- Ergonomics is a science used to make workspaces less taxing on the human body.
- A sedentary lifestyle can lead to lifelong conditions affecting the spine, including sciatica, herniated disks, muscle strains, and more.
- Making a few simple workplace improvements can prevent prolonged sitting from permanently affecting the health of your back, neck, and spine.
- Tips like practicing dynamic sitting and using laser therapy for pain relief can complement your ergonomics strategy for better spine health.
Sitting is the new smoking. It sounds dramatic, but we know now more than ever that, like smoking, a sedentary lifestyle can lead to a litany of life-threatening health issues. From diabetes and heart disease to lingering lower back pain, prolonged sitting brings some potentially dire consequences, and we shouldn’t ignore them. If you’re like the millions of Americans with a desk job and want to improve your overall well-being, you’re going to want to get to know the concept of ergonomics.
What Is Ergonomics?
Ergonomics is the science of arranging a workspace in a way that makes working within it healthier, safer, and more efficient. It’s often used to enhance traditional office spaces and make them less physically straining on the body. Some simple ways to make your workspace more ergonomic are adjusting the height of your chair to help prevent back pain or moving your keyboard closer to prevent shoulder overuse. To put it simply, ergonomics is the science of making things fit people, and it is considered an effective prevention and treatment option for many musculoskeletal issues.
While designing an ergonomic office won’t directly prevent many of the most frightening side effects of “sitting disease”—including muscle atrophy, weight gain, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer—it does directly prevent many of the conditions that keep desk workers from being active during off-work hours. For example, if you develop sciatica due to prolonged sitting, you may be less inclined to follow a rigorous fitness plan due to the debilitating pain. Ergonomics, at its core, aims to support the back, neck, spine, and hips, which means better overall physical health.
Why Does It Matter?
Making small tweaks to your workspace seems like such a minor effort that it’s hard to believe it could have such a big impact on your health. However, the truth is that working all day in an ill-fitting environment can bring serious, long-term consequences to your musculoskeletal health. Most often, this can be reduced to a single problem brought about by your workspace—poor posture.
How Your Workspace Affects the Back
Creating an ergonomic desk setup can prevent you from falling into a bad seated position and winding up with poor posture, which can, in turn, reduce your likelihood of developing the following back and spine conditions.
- Herniated Disk – Studies show that prolonged sitting is a significant risk factor in developing disk herniation. When we sit all day, we put undue strain on the back and spine, which can alter these structures permanently. In the case of a herniated disk, the rubbery disks that act as cushions between the vertebrae begin to bulge or rupture, causing severe pain, numbness, and weakness.
- Sciatica – Sciatica (pinched sciatic nerve) is another back condition that can occur due to a sedentary lifestyle, especially when paired with poor workspace ergonomics. This condition occurs when pressure is put on the sciatic nerve, causing radiating pain in the lower back and down the legs. Often, sciatica happens after a herniated disk, as the disk movement can pinch or put pressure on the nerve.
- Muscle Strains – We often think of muscle strains as injuries of sport, occurring during high-energy activity and physical fitness. But they can happen even at rest. In fact, the way you sit can overstretch the spinal ligaments and strain the lower back. This is especially common among people who slouch. Being sedentary also has a secondary effect on the muscles in that it leads to muscle weakness and atrophy, which can increase the likelihood of injury.
- Overuse – We hardly ever think about how the tools we use around us—the keyboard, computer monitor, mouse, or phone, for example—cause us to move. But if you have to stretch your arm hundreds of times per day to reach the mouse or phone handset, you may be triggering overuse in the arms or shoulders.
- Poor Posture – One of the biggest ways that a poorly designed workspace can leave you with long-term problems is by affecting your posture. Poor posture can cause misalignment of the spine and knees, not to mention issues like potbelly, back pain, headache, and muscle fatigue.
- Chronic Back Pain – Chronic pain is defined as any pain that lasts for 12 weeks or longer in spite of treatment or medication. Many people who have a sedentary lifestyle and work in a non-ergonomic workspace experience chronic nonspecific back pain due to the fact that they have an underlying musculoskeletal issue that is being worsened by prolonged periods of sitting.
For more information on the musculoskeletal effects of sitting, be sure to reference our guide to how your desk job could be negatively affecting your back.
Designing an Ergonomic Workspace
As you can see, it’s well worth your while to do whatever you can do to prevent your workspace from leaving you with potentially irreversible back issues.
1. Start with an Ergonomic Chair
- The ideal seated position for back support keeps the spine straight and the ears, shoulders, and hips in one vertical line. Your butt should be directly up against the chair back and your feet should rest flat on the floor or a footrest.
- Look for a chair that’s adjustable in seat height, seat angle, and arm height so you can position it properly with the height of your desk. Usually, it’s easier to adjust seat height than it is desk height.
- Make sure there’s enough room under your desk for your knees, thighs, and feet to tuck under nicely so you don’t have to reach for your keyboard.
- Your chair should include lumbar support, such as a roll or a pillow at the lower back. This will help prevent you from slumping forward as you get tired, which will put unnecessary strain on the spine.
- Adjust your chair height so that the knees and hips are level (knees should not slope downward or rise upward) when feet are flat on the floor.
- Your chair should have armrests that keep your arms at a 90-degree angle while working to prevent your arms and wrists from awkward positioning.
2. Master Proper Positioning
Even if you’ve invested in the most high-tech, ergonomic office furniture around, it will do you no good if you don’t spend the time to set up your workspace properly based on your unique body. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for designing an ergonomic workspace, which is why it’s so important to invest in adjustable furniture that you can tailor to your precise anthropometrics (body measurements). Here are some things to keep in mind when you’re deciding where to place things in your ergonomic workspace.
- Keep your computer screen at eye level so you’re looking straight ahead and not forced to strain your neck either upwards or downwards. Your monitor shouldn’t be too close, either. Keep it about arm’s length away.
- Keep your mouse, keyboard and phone within arm’s reach so that you’re not stretching or overworking muscles when you reach for them.
- Avoid holding your phone between your shoulder and your ear, as this can cause neck strain. Consider investing in a hands-free headset.
- If you use a standing desk, be sure to use a mat beneath your feet and wear comfortable shoes to support your back.
- Adjust your standing desk to the right height. It should be positioned so that you can operate your mouse or keyboard without bending the wrists.
More Things You Can Do
If you generally lead a sedentary lifestyle, there are some important things you should do to improve your overall health and well-being each and every day in addition to designing an ergonomic workspace. Here are some important steps to take to complement your ergonomics strategy.
- Try a sit-stand desk, as this will help encourage more movement and blood flow throughout the day. However, note that standing all day isn’t great for your body, either, as it can strain the knees and hips. Alternate between sitting and standing to prevent putting undue strain on the musculoskeletal system throughout the body.
- Consider dynamic sitting. Also known as “active sitting,” this is the art of moving around while sitting. Continuous movement of any sort may have the benefit of strengthening the core, improving blood flow and burning calories. It can also help lubricate the joints, which can lessen pain in the back, hips, and knees. Regularly shifting your position or sitting on a stability ball while you work can help you sit actively.
- Mitigate pain with laser therapy. Using one of our laser light therapy belts for back pain can help you deal with any lingering lower back pain after a long day at work. These belts use cutting-edge laser technology to help relax muscles and improve blood flow, which can lead to temporary relief from pain, muscle spasms, and inflammation.
- Make a point to stretch. A few 15-minute stretch breaks throughout the day can do wonders to counteract the negative effects of long-term sitting. Set an alarm for a morning and afternoon stretch break to get your blood flowing.
- Use a lumbar support pillow or roll. You don’t necessarily have to invest in a whole new office chair to improve the way you sit during the workday. A lumbar roll or pillow can help provide the low back support you need to prevent pain and stiffness with your existing chair. This is also great because you can use it throughout the house on different chairs to ensure that you always have lumbar support as you lounge.
- Use posture-correcting devices or set reminders on your computer to help you stay aware of your posture throughout the day. Even though we all intend to practice good posture, we all start to slip as we get tired and stressed out. Setting reminders or using posture devices can help prevent that from happening.
Ergonomics Is Crucial to a Healthy Spine
The beauty of ergonomics is that it’s one of those unique interventions that simultaneously prevents and treats your condition at the same time. Not only will changing the way you sit build up back support so you don’t develop potentially devastating musculoskeletal conditions, but it can also help remind you to practice good posture, which will help lessen the pain and discomfort in the meantime.
Creating a well-designed, ergonomic workspace is well worth your time, money, and effort, as it can drastically improve your health and quality of life.