work done at the same time?

This is just the tip of the iceberg in ways to alter your work environment to promote better function and mobility. As part of this new “work from home” culture, we need to listen to our bodies and take breaks from work every half-hour to hour that are dedicated to movement. Doing so will not only give your mind a quick break from work, but you can come back reset in your mind and body. Maybe these adjustments will even make work more enjoyable and productive so you can make more $$$$$.

Boyt Schell, B., Gillen, G. (2019). Willard and Spackman’s Occupational Therapy. Swolers Kluher.