All posts by marisasylvester

Improving Workstation Ergonomics – Which Improvements are Worth the Investment?

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay 

We can find a wealth of information out there on how to set up a more ergonomic workstation, and if we had unlimited time and money, we could test out every suggestion we come across. If you are like me, however, you are very limited on time, and prefer to invest your money wisely. This brings us to the question of which of the many improvements we can make to our workstations are worth investing our limited resources, time and money?

Like many decisions we must make, the individual and particular situation involved will impact the decision made. For this reason, we will not focus on which improvements are worth our time and money, and will instead focus on how much time and money we would expect to need to invest for each improvement and how much positive impact on our health and wellness we expect it to have. I will not include a list of specific products and prices currently available on the market as these are constantly changing and may not be accurate by the time I have finished writing this paragraph. We will focus on whether each improvement requires a low, medium, or high amount of time to implement, low, medium, or high financial investment, and low, medium, or high expected health benefit.

We will discuss each option to improve workstation ergonomics separately. If you are not certain which option or options are right for you, and you have some time for trying a few, it may be best to start with the simplest and lowest investment options and work toward more time consuming and/or costly options from there.

Frequent movement and breaks

The simple and very cost effective option of taking breaks from the workstation you are currently using is also the most highly recommended. The time commitment is dependent on the length and frequency of your breaks and can take little to no time to get started, and there is no need to purchase any products for this option. The expected benefit to health is high, as you remove many of the risks associated with extended periods seated, and are likely to see an increase in your productivity. The primary challenge with incorporating breaks is creating the time to take them during your busy schedule, or compatibility with certain types of work. If you can adjust your schedule to fit in even very brief breaks to walk, stretch, or perform a couple of exercises throughout your work day, this option is likely the most effective change you can make to reduce the negative impacts of a sedentary work environment.

Seated posture

Sometimes we wish that our workstations can be upgraded to take care of our health for us, and that with an ergonomic desk and chair setup, our issues are solved. Sadly for those of us with poor seated posture, this is not the case. A perfectly positioned desk and ergonomic chair can not compensate for a person who pitches their body forward, hunches shoulders, or cranes their neck forward, and I have found myself guilty of all three at times. Working on posture is a medium time commitment as it takes constant mindfulness and awareness of your body while your brain is focusing on the work at hand. It is a low financial investment as there are no products required, and the positive health impacts are high. While a well adjusted desk and chair can help support good posture, they can not do the work for us.

Ergonomic desk setup

Perhaps the fastest and most cost-effective improvement you can make to your desk setup is adjusting the positions of your desk, chair, monitor, and keyboard to an ergonomic setup. You can readily find free ergonomic calculators online which provide suggested measurements for the ideal desk setup based on your height. I have tried a couple of different calculators and have found one ergonomic calculator provides slightly lower settings than another ergonomic calculator for my height. Individual comfort is the deciding factor, so trying both the higher and lower setting, or an adjustment in between the two may lead you to an ergonomic desk setup that feels right. Depending on how adjustable your current workstation is, this can be a low investment in both time and money and promote a healthier working posture.

Ergonomic chair

The investment level for an ergonomic chair varies widely. From a quick search, we could purchase an ergonomic chair online from just under $200 to well over $1000 but the majority hover around the several hundred dollar range. Depending on your choice, this would be a medium-to-high investment level. It is a low time commitment to properly adjust if you purchase a commonly selected chair and the manufacturer or many users provide videos on how to adjust online. An example of a short, easy to follow adjustment video for a commonly used ergonomic chair is the Herman Miller Aeron. The key to finding the right ergonomic chair is to try it out in person. A chair can have every adjustment feature known to man and not fit your body well. The critical aspect is not to have a great chair, but a great fitting chair. A properly fitting, well-adjusted chair can support your body in the seated posture, and reduce the pressure that your body would otherwise bear in an ill-fitting or poorly adjusted chair.

Sit/stand workspace

If the challenge we are trying to address is too much sitting, then standing some of the time inherently reduces the total amount of time seated, and introduces variety in our body positions. Moving to standing all of the time is outside of the scope of this content as it would introduce its own set of ergonomic challenges as sitting for extended periods does. As with ergonomic chairs, the options for adjustable desks vary widely in cost. A quick search resulted in prices ranging from a little under $200 to around $2000 and desk sizes and features varied considerably. Dr. Robert H. Scherling provides excellent information around the health impacts of standing desks in his Harvard Health Blog, and points out that you also need to remember to switch between sitting and standing regularly during your work day to see the benefit. This, like taking breaks, requires awareness and creating the time to adjust. Manually adjustable desks will be able to be purchased at lower cost but require more time to transition, and automatic desks will trade increased cost for reduced transition time.

Treadmill desks

Treadmill desks vary in terms of space, noise, size of work surface, and whether the desk and treadmill are a combined unit or if a separate treadmill and desk must be purchased. The prices for treadmill desks range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. The impact to concentration and fine motor skills is an area that would likely depend on the individual and the job performed. Numerous personal accounts can be found online, and Jeff Heden shared his experience with a LifeSpan treadmill desk that was pricier and preferred to the other two he also tested. Treadmill desks are likely to require high levels of financial and time investment to rearrange the office setup and adjust to working while in motion. The health benefits are similarly high in the drastic increase in movement, increased calorie burn, and reduction in seated time.

Feasibility is another consideration that is very important, but is closely related to each individual work environment, and thus difficult to discuss broadly. For example, if your office structure does not have the space for a treadmill desk, then this option is not feasible for you unless you can be moved to a larger office with more space. If you work in manufacturing where the manufacturing line can not be modified to incorporate a sit/stand work space, then this may not be a feasible improvement for your work station. When considering any improvement, and limiting to those we can feasibly implement, the question to ask ourselves is whether the benefit will outweigh the costs for our unique situation and work environment.

Desk Stretches You Can Sneak in while Everyone is Watching

Image by kevin burt from Pixabay 

I can still picture my coworker lying on his back during a meeting in the office with his feet propped on a chair because there was pain radiating down his back. People would walk by the office and give a strange look as one of us assured them that everything was fine and there was nothing to see here. Attracting the same kind of notice while decked out in spandex for a robust desk yoga routine would probably not send the “hard at work” message we generally prefer to project in the workplace.

Unless you are my good friend, “Spandy”, who proudly earned her nickname biking across town to get to and from the office for years, we probably want to increase health with a more inconspicuous stretching routine. My ideal would be one I could do in a meeting full of people with nobody the wiser. Pulling ideas others have shared and adding some of my own, here are suggestions for the discreet way to sneak in stretches for our seated bodies.

The first four are based on stretches suggested by Dr. Chelsea Axe in 20 Exercises to Do at Your Desk — Get Fit at Work?! The next four are based on Annakeara Stinson’s 5 Sitting Stretches For Lower Back Pain That You Can Do On The Down-Low At Your Desk. The last are two more tried and true stretches I added to give us 10 stretches we can use to loosen our muscles without anyone knowing how healthy, limber, and pain-free we are.

1. Neck stretch – side head tilt

From an upright seated posture, tilt your head to the right so that your ear moves down towards your right shoulder, hold for 5-10 seconds then resume the upright head position. Then tilt your head to the left so that your ear moves toward your shoulder on the other side, hold 5-10 seconds, and raise. Repeat entire pattern 3-5 times. Is someone in the room with you? Your expression should communicate, “That was a profound look/noise/statement you just made. Allow me to tilt my head while I ponder and gather my thoughts.” Nobody will be the wiser.

2. Neck Stretch – head turns

Turn your head to look over your right shoulder until you feel a gentle stretch. Hold 5-10 seconds, then return to facing forward. Then turn your head to look over your left shoulder until you feel a gentle stretch, hold 5-10 seconds, and turn back forward. Repeat pattern 3-5 times. Are you in a meeting? Person to my right, your comment is intriguing, and I will give you my full focus and attention without turning my body. I will now check and see if those on my left realize how insightful you are before returning my full attention to you. My how focused and attentive we are at meetings.

3. Shoulder release – shrugs

Sitting in an upright posture, shrug your shoulders toward your ears, holding for 3-5 seconds before releasing.  Repeat 3-5 times, unless you are expected to know the answer or have to respond to a coworker’s question with more than a shoulder shrug.

4. Chest stretch – behind the back hand clasp

Depending on your chair, you may be able to reach behind the back of the chair, or scoot forward in the chair so your hands can touch behind your back. Bring your hands together behind your back, allowing your shoulders to move back and giving you a gentle stretch across your chest. Depending on your flexibility, you may deepen the stretch by moving your hands downwards or straightening your arms.

5. Core stretch – side twist

From an upright seated posture with your feet flat in front of you, engage your core so that your belly button draws toward your spine. Gently twist your upper body to your right, take a deep breath and hold. You can deepen the stretch when you exhale and can use the arm rest or back of chair to assist in the stretch.  Slowly return to forward facing and repeat on the left side. The side twist gives you the perfect opportunity to engage with people who are seated behind you in a meeting.

6. Hamstring stretch – leg extension

Move forward in your chair enough that you are able to straighten one leg without losing your balance or falling out of your chair. This stretch is far less effective and more noticeable if you land on the floor with a thud and a groan. You can hold on to the edge of your desk, chair, or arm rests to stabilize yourself.

From an upright posture with both feet flat on the floor in front of you, extend one leg forward, straighten the leg and flex the foot until you feel a gentle stretch in your hamstring. You can deepen the stretch by flexing the foot more, or leaning forward into the stretch. Hold for a few seconds and repeat with the other leg.

7. Hip flexor stretch – figure four

Depending on your chair, you may again need to move forward to allow space for the figure four stretch. From a sitting position with both feet flat on the ground in front of you, bring your right ankle to rest on your left thigh, near the knee. This may be enough to feel a stretch in your hip flexor or you can deepen the stretch by applying gentle downward pressure on the right knee or thigh, or leaning forward into the stretch. Return the right foot to the floor and repeat with the other leg.

8. Back stretch – spinal roll

Beginning with an upright posture and both feet flat on the floor in front of you, start by tilting the head downward and then continuing to roll down vertebrae by vertebrae. You can roll part or all of the way forward, and then roll gently back up to your starting position. Dropping something on the ground and then rolling down to pick it up is a great way to keep this stretch from drawing attention.

9. Neck stretch – head nods

Tilt your head down until your chin is close to or touching your chest and you feel a gentle stretch. Hold for about 5 seconds and return your head to an upright position. Then tilt your head slowly back until you feel and gentle stretch and are looking toward the ceiling, hold about 5 seconds and return to a neutral head position. No worries if you are in the middle of a conversation. Just think, “I am agreeing with you. I am just doing so very slowly.”

10. Wrist stretch – flex, extend, and rotation

After long periods typing or writing, it is helpful to ensure movement and blood flow through the wrists. My massage therapist recommended gently flexing both wrists, extending both wrists, and then gently rotating first in one direction and then the other. This can be done periodically throughout the day. This can be done under the desk as needed to avoid awkwardly waving at your coworkers.

Bonus move – corpse pose

This position involves lying on your back with your arms by your sides and your legs straight out. It is best done on top of a conference table to signal to the group that the meeting has exceeded its valuable time period. It is also very effective for gaining encouragement to change jobs. Perhaps this last one is best saved for post-office exercise routines.

Please check with your physician before beginning any stretch or exercise routine.

Maximizing Meeting Efficiency to Make Time for Movement

Incorporating more movement and breaks from sitting into our workdays is not as simple as setting a timer to remind us every half hour or hour. Back-to-back meetings throughout the day, particularly remote meetings where everyone calls in from their desks as we are seeing more and more, can make it challenging to step away from the desk at all. To fit in these necessary breaks for our health and wellness, we can take a closer look at these meetings and see if we can move the needle in the right direction by increasing efficiency and making time for movement.

There are great tips for increasing meeting efficiency online, and Brian Tracy shares some in his blog post, 7 Ways to Make Meetings More Efficient I will take his advice this week and ensure that every meeting I am driving is necessary, has a clear purpose and agenda, starts and ends on time, and covers items in priority order. I will work to conclude each meeting with agreement and clear task ownership, and follow up with meeting minutes. I expect this will help increase the efficiency of my meetings as he suggests but would still leave me with the challenge of insufficient time between meetings for breaks from sitting and incorporating movement. I would suggest adding two additional suggestions to the excellent tips from Brian Tracy.

Closely evaluate the agenda to ensure all planned content is necessary and value added. 

A meeting with a clear purpose that tries to cover too many topics, topics that are not necessary to discuss in person, or do not need the entire group of attendees may be able to be addressed another way such as through email. Once we are sure the content is necessary, value added, and appropriate for the entire group of attendees we can move to the second suggestion.

Schedule the meeting for the shortest amount of time that is sufficient to cover the topics, allowing breaks between meetings.

Many of us have been in multiple-hour, half-day, or full-day meetings and walked away thinking that the topics could have been covered in half or a third of that time. The minimum amount of time that is needed to cover critical discussions, make critical decisions, or convey critical information would be ideal to keep the participants engaged. Additional detail can be provided through email that is sent out in advance, during, or after the meeting.

It is likely that the default one-hour meeting could be shortened to 45 minutes, and longer meetings could similarly be shortened to allow a 15 minute break between meetings. If we start and end on time, stay focused on our topic, and everyone is on the same page thanks to the agenda and clear purpose of the meeting, then the benefit may be realized through a shorter, more efficient meeting. The additional 15 minute break between meetings could give all attendees a chance to re-energize and shift focus to the next meeting topic. In an ideal world, we would do so while taking a short walk, stretching, or otherwise giving our bodies a much needed movement break from all of that productive seated work.

Image by rawpixel from Pixabay 

The Productivity Boosting but Surprisingly Elusive Work Break

Image by Jan Alexander from Pixabay 

I am a strong supporter of starting with the simplest solution because I have found that it is often the most effective. Thus, in exploring the negative impacts of remaining seated most of the day and simultaneously trying out some of the recommended solutions, I started with the simple concept of moving more. I know myself well enough to set up a reminder system rather than rely on memory alone. When I get focused in my work, hours can pass and the next thing I know, lunchtime has come and gone, my neck and shoulders are a bit achy, and I am pitched forward in my chair apparently in a desperate attempt to become one with my computer monitor. My less than dainty head takes on far heavier proportions at this position as Erik Dalton @ErikDalton_PhD describes in the 42lb Head

I partnered with the great and powerful timer to get some action into my work day and rein in that heavy headed posture of mine. I set the timer on my phone to provide the least annoying reminder I could find at 30 minute intervals. I can not claim that I had strong confidence that the timer would be my sedentary cure-all, but I thought it would be a step in the right direction. Not surprisingly, the timer frequently went off while I was in a meeting, on a call, or engrossed in a task that I wouldn’t kick to the curb. Ultimately, the timer did remind me to move more, and if I did not stand and move when the timer went off, I was at least made aware of my posture and body position. If I was not able to take a break, I frequently rolled my shoulders back and readjusted my posture in response to the reminder.

I now have a greater awareness of my workday and the challenges with being able to take frequent breaks that were not planned into my schedule. The value of frequent breaks is clear in reducing the risks associated with being seated for too long, in increased mindfulness that allow us to notice and correct poor posture, and in increasing productivity. Your natural highs and lows in energy levels can be capitalized on to work most productively for a period, followed by short breaks to allow your body and mind to recover for your next productive period, as described by Nils Salzgeber @NJlifehacks in Why Taking Frequent Breaks is the Key to Productivity I expect the key to reaping the rewards of breaks is being able to take them in the first place. While a timer is a helpful reminder, back-to-back meetings, calls and projects do not leave organic breaks in the daily schedule. It might be time to reevaluate that daily schedule and see what changes we can make to fit in breaks for increased health and productivity.   

The Painful Truth About Poor Posture

Image by Jan Vašek from Pixabay

The amount of time spent seated is the primary focus and challenge for those of us with desk jobs or similarly seated roles. Compounding that issue is our posture while seated, which is an area I certainly struggle with. I start strong, poised and comfortable in my ergonomic chair and before I even realize it has happened, I am fully engaged with all of the tasks at hand, leaning forward over my desk, and have taken my wonderful desk job to a new level of discomfort in a position that I have probably held for hours.

My early efforts at sleuthing did not result in consistent recommendations for the optimal sitting posture or workstation setup, and I will continue to dig further into this topic to understand the differences that are motivating conflicting recommendations. There is strong agreement, however, in how NOT to sit. Spoiler alert: hunched over our desks is not ideal. Dr. Alan Hedge, an ergonomics professor at Cornell University, shares in the video below why the forward lean that seems to be my current go to work posture should not be adopted by all of you far more savvy sitters.

While I now recognize that my seated posture contributes to some of the pain and discomfort I am working to reverse, I was not aware of this until recently. I imagine that I am not the only one out there who was blissfully unaware of a seated posture that could use some improvement. My request for anyone out there who does experience tension or pain after a workday seated is to take a moment several times during the day and notice how you are sitting. Does your posture have room for improvement?

Why So Much Sitting Is Hurting Our Health

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

I started this blog with a commitment to dig into the available information and research on how sedentary lifestyles impact health. My goal is to discover and test out solutions that may lead to improved health and wellness at work and in life. Early in this exploration I have discovered how extensive this body of knowledge is, and how many different ways a person can go wrong with a sedentary day job.

There are many factors that can affect the impact of sitting on our health. The most obvious is perhaps how long we are seated, and the frequency of breaks that we take. The type of work we perform and the equipment we use plays a large role as well. The ergonomic setup of our workstation is a topic of much research and has some controversy around the optimal setup. Our level of activity outside of work and overall health including other risk factors is also a consideration.

An animated video by Murat Dalkilinç explains in simple and clear terms some of the challenges faced by long periods remaining seated, the impacts on our musculoskeletal system and associated health risks.

So now we might be asking ourselves how to tell if I am at risk for the slew of negative health impacts that are associated with sitting, and what steps I should take moving forward. What a coincidence, I just asked myself those same questions, and here is what I decided. I am going to move more, and I encourage you to do the same. I know that I will not remember to do this on my own so I will set my phone to vibrate every half hour to remind me to move. I may stand and stretch, walk down the hall to grab some water or use the restroom, or take a 5 minute walk. I will report back on how effective this was, how often I simply ignored the timer because I was in the middle of a meeting, phone call, task or project, or if a timer going off that frequently simply drove me out of my mind.

If you are interested in adding more movement to your work day as well, please leave a comment and share your approach and how well it worked for you.

The Journey Begins

Thank you for joining me!

I am no stranger to neck and back pain. My shoulders started voicing their displeasure during the college years of sitting through classes and hunched-over study sessions. Graduate school and then a desk job with frequent travel had the shoulders recruiting my neck, low back, and wrists to join in on the action. This seemed like a normal part of life until my husband returned to school to earn his degree, and began to suffer neck and shoulder pain as well. His previous job with regular movement and activity was replaced by hours of sitting in class and working on a computer, and I realized that neck and back pain were no limited to me and my own seated little world.

I decided to learn everything I can about the impacts of sedentary work, and take the initiative to make changes in my own life to reverse the impacts of all of this time spent on my rumpus. Since I am likely not the only one out there who would like to understand what all of the collective research shows, what recommended strategies exist to address the challenges, and how effective these strategies are, I hoped that sharing my journey through this blog would be able to help others as well.

It turns out that impacts of sedentary work on health is associated with neck and back pain as well as more serious concerns according to an overview of research provided by WebMD. This heavily studied area shows clear correlations between extensive time seated and risks of heart disease, shortened lifespan, dementia, diabetes, deep vein thrombosis, weight gain, anxiety, varicose veins, and even certain types of cancer.

Recommendations are provided from simply moving a couple of minutes every half hour or standing at your desk for part of the day to using a treadmill desk.  As I dig further into the pool of knowledge around impacts of seated work and begin to test out the recommended strategies, I will share what I learn in this blog. With so much information out there to explore, I hope to see the forest through the trees and identify the key issues and most promising solutions. My years of experience digging through scientific and clinical literature should prove useful in this quest. I look forward to a little less pain in my future and a boost to my heath and happiness, and I hope yours as well.