It’s easy to let your posture slip when you sit at your desk for long stretches all week, every week. Here’s how to prevent it from causing problems with your back, neck and shoulders.
The office isn’t what it used to be, with the restrictions imposed to help manage the coronavirus crisis having led to working from home becoming (whisper it) the new normal. As a result, since the first lockdown was announced way back in March, many people with desk jobs have no longer had their normal commute to contend with or the usual co-worker camaraderie to see them through the day.
However, one thing that certainly hasn’t changed during this strange year is that sitting at a computer all day, five days a week, can wreak havoc on your joints and muscles. Particularly if your posture is off during the working day, chances are you’re going to end up with aches and pains that are hard to shake off.
If you’re worried about the way you sit at your desk having an adverse effect on your back, neck and shoulders, then it’s important you learn to spot the signs of poor posture and start working exercises into your day that will help you manage the problem.
How sitting at your desk wrong can impact your posture?
Monica Blackburn is an osteopath at MFB Osteopathy, and she wants to make it clear first and foremost that “even though people think sitting is our worst enemy, it doesn’t have to be.” In fact, there are ways of sitting at your desk that can avoid putting “undue strain through the joints, muscles and soft tissues in your body.”
This strain occurs when you “hunch forwards over the computer or laptop,” which “encourages the head and shoulders to migrate forwards and the upper back to curve,” explains Kathryn Tilbury, a physiotherapist at Third Space Sports Medicine.
“However,” she continues, “perhaps the biggest contributing factor is the total time you spend sitting at your desk.” This has to do with the fact that “the body is designed to move, so it doesn’t respond well to sustained postures.”
What are the physical signs you’re sitting at your desk wrong?
The signs of poor posture are “usually marked by hunched shoulders, a rounded upper back, a tucked under pelvis and a forward head posture,” says Monica. She explains that this can sometimes result in “a general feeling of stiffness or fatigue” in a person’s body, and even headaches.
A more troubling sign “is painful or burning muscle aches and stiffness,” Kathryn tells us. “The head, neck, shoulders and upper, middle and lower back are all areas that can be affected by sustained sitting.”
How can you manage joint and muscle pain when you’re sitting at your desk for long periods?
Monica recognises that, “with our new ‘working from home’ culture, it’s impractical to ask people to sit less and take breaks every 20 minutes” as a way of mitigating aches and pains. But still, it’s important to remember that “our bodies are built for movement,” and so she still recommends “taking regular breaks, doing simple movements and stretches at your desk, and getting out for a proper walk at some point in the day.”
If you need a bit of a push to remind you to get moving, Kathryn suggests you “set an alarm to remind you to get up.” She also has other tips for squeezing some movement into your working day. For example, you could “walk around the house on a call, make a tea or a coffee, or even do a bit of stretching in between each meeting.”
It’s also a good idea to “optimise your work set up,” says Kathryn. This could include ensuring your chair is at the correct height and your equipment is suitably spaced to help you maintain a good posture at your desk. If you’re unsure of whether you are set up adequately, you can “ask your place of work if they offer an ergonomic assessment.”
How can you improve your posture when sitting at your desk?
Monica has some helpful advice for those concerned about the way they sit during the working day. To start with, she recommends you “invest in a good office chair”, ideally one that’s “adjustable and can swivel.” You should also “pull the chair up underneath your table or desk, as this will help prevent you slumping down.”
It’s important to “ensure your screen is at eye level,” too, so that you aren’t straining your neck to look at your computer while you work. If it’s your arms and wrists that are giving you grief, though, you can “invest in a separate plug-in keyboard and mouse”, which will give them more room to work.
What stretches do you recommend that can help improve posture?
For clients who struggle with aches and pains due to their sedentary working lives, both Kathryn and Monica recommend stretching circuits that can be done during the working day. As Kathryn explains, they “take less than five minutes, so you could do them while you are boiling the kettle.”
Kathryn’s stretching circuit
- Sit to stand with touch down and reach up: “Start sitting in your chair and reach your hands to the ground, then stand up while stretching your arms above your head. Do this 10 to 15 times and set the tempo with your breathing rate: inhale up, exhale down.”
- Prophylactic back stretch: “Starting from standing, place your hand on the back of your hips and press down slightly. Arch backwards for three to five seconds and then return to standing.” Repeat this five to 10 times.
- Head rolls: “look to the right, then circle your head down through the chest, up to the left and circle back. Do this eight to 12 times and then repeat in the other direction.”
- Arm circles: “Keeping your arms straight, circle them forwards, up to the sky, then back behind you and down. Do this 10 to 15 times and set the tempo with your breathing rate.”
- Side stretches: “Reach one arm up to the sky and bend sideways, holding the position for three to five seconds. Repeat with the other arm, then alternate sides for 10 to 16 repetitions.”
- Torso rotations: “Start with your arms out to the sides at shoulder height. Keeping your arms still, rotate your torso to one side and look back behind you. Return and repeat on the other side. Do 10 to 16 repetitions and set the tempo with your breathing rate: inhale twist and exhale release.”
Monica’s stretching circuit
- Roll down: “Stand up from your desk, reach your arms up,” and as you exhale, “start bending forward, starting with your neck and slowly curling down until you can touch your toes. When at the bottom, circle your arms one way and then the other,” then return to standing and repeat.
- Upper back rotation: “Sit up straight with your arms bent and your hands touching your shoulders. With deep breaths in and out, twist through your spine to the left, straightening your right arm out to the left,” then return to centre and do the same on the other side. “Repeat multiple times.”
- Neck circles: “Sitting up straight, drop your chin to your chest, then slowly roll your neck round to the right so that your right ear is touching your right shoulder.” From here, “roll your neck back to centre and repeat on the left side.”
- Chin tucks: “Sitting upright, bring your chin inward towards your neck (like you’re giving yourself a double chin), then return to normal and repeat.”
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