We are finding through survey data that for those of us in the U.S., we are working longer hours at our jobs, sitting at a computer all day, and taking fewer breaks. And the breaks that we do take do not usually entail going for a walk. Instead, it’s usually related to food and vending machines! If you use your break time to get your body moving, that’s fantastic because you’re already ahead of the game.
In a previous life, I was actually one of the ergonomists at the Universal Studios theme park in California. My job was to make sure people were safe and efficient while working for the park. I worked with a number of different populations, but I did notice a trend amongst those that worked at a desk–their posture suffered. When we sit in our office chairs and stare at a computer screen most of the day, the muscles in our lower back, our abdominals, trapezius, and our neck begin to fatigue. Over time, we will naturally begin to slouch and hunch over our keyboards.
The same goes for those of us that spend a lot of our day driving. If you’re reading this while sitting at work (you can also listen while you’re walking), I’m willing to bet you just adjusted your posture! That’s good, and something I will come back to.
Over the long-term, if no corrections are made, chronic pain could be in the near future. Before I get to muscle strengthening tips, I wanted to provide some advice with regards to how your computer is set up.
Computer and Laptop Ergonomics
First, your computer monitor needs to sit straight in front of you, not at an angle.
Also, it should sit at a specific height to relieve neck and eye strain. When you’re seated at your desk comfortably, the top of your computer monitor should sit slightly below eye level. This will help maintain a neutral neck position.
Here’s how to do that: when you are seated comfortably, your eyes should be in line with a point on the screen about 2-3″ below the top of the monitor casing (not the screen).
Next, your chair. It’s actually best to have a slight recline angle in your office chair. A reclined posture of 100-110 degrees is ideal. Basically, you don’t want to be sitting upright; that will quickly fatigue your core muscles. Also, when you’re working be sure you sit back in the chair and that your back feels supported in this position. Your feet should be be placed flat on the floor or on a footrest if you can’t reach.
Taking Breaks from Sitting
With regards to rest breaks at work, most health agencies recommend that a break be taken every 30 to 60 minutes. During this break, stand up and move around. Even if this break lasts for 3-5 minutes, it helps. It forces you to focus your eyes on other objects and exercise different muscles.
If you choose to go for a walk, you can help relieve some of those chest and neck muscles by making sure your posture is perfect. An easy way to do this is to make sure that when you walk, you make a very gentle fist. Then, gently turn your wrists so that the knuckles of your thumbs point straight ahead. This will automatically force your shoulders back and down and force you to stand upright. Simple but effective!
Stretches for the Office & Desk Job
If you have time after your walk, perform some chest and neck stretches. Because we often hunch over our desks, our chest and trapezius muscles can stay contracted. So to relieve these muscles, we want to move them in the opposite direction. You can do this in a seated or standing position, but here’s the basic move:
- Raise both your arms straight in front of you until they are at chest height. Make sure your arms touch
- Turn your palms up so they face the ceiling. The pinky fingers on each hand should now touch
- With palms still facing the ceiling, slowly open up your chest by separating your pinkies and moving each arm towards the wall behind you. At the end of the move, your thumbs should be facing the wall behind you
- Try and make your thumbs touch behind you… you won’t be able to, but this will force you into a deeper stretch. As you try and get your thumbs to touch behind you, gently exhale to get a slightly deeper stretch
To stretch the neck muscles:
- First, place both arms by your sides so that your fingertips face the ground. Imagine there’s a light weight dangling from each of your hands, pulling your trapezius muscles down
- Gently turn your head from side to side while keeping your arms at your sides with those imaginary weights pulling your arms toward the floor
- As you gently and slowly turn your head to either side, exhale
To be sure that you maintain the strength of these muscles outside of the office, be sure that you incorporate some resistance training. In particular, you want to be sure to strengthen the hamstrings, lower back and abdominals.
Performing deadlifts, lower back extensions, holding the plank position, crunches, and sit-ups are helpful. Single leg extensions, pelvic tilts, and lying or standing bicycle twists can also be beneficial.
When stretching, cobra pose and performing downward dog are wonderful. Cobra pose:
Tip on Remembering to Get Up & Move
Now you have all this knowledge, but how do we encourage ourselves to actually take these breaks? Working at a computer can be hypnotic… hours can pass without us even realizing it.
To be sure you’re getting those breaks in, one of the easiest things you can do is to put a reminder in your phone or on your electronic calendar at work. Set the reminder, so it goes off once every hour during the workday. If a reminder once every hour gets annoying because it’s too often, try setting it for every hour and a half or every 2 hours. It will still help!