Fix your home office and stop letting your desk ruin your back
Here's how to fix your working-from-home setup so you stop ruining your back.
If you’ve spent the quarantine working from home at length, you probably know it can be a real pain in the neck — and back, and hips, and shoulders.
After all, many of us don’t have proper home office setups. Which means working from the couch or kitchen table, and that can get uncomfortable.
But don’t despair. There some things you can do to lessen the impact of an uncomfortable work-from-home situation and ease your aching joints. Here is what you need to know:
Your couch is not a desk
If you’re working from your couch all day, that’s got to stop. Couches, says Pete Mattis of ZAKTi Fitness in Queen Village, prevent you from holding proper posture — essential for preventing neck and back pain.
“Think of your body as a chain. If one piece is off, the rest is off,” he says. “We look at that chain, and that wants to be stacked and organized as beautifully as possible.”
Often, says Alexis Tingan of Penn Medicine, that comes down to how your arms, elbows, knees, and hips are positioned. In general, he says, you’ll want to look for 90-degree angles at your joints: your elbows should be at a 90-degree angle when sitting at your desk, as should your hips and knees, and your feet should be flat on the ground. Your gaze should be as straight ahead as possible.
If you’re working while standing, that guidance is pretty much the same except your hips and knees should be straight. However, as Mattis notes, you want to make sure your feet are squared — not standing “like the statue of David” with one hip cocked.
“The most important thing is to achieve optimal posture,” Tingan says. “If you have better posture, you have more energy and are more productive.”
How to buy a better desk chair
There are a few things you should look for when choosing a good chair for your office, says Allison Sevillano, owner of the local consulting outfit Select Ergonomics. For starters, it should offer good lumbar support, have an adjustable back rest, and arm rests that adjust both up and down and in and out.
It should also fit you well, meaning that the seat depth should be one to two inches shorter than the distance between the back of your knee and where your backside hits the back of a chair. Her favorite? The Steelcase Amia, which goes for upwards of $600 online. But you don’t have to break the bank for proper seating,
How to hack your existing chair
A cheaper option: You may be able to modify what you already have. Chiropractor Dani Walsh recommends stuffing a firm pillow or rolled up towel in the small of your back for extra support in your existing office chair, or using an extra cushion on the seat to raise you up if you are sitting too low. And if your feet can’t sit flat on the ground while sitting, try using a foot stool, a stack of books, or even plastic containers to even out your footing.
Or you could ditch the office chair altogether, and go with an exercise ball, which cost around $20, as Don Rocklage of Philadelphia Chiropractic in Old City suggests. They can help you maintain good posture and prevent slouching. Or, consider an exercise ball chair, which allows you to slip your exercise ball into a more traditional office chair structure that provides some extra back support.
Set up your workstation
If you use a laptop, you know they aren’t the most comfortable equipment for eight or more hours a day. The key is raising it higher. Use a laptop stand or even a stack of books to prevent neck pain caused by glaring down at your screen.
A better option, however, is to go for more of a desktop setup. Tingan recommends using an external monitor, keyboard, and wireless mouse. If not, he says, “you are confined to a small space and are crunched in” more than you ought to be. Even using a desktop computer may be better than a laptop.
Your monitor should be propped up high enough so that the upper third of the screen is at eye level so you don’t look up or down too much, Tingan says. Sevillano adds that the monitor should be about an arm’s length away — and if you are using two monitors, the gap between them should be positioned at your nose, with both screens angled in slightly.
Mouse-wise, Sevillano is a fan of roller or trackball mice, which let you control your cursor with your thumb so you don’t have to move your arm around all day. And when it comes to your keyboard, don’t use the built-in kickstands to prop it up — if anything, you want the keyboard flat or sloped slightly downward to take pressure off your wrists. A keyboard tray, which attaches to your desk, may also help.
Is a standing desk better?
Yes. If you’re not considering standing while you work, maybe you should, says Tingan — or at least alternating between sitting and standing to break up the workday. Standing, can help correct the alignment of your back, spine, and neck, he says, all with the added benefit of burning more calories than sitting.
“Humans only in the last 200 or years or so have really been sitting for long periods,” he says. “Throughout most of history, we stand, walk, run, squat, and sit for a short period of time.”
The easiest way to get into the standing-while-working game, Sevillano says, is to work from a countertop. But if you need a desk option, VariDesk models (at about $300) are popular, and sit right on top of your existing desk — plus, they adjust for both sitting and standing, so you can alternate throughout the day. If you’re looking for something more permanent, there are a number electrically powered adjustable height standing desks from companies like Uncaged Ergonomics and Uplift.
If you include a standing desk in your workspace, Sevillano says that it is important to not stand all day. A good rule is to stand for a maximum of 45 minutes — and a minimum of 15 minutes — every hour.
Don’t forget to move
Make sure you’re moving throughout the day. Mattis recommends moving around for two minutes for every half hour: That can mean talking a walk, stepping away from your desk, or doing some stretches to “offset the effects of sitting.”
Mattis recommends daily stretches such as the kneeling hip flexor stretch and the lying side body twist, which can stretch out your hips and back effectively. Tingan adds that moves like lumbar extensions can help, too. Rocklage, meanwhile, says to hold an exercise band behind your neck and lean your head back to stretch your neck periodically throughout the day.
But it’s not just your neck and back. Sevillano says that you should look at something that is 20 feet away for 20 seconds every 20 minutes. In addition to being a “good chance to gaze longingly out the window,” she says, looking away from your screen periodically can reduce eye strain by giving your eyes to refocus on something farther away.
“You’re more productive if you take a break than if you don’t,” Sevillano says. “The body needs that movement to keep focus.”
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Pete Mattis, owner of ZAKTi Fitness
Alexis Tingan, MD, Penn Medicine, focusing on physical medicine and sports rehabilitation,
Don Rocklage, DC, owner of Philadelphia Chiropractic
Dani Walsh, DC, Konect
Allison Sevillano, PT, DPT, ATP, CEAS, AOEAS, owner of Select Ergonomics