How to choose a desk that’s ergonomic

So you’re at the computer quite a bit, right?  And you’ve heard that sitting is the new smoking which you’re concerned about.  You may also be starting to feel that your posture is less than ideal and that your neck/shoulder/wrist/back is starting to bother you.  So what can you do?1206_HP_FF_NP08

Getting a desk that’s ergonomic is one of the most important things you can do.  Your desk height can determine how much you stand, how much you sit, how ideal your keyboarding and mousing posture is, and how good your body feels.  It’s important to get your desk height right so you can feel comfortable and productive at work.

Most fixed height desks today still remain within the standard 28-30” range that was chosen with paperwork and handwriting in mind for the offices of the past.  When computers were introduced, desk height did not change, even though ergonomically, it should have.

Ergonomics aims to achieve the most neutral, comfortable position for your body, so that you can reduce the strain placed on your joints and muscles.  When you are using your keyboard and mouse for computer work, the most neutral posture is one where your elbows are at 90 degrees of flexion resting at your sides, with your forearms parallel to the ground.  This height is going to be different for everyone depending on their height and arm length.

To achieve proper desk height, we can do one of two things:  we can measure everyone and custom build desks according to the height they need, or we can have height adjustable desks.  The best way is the latter for the following reasons:  fixed desk height only benefits the person it was made for and can’t be adjusted for others; fixed desk height does not accommodate comfortably for both sitting and standing – only one or the other; and fixed height does not allow for any other office activities such as writing or reading because the height that is needed for those activities is 2-3” above elbow height.

Also, a drawback specific to a fixed standing height desk is the type of chair that is needed for sitting.  A chair of a higher height with a foot ring is needed, but this type of chair is uncomfortable for users.  This is because there is only one position available for the legs – on the foot ring.  Users can’t place their feet anywhere else because they don’t touch the floor.  Also, the foot ring is usually too low and not wide enough, placing pressure on the backs of the thighs and forcing the using to sit forward in their chair which strains the back and neck.

Height adjustable desks are most effective when they can lower for sitting and rise for standing.  The height adjustability should be electric, not crank-style, because it’s too time consuming to crank the desk up and down several times throughout the day – people just won’t do it.  A good sit-stand ratio to follow throughout the day is 45-60 minutes of sitting, followed by 15-20 minutes of standing.  If that’s the case, you will be adjusting your desk up to 10 times a day so you want it to be quick and painless.

When choosing a height adjustable desk, it’s important to measure the height you need your keyboard and mouse at for neutral posture.  Sit in your chair with your feet flat on the ground and your knees and hips at 90 degrees of flexion (you may need to adjust the height of your chair).  Place your elbows at 90 degree angles, your forearms parallel to the ground, and your wrists straight.  Have someone measure from just below your hands to the floor for your keyboard sit height.  Do the same for standing.  Then make sure that the desk will lower to the sit height and rise to the stand height.  This is important because height adjustable desks sometimes don’t lower enough.

There is another option if you don’t want to or can’t replace your desk.  They are sit-stand conversion stations that attach to your desk, and raise the monitor and keyboard simultaneously when you switch from sitting to standing and back.  One good example is the Ergotron Work-Fit S.  Once again, make sure to measure your keyboard sit height and stand height because not all conversion stations lower the keyboard enough.

Working at a height adjustable desk can do wonders for your posture, your body, and your productivity.  With the amount that society sits at a desk all day, it’s something we cannot afford to go without.


Tips to help you sit less

office workers

Much has been in the media lately about the dangers of sitting… or more accurately, the danger of not being active.  Computers and other screen devices have brought our lives to a grinding halt, literally.  We sit, slouch, and lie more than we stand and walk; as a result, our health and mortality are paying the price.

Sedentary time – Biswas et al – January 2015

Research out of Toronto, Canada has discovered that sedentary behavior has been associated with:

  • A 15 to 20 % higher risk of death from any cause;
  • A 15 to 20 % higher risk of heart disease, death from heart disease, cancer, death from cancer;
  • As much as a 90 per cent increased risk of developing diabetes;

… and for the worst news, this is all after adjusting for regular exercise.

But all is not lost!  There are many opportunities for increasing your activity during the day, all of which are quite easy to do.  Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Move around often when sitting – change position, straighten and bend your joints, fidget, anything that is movement;
  • Walk every hour and stand every 20 minutes;
  • Use a sit-stand desk – sit for 45 minutes and stand for 15 every hour;
  • Stand and/or walk during meetings, phone calls, while reading documents, or any time you can;
  • Take the stairs whenever you can during your day;
  • Walk or bike to work;
  • Park your car in the furthest parking spot;
  • Use your lunch hour to do something fun – take a kickboxing or Zumba class, get a walking group going, window shop without stopping;
  • Do a stretch for every body part each hour of your day;
  • Get up every second commercial when watching TV;
  • Walk your dog every night – or borrow somebody else’s!

If you have any other ideas for movement, please share below.  Everyone can benefit from a more active life.

The paleo lifestyle and ergonomics

I recently read an article that included ergonomics as part of the paleolithic lifestyle.  At first I was baffled – how does changing your diet to eat like a caveman correspond with ergonomics?  But as I did some more research, I found out more about the paleo lifestyle and I agree that ergonomics does play a part.

The paleolithic lifestyle has arisen from the thought that it is more natural for humans to live like cavemen did for millions of years than how we live now in the Neolithic or agriculture era which has only been around for 10,000 years.  It is thought that if we adopt the lifestyle of a hunter-gatherer, there will be less obesity, cardiovascular disease, allergies, depression, and chronic stress due to healthier foods and being more active.

One of the cornerstones of ergonomics training is not to stay in one position or movement for too long.   The body is meant to be active in a variety of postures and movements, and staying in one position or movement for too long causes health problems.  These problems stem namely from reduction in blood circulation (which results in muscle cramping and strain on the tissues of the body) and from overuse (repetitively stressing the muscles, tendons, ligaments, etc. of the body).  On a longer term basis, this can result in musculoskeletal disorders such as carpal tunnel syndrome and chronic low back pain as well as diseases such as obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and heart disease.

So what can you do to adopt a more paleo lifestyle using ergonomics?  Here are a few ideas:

  • Move – If you sit all day, take standing breaks.  If you stand all day, take sitting breaks.  People who work in an office environment on the computer should get up from their chairs every 30 minutes.  People who stand at work should have a place to sit down every 30-60 minutes to give their bodies a break.  These breaks in posture don’t have to be long – even 30 seconds helps – but they do have to be as frequent as possible.  They should also involve additional body movement – circle your shoulders, swing your arms, and twist from side to side.
  • Change position – If you can’t get away from your chair, move in your chair.  Sit forward, sit back, cross your legs, uncross your legs, slouch, sit up, lift your bum off the chair and lower to one side or the other.  If you have to keep standing, move your hips around, raise one knee up at a time, swing legs to the side or across the body.  Don’t forget your neck, shoulders, and arms – raise, lower, circle, and stretch.
  • Change, add, or take away equipment – People who sit all day should consider a sit-stand workstation so they can change positions.  Another option is sitting on an exercise ball for 10 minutes out of every hour (I don’t recommend using an exercise ball exclusively because using it for too long puts a strain on your back muscles).  People who stand in one place all day should consider using a 6 inch footrest so they can prop up one foot or the other periodically during the day.  If you can, go barefoot or shoeless occasionally.
  • Surround yourself with nature – Wherever you work, try to involve nature.  Bring plants or rock arrangements to your workplace.  Hang pictures of mountains, forests, or the ocean – even pictures have been found to provide the healing effects of nature.  Go for a walk during your lunch break – try to go where there are lots of trees, grass, rocks, or water.  Make sure to bask in the sun for a bit too.

I’m sure everyone can agree that anything that we can do to help prevent disease is worth trying.  The paleo philosophy of keeping active and staying in tune with nature corresponds with the ergonomic principle of working in a variety of different postures and movements – these are things I think we can all see the benefit in.