The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Friday, February 28, 2014

Are you sitting comfortably?

It’s a grey, damp morning here in Bristol and I’m sat at my desk still in my winter cardi and feeling quite glad that I don’t have to venture out the house. Apart from grim weather, the end of February also sees International RSI Awareness Day (28 Feb) - although oddly, it seems to be marked more in Canada than anywhere else - and my annual nag about all things ergonomic!

Recently, several people have asked me about office chairs, so I thought I’d repeat a few tips and suggestions here for a wider audience.

The most important things about the chair that you’re going to sit on at your desk for possibly hours every day are that a. it’s comfortable and b. it allows you to sit in and maintain a healthy posture that doesn’t put unnecessary strain on any part of your body. I have a fancy, all-singing, all-dancing chair that has every kind of support and adjustment you can imagine. Unsurprisingly, it was pretty expensive (actually bought with a grant when I first went freelance), but it has lasted me nearly 14 years so far and is still in great condition.
My 'RH' chair from Posturite

However, I also have a second chair (for occasional work at the downstairs dining table) from IKEA, that was a fraction of the price, but is actually perfectly comfortable.

My IKEA chair - complete with zebra-print fur back!

However much you have to spend on a chair, the key elements to look for are:
- height adjustment: you need to sit at the correct height for your desk, high enough so that when you’re typing (or using a mouse) you can have your arms loose by your sides and your hands still drop down slightly onto your keyboard, with your elbows at an angle of 90 degrees or slightly more. Most people sit a bit too low so that they have to bend up slightly from the elbow, or more likely they ‘wing’ their arms out to the side and/or hunch their shoulders.  If that means that your feet are off the ground, then you’ll need a footrest too so that they can be firmly planted down flat.
I also drop my chair down slightly if I’m working on papers flat on the desk (such as proofs), so that I’m not hunching over from my usual higher position.
- back support: when you sit back properly in your chair with your bum to the back of the seat and your back against the back of the chair, it should support your spine comfortably.  Ideally that means a bit of lumber support, i.e. moulding to the curve of your spine and supporting the natural hollow in your lower back.
- seat tilt: this is the final feature that I use regularly, although it’s not as essential as the first two. Some experts recommend that you sit with your seat tilted slightly forward, so that your knees are very slightly lower than your hips. This works on the same principle as the kneeling chairs you may have seen – by making you tilt your pelvis slightly forward, your spine settles into a more natural position than if you’re sitting on a dead flat surface, where the tendency is to tip the pelvis back into a slouch. I use the very slightest hint of a tilt most of the time when I’m working, but tilt back if I’m say reading a long text or watching a webinar.
For more about possible chair adjustments check out the posturite website.

There’s no point in having a great chair though if you don’t sit on it properly! Working comfortably is not just about knowing good posture, but maintaining it day in, day out. Again, the posturite website has good solid advice about how to set up your workstation correctly (whether you’re using a desktop or laptop) and how to sit at your desk. Most importantly, you need to be sitting back in your chair with your spine in a comfortable upright position – not ramrod straight or overextended like a gymnast, but not slouched or hunched over either. Realistically, when you’re typing, you’re probably not going to lean right back on the back of the chair, but I try to lean back and let the chair take the strain as often as possible, when I’m reading something or just thinking. In my office, I actually have a full-length mirror right in line with my desk, so if I glance sideways, I can see my posture – I didn’t put it there intentionally, but it makes a really good reminder! Everyone has different tendencies, so trying to keep an eye on how you’re sitting, especially when you’ve got engrossed in a piece of work is really important.  Personally, I often find myself creeping forward on my chair, so I’m sitting right on the edge, leaning forward with my back arched (I blame too many ballet lessons when I was young!). I’ve also developed a habit of leaning the elbow of my non-mouse hand (in my case, my right) on the desk, creating a horrible twist in my spine.

Postural habits are very hard to break, but if you try and make yourself more aware of what you’re doing, then at least when you catch yourself, you can reset your position back into a more healthy posture.

And as I’ve said many times before, taking frequent breaks, where you get up from your desk, even just for a couple of minutes, to change your posture, relax your muscles and just move around a bit is absolutely vital in avoiding the tense, fixed postures that can lead to all kinds of health problems. So go on, get up and make yourself a cup of tea now and give yourself a break …

Labels: , ,


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is so much more well informed and detailed than my post! I just wrote mine as a warning and to pass on some of the things the physio/torturer is telling me. A chair is the next thing I need to get as my problem started with my hands but is all coming from my neck. You've not mentioned but is also important, about having the screen at eye level so you're not looking down. This goes for smartphones too! Thanks for letting me know of my post's timeliness!

10:25 am  
Blogger The Toblerone Twins said...

Absolutely Nicola - my problems started originally with neck pain too. Check out this older post about screen height, esp with laptops: http://lexicoblog.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/laptop-lap-ban.html

10:49 am  
Blogger Unknown said...

Great post. The back pain problem of mine started from past few days as I had to work extra hours so I was planning to purchase for me a chair that can help to lower the stress on my back. Your tips are very helpful for me to purchase an appropriate one. Keep sharing!

6:35 am  

Post a comment

<< Home