Originally published 22 June 2018. Last updated 17 December 2020.
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.
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Table of Contents
Part 1: Computer and Laptop Ergonomics
Part 2: Taking Breaks from Sitting
Part 3: What Exercises Can I Do To Counter Sitting All Day?
Part 4: Tip on Remembering to Get Up & Move
Part 5: Should You Use a Stability Ball as a Chair?
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.
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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.
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
There are several exercises you can do while sitting at the computer.
If you have time after your walk during the short break, 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 also wonderful.
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!
Apps you might want to check out include:
We have a follow-up question from a listener on how much we should be alternating between standing and sitting throughout the day.
As I've mentioned before, I used to work in a field called Occupational Health. In fact, my job title was super-fancy: Occupational Wellness Specialist. Part of my job was to help people find ways to follow a healthy lifestyle while they were on the job.
I would help develop and instruct programs about nutritious eating, managing stress, and finding creative ways to incorporate short bouts of physical activity throughout the workday.
Imagine if Dunder-Mifflin hired me to try and get Pam, Kevin, Dwight, Angela and Oscar to eat more nutritiously and move more while on the job.
Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 1225 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.
Did I Ever Recommend Active Desk Stools or Stability Balls?
Interestingly, I never recommended active desk stools.
There are different types of active desk stools available, but I’m assuming that our listener was referring to a type of seat that has some degree of instability. Meaning, the chair isn’t very stable when you sit down, so it requires someone to engage their trunk or core muscles to be able to sit upright.
Sometimes folks will use a stability ball (sometimes referred to as a Swiss ball) instead.
Either way, as an Occupational Wellness Specialist, I never recommended people use either of those. This was because my employer had banned them. My employer was concerned that employees could slip and fall off these desk stools and stability balls.
I remember people were really upset about this ban. But my employer may have been on to something – not because people would slip and fall necessarily, but because of the potential negative effects they may have on the health of their back and overall posture.
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Why are Active Desk Stools and Stability Balls Popular?
I’ll start with the logic behind why active desk stools and stability balls were popular in the first place.
Some published studies found that when office workers sat on a stability ball instead of a standard office chair, they burned an extra 4 calories per hour. So, this meant you could potentially burn more calories throughout the day by swapping out your office chair for a stability ball instead.
Not only that, but there were claims floating around that you could strengthen your abs too.
Some questioned this practice and said, “Wait a second – hold the phone – the extra calorie burn may be all well and good. But if someone were to use an active desk stool or stability ball for weeks and months at a time, is that safe for their back? What might it do to their posture?”
The Downsides of Active Desk Stools and Stability Balls
Studies have been performed looking at this very thing. I will start by saying that more research is needed.
But what we’re learning is that the ab muscles that were supposed to be activated usually aren’t. Also, when they asked users of active desk stools and stability balls how they felt after using them, many reported experiencing pain.
Other researchers have expressed concern that using these devices may worsen back problems or lead to bad posture-related habits. In fact, authors of one study concluded that use of any unstable seating device may be the opposite of what our bodies need in an office work environment.
The Bottom Line
Authors of multiple studies concluded that using unstable seating devices may not be beneficial within the context of an office work environment.
If you were to use a stability or Swiss ball as part of your workouts, that’s fine. But, to use them for prolonged periods of time while sitting at a desk is not advised at this time. Instead, most say that if you want to burn some extra calories while preserving your posture, it’s better to take regular standing and walking breaks.
So, if I were to revamp Dunder-Mifflin’s Scranton branch, I would try and get everyone sit-stand stations instead of active desk stools or stability balls.
Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 1225 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.