A few months ago, I was helping a client untangle tightness and pain the neck and shoulder region that we traced back to long days spent nudging a computer mouse back and forth.
When said client asked me how to prevent the same problem from returning, I shrugged and suggested, “Get a job as a forest ranger?”
But in all seriousness, computers are a problem, and they’re not going away. And, sad as it may be, most people can’t walk out on their urban jobs to meander in the woods from dawn until dusk.
I am of the opinion that computers need to change — dramatically. It’s a hard fact that the human body is not meant to plunk down in front of a glowing rectangle and remain there for ten, twelve or fourteen hour stretches at a time (interspersed, of course, with long commutes in vehicles having poorly designed seats that force you into a slouch with your head jutting forward).
And no amount of ergonomics is going to change that. No standing desk, or treadmill desk, or bouncy ball seats or overpriced chairs with kagillians of adjustments to maintain that perfect posture are going to make the machine-human interface more functional.
If we really want to make it possible to spend the majority of our lives in front of computers, then what a computer is needs a revolution.
My vision? A three dimensional interface that would mimic natural human movement — bending, reaching, squatting, turning your head and spine. And please add some texture! All these smooth surfaces and shiny buttons are dumbing down our kinesthetic capacities.
But, until some smarty-pants engineers figure all that out, we’re kinda stuck with the glowing rectangles that are modern computers, for better or for worse.
So, if you, like so many people, find yourself forever staring at a screen, and if you bemoan the hunch forming in your shoulders, the stiffness in your neck and hips, and if you know you should work on your posture but you just don’t know how, or you’re too busy to focus on that….
Behold! The ten commandments of sitting in front of a computer. These are the tips I dispense on a near daily basis to my techie clients, so I thought it would be a great idea to corral them all into one easy to find list.
Thou shalt sit with your hips higher than your knees.
If you do nothing else, this principle will change your freaking life. I can’t tell you how many people are sitting in chairs that are too low for them, mostly because that’s how they can cram their knees under desks that are also too low.
When the seat of your chair is low enough that, upon sitting in it, your knee joint is above your hip joint, it rocks your pelvis back so that your weight falls on your sacrum — the triangular base of your spine — and thus forces your entire spine into a forward C-curve.
In this posture, your bones are not stacked, gravity drags downward on your neck and shoulders and all your muscles have to work super hard to stabilize you. Which results in fatigue. And tension. And pain.
It turns out that sitting upright is less about core strength and more about stacking your bones properly. A well-stacked structure doesn’t require much effort to support, whereas a faulty foundation needs a whole lotta shoring up.
Thou shalt not sit on a soft surface.
Soft surfaces also cause that pelvis to rock back and fold your spine into the dreaded C-curve. Now, everyone is going to need different levels of padding based on their structure and how much tissue they’ve got around their sit bones. Some people need a bit more and others are perfectly happy sitting on a wooden plank.
However, that padding needs to have support beneath it so you don’t just sink in forever. That’s why I don’t recommend sitting on those bouncy yoga balls. They’re too squishy and don’t give your spine any support — think about a building with its foundation in quicksand.
Not exactly the most stable thing.
The dynamic aspect is valid, though, so if you like to add a little instability into your chair, I highly recommend Kore Stools, which have a rocker bottom. It requires that you keep your feet on the floor (see #3, below) and also that your body constantly adapt to shifting balance.
I have them in my office and notice they greatly reduce muscle fatigue while simultaneously engaging the body from the feet all the way up to the upper neck.
Thou shalt keep thine feet on the floor.
The purpose of positioning your hips higher than your knees is so that you can distribute your bodyweight into your feet, gaining support from the ground.
Try this: sit down on a firm-ish surface. Lift your knees so your feet are off the floor. Feel your back and shoulders engage? That’s because when you eliminate your legs and feet from the equation, all of your support has to come from the muscles around your spine and torso.
Remember how I said stacking your bones allows your muscles to relax? Well, those bones need something to stack on top of. Your feet on the floor give your spine support, especially as you lean forward toward your computer.
Again, try this: sit back down on that firm-ish surface. Cross your ankles and tuck your feet underneath your seat. Now, lean forward a few inches, as though you were peering closely at a computer screen. Feel your low back engage?
For comparison, now put your feet on the floor with your knees bent at a 90 degree angle. Lean forward again, in the same fashion. Notice that your back stays more relaxed?
For extra bonus points, now put one foot ahead of the other (it doesn’t matter which one). Lean forward again, and notice how your feet take your weight so your muscles can stay loose and soft?
Feet are more than just stubs at the end of your legs. They’re there to support you — literally. Use them.
Thine monitor shalt be at eye level or above.
I see a lot of ergonomic recommendations for keeping the monitor slightly below eye level. I think this is because lots of people have those hyper curves in their necks and this sort of looks like it straightens the curve out a little when the viewer tucks their chin to look down.
However, I completely disagree with the whole thing. If your monitor is below eye level, you’re going to — as I mentioned — tuck your chin. The average human head weighs around ten pounds. Tip that bowling ball forward a bit, and it’ll tug on your neck, pulling your shoulders into the dreaded computer hunch.
Take it from a tall person who feels great neck and shoulder relief whenever I find myself in a crowd of people taller than myself, looking down constantly strains your neck.
I recommend positioning your monitor at or above eye level. If you have a laptop, this is tricky for obvious reasons. Short stints on a laptop are probably not a big deal, but if you’re hunkered in front of a screen day in and day out for long stretches, you might seriously consider getting an external monitor to plug in so you don’t wind up hunched over by the age of forty.
Thou shalt move thine muscles in equal proportion to the hours spent sitting.
Okay, so people always want The Stretches. You know: what’s the best stretch for…? Neck pain, shoulder tension, tight hips.
Stretching is good. You should do it. Regularly. I should probably stretch more than I do, too.
A twenty second neck stretch WILL NOT combat fourteen hours of computer work. It just won’t.
You’ve got to move your body. There is so, so much time and energy put into developing the ideal computer desks and chairs, standing desks and convertible desks and treadmill desks and I don’t even know what all.
But they all have one thing in common: stagnation.
Sure, if you’re standing, you might rock side to side a bit more, shuffle your feet back and forth a bit. Standing desks aren’t awful, but I don’t think they’re a panacea either. They don’t correct the inherently flawed design of a flat computer screen.
The human body is meant to move and bend and squat and lift and twist and shift and carry things. It’s meant to feel texture, to stretch upward and downward. It’s meant, at the very least, to walk.
Not to stand. Not to sit.
So, make movement a priority. And I don’t just mean an hour in the gym a few times a week. I mean puttering about. I mean being up and engaged and doing something.
As an added bonus, nearly ever single person I know reports that this kind of “exercise,” if you can call it that, makes them feel better, sleep better and just generally lifts their moods.
P.S. There was a study done, and I should have saved the data because now I can’t figure out where I saw this graphic, but anyway, some scientist did fancy research and found that actually exercise as we normally class it (a high intensity workout in a gym) has very little impact on your body composition (how much lean mass vs. body fat you carry). The two biggest factors were 1) how much muscle mass you carry, and 2) how much low intensity steady state cardio you do.
That last one? Is what I’m talking about. Puttering.
Thou shalt sit on the floor.
Squatting is all the rage right now. I hereby predict that in another five to ten years, we’re all going to be sitting on the floor and proclaiming that it’s mad science and the hottest new thing and why didn’t we all do this earlier and everyone should sit on the floor while drinking their green smoothies and hot buttered coffee.
But seriously. Floor sitting is soooo good for you. Sitting in a chair only moves the hip joint in one linear plane, but when you sit on the floor, particularly cross legged, you rotate the femur in the socket and use up more of its range of motion.
That little shift engages more muscles, which results in more flexibility. It’s really hard for a muscle to make a fist in your hip if you constantly request that it move because in order to move? It has to first relax.
Sitting on the floor stretches your hips, moves your spine, AND it has the added benefit of preserving your mobility as you age, so you’re never going to be that stiff-muscled grandma who can’t play on the floor with children. Or cats.
Pro Tip: The same rule as in #1 applies here as well.
If your hips are quite tight and/or it’s been a while since you plopped down on the carpet, find something firm to place under your hips and elevate your pelvis off the ground a little. It will help free your hip joints and take strain off of your knees, which is often a problem area when people first start floor sitting.
Firm foam rollers, yoga blocks and bolsters or meditation cushions all work well for this.
Thou shalt change your chairs.
Much like sitting on the floor stimulates your hip joint differently from sitting in a chair, different chairs will also change how you sit.
Remember how you’re supposed to be moving, and not just a stationary object? Well, the more variety of chairs that you can sit in, the better for your muscles and nervous system. It prevents you from fossilizing into one static posture.
Changing up how you sit is the next best thing to not sitting at all.
Remember, there’s no one right perfect chair, or one absolutely correct sitting posture. Movement is the name of the game, so shake it up on the regular and notice that your fatigue diminishes, along with the stiffness in your spine.
Thou shalt sit on thy sit bones.
We’ve sort of already covered this in our sections on soft surfaces and elevating your hips above your knees, but it bears repeating.
Your “sit” bones are actually technically called ischial tuberosities, and they form the base of your pelvis. You know those bones you feel when you sit on a bicycle seat? Those are the rami, and they’re the bony bars that jut forward from your sit bones.
Most people have a tendency to rock back onto their sacrum, which isn’t a stable sitting surface. Sitting on the sacrum causes your whole spine to lock up, which is not what it’s meant to do. Despite being commonly referred to as the spinal “column,” your spine is really more like a slinky or a spring.
When you ask it to become a support structure and bear weight it’s not meant to, it has to become more rigid. That’s just a principle of physics.
So, rocking forward onto your sit bones will give your spine some instant relief. An added bonus? Most people find that they don’t have to work nearly as hard to keep their shoulders back once they’re sitting on the proper pelvic bones since the spine is free to be upright instead of forced into that C-curve.
Thou shalt stimulate your peripheral vision.
The body shapes itself to the space around it. Watch a tall person walk into a room with a low ceiling and notice how they instinctively duck their head.
But your body also shapes to your perception of space (because reality is, after all, only what you perceive). Staring at a computer screen all day can give you tunnel vision, which means you’re only perceiving a very small array of space in front of you.
That tends to cause your head and neck to jut forward, resulting in — you guessed it — the dreaded shoulder hunch.
Simply moving your eyes away from the screen and stimulating the periphery of your visual field can help to remind your body that it exists in a three-dimensional world with equal space to each side and behind it as in front.
One way to do this is to hold your hands out in front of you, index fingers extended up. Move your hands apart at the same speed, following with your eyes (your eyeballs will remain looking forward as the fingers travel into your peripheral visual field). See how far out to the sides your fingers can go before you lose sight of them completely.
Thou shalt reset your eyes.
Eye strain from looking at computer monitors is a real thing, but did you know that your eyeballs are connected to tiny little muscles at the base of your skull that adjust constantly in response to your vision? This is connected to physical balance and coordination.
However, when your eyes are fatigued, or the muscles around your eyes are tight from strain, those little muscles in your neck are often a corresponding mirror of tension and pain.
Simply reducing your eye strain can help to ease tension in your neck and shoulders, too. The best part is, it’s not hard to do, and often has the added benefit of soothing your nervous system.
So, whenever you’ve been in front of the screen for long hours or you’re just feeling stressed and wound up tight, try the following.
Wherever you are (unless you’re driving, in which case WHY ARE YOU READING THIS?!!), look up. Allow your eyes to drift slowly around the room, letting them land on any colors, shapes, textures or movements that attract them.
Remember that vision is simply light reaching your eyeball, and think about the images you’re seeing traveling into your eye rather than pushing your eye toward them.
It doesn’t matter if your vision is blurry or keen. Simply spend a few moments allowing your eyes to wander thusly until you feel calm and relaxed.
Then, notice if there is a reduction in tension around your eye socket, if colors seem a bit brighter or if you feel that you’ve got a more complete visual image of your surroundings.
This is an easy practice to use on a daily basis to erase any accumulated stress and eye strain.
So, here we are, at the end. I never know how to wrap up these lists. I can tell you that I’ve just given you my ten commandments for sitting in front of a computer, but you already know that because you just read them. So let’s agree to not restate the obvious, okay?
Anyway, these suggestions won’t make life in front of a computer perfect, but they’ll certainly make it less unpleasant and give you back some freedom of movement in the process.
Until you get that job as a forest ranger, that is. Send me a postcard when you do.
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