There are countless videos and blogs out there educating you on how to set up your office desk space so that it can be perfectly “ergonomic,” and they look great. They have awesome visuals, cute cartoon figures, and perfectly placed plants in the background of each shot. So, it would make sense that they would spend as much time and effort on the content as they did on the decorations. But when you’re sitting at your desk in pain, it doesn’t matter whether there’s a philodendron or some lilies in the corner. The only thing that matters is setting up your body properly to fight against gravity.
You will need an office chair with an adjustable height. If you don’t have this, you can either use phonebooks or textbooks to either sit on (if your chair won’t go higher) or place under your feet (if you can’t reach the ground).
Also, if your desk table does not adjust and this setup causes you to be too high or low, you can, again, use textbooks to adjust your keyboard, monitor, and mouse. Check out this video for setting up your chair and desk:
Step One: Sit two inches from the front of your chair.
Sitting on your chair, look down and observe a triangle of chair between your legs. From the edge of your chair to the crotch, there should be a distance of two inches. Scoot forward or backward on your chair accordingly to achieve this perfect two-inch triangle.
The reason: This position is the perfect location for your bottom so that your thighs are able to drop below the horizon and to avoid sitting on the edge of the chair, compressing your tailbone. Do not utilize the backrest as your main support; the backrest should only be used occasionally as an occasional “rest for your back."
Step Two: Adjust the height of your chair so that your hips are above your knees.
Now that you’re sitting in the right spot on your chair, let’s adjust the chair height. Most people set their chairs up so that their hips and knees are 90 degrees. Yeah, it rhymes, but it’s not optimal. Raise the seat until the hips are visibly above the knees. Place your feet forward or backward so that your shins are perpendicular to the floor. The knees should measure about 100 - 110 degrees.
The reason: With the hips and knees at 90 degrees, there’s a lot of pressure on the lower back because the force of gravity on your body ends there. Nothing below your butt is working to support your upper body, so it all goes to the lower back. After 5, 10, 15 years of sitting on your back, how can you not have back pain? With your hips above your knees, you can now utilize your feet to support your body. Because the feet are made for weight-bearing, they relieve pressure from the back as they share the force.
Step Three: Hinge forward with your hips
Take a stick that is long enough to reach from your head to your butt (a broomstick or mop would work if you don't have a dowel on hand) and place it against your spine. Now, slowly tilt forward while maintaining neutral spine, feeling a bit of glute muscle activation. Stop when you begin to feel weight being transferred to your feet.
The reason: As you feel weight transferring to your feet, without you even knowing it, the postural muscles in your body start to activate. You know about the abdominals and the back muscles, but there are many more that must work to hold you together as you write work. We must activate the deep neck flexors, the rotator cuff muscles of the shoulder and hips, the hamstrings, and even the little muscles of the feet to name a few. Without weight being transferred to the feet, these muscles can’t stabilize your body properly. Here’s an analogy: If you wind up a toy car and hold it in the air, the wheels may spin but nothing is happening. Wind it up and put it on the ground and it goes because there’s something for the wheels to grip onto.
Step Four: Take breaks
This one may seem like common sense, but I’ve talked to many office workers who just sit there for hours at a time without even the thought of taking a standing break. I recommend taking a break to stand AT LEAST once every hour. It’s best to set a quiet alarm every hour to remember to stand which can be hard to do when you're focused on work. Another adjustment that I recommend is staggering your feet. During your hour of sitting, you can have one foot forward and one foot back and alternate every couple minutes to give each side a break. This may be especially helpful to those with lower extremity pain.
The reason: Standing increases blood flow and activates even more postural muscles than sitting. This very important for decreasing nociceptive signals from your body. Nociception is your body’s way of detecting danger in the body and sending these signals to the brain to then be interpreted as pain or not. When there is decreased oxygen, these nociceptive signals increase because the body definitely does not like to be oxygen deficient. The process of back pain follows this pattern:
You sit all day > muscles become weaker > instability > pain > move less > less oxygen > more pain > repeat
Obviously, fixing your office seat isn’t going to solve your back pain or get you a promotion (though it might when your boss perceives some newfound confidence from your sitting posture), but it does demonstrate that you can make choices to get out of pain. You don’t need to feel chained to a desk to work in an office, but you do have the power to be strong while sitting in a swivel chair. These little details about sitting may seem tedious at first they bring you so much closer to a long-lasting, pain-free career.
Remember, we can and we will get better together!