Occupations that require you to maintain your body in a certain position for extended periods of time can lead to problems with your back and spine if you are not maintaining good proper posture. For example, poor posture habits while sitting in an office chair, looking at a computer, driving, or standing for long periods of time can easily become second nature, causing or aggravating episodes of back pain and damaging spinal structures that support your entire body and house your spinal cord and nervous system. The good news is that the main factors affecting posture and ergonomics are completely within your ability to control and are not difficult to change.
Here are 7 easy tips for to help you improve your posture and ergonomics, especially if your occupation requires you to sit at a desk for long periods of time.
1. Know how to recognize the warning signs of back pain caused by poor ergonomics and posture. Back pain tends to worsen at certain times of day or week if it is the result of poor ergonomics and posture. For example, if you notice that pain comes on after a long day of sitting in an office chair in front of a computer, but does not bother you during the weekends, it is likely that your posture is not optimal at your workstation. If you recently acquired a new job, a new office chair, or a new car and are experiencing back pain; it is likely that this pain is due to poor posture and needs to be corrected before more serious damage occurs.
2. Get up and move. As we sit in a chair or stand for long periods of time, our muscles begin to tire. This causes us to slouch or slump over in an effort to allow the muscles to relax. Although you may perceive your muscles as more relaxed in this position, it negatively puts extra pressure on the neck and back which will lead to pain and possible damage. The best way to avoid this is to maintain a relaxed yet supported posture and to change positions frequently. One good rule of thumb is to take a break from sitting in an office chair every half hour for 2 minutes in order to stretch, stand, or walk.
3. Keep your body in alignment while sitting in an office chair and while standing. Take advantage of your office chair’s features; especially if you have a fancy ergonomic one. Focus on sitting up straight and imagine aligning your ears, shoulders, and hips in one vertical line (see photo). Remember that any single position, even a good one, will be tiring on the muscles; so continue to change positions frequently. You can lean forward with a straight back alternated with sitting back in your chair, using the back support of the office chair to ease the work of back muscles. Avoid unbalanced postures like crossing legs unevenly while sitting, leaning to one side, hunching the shoulders forward or tilting the head as these can irritate the muscle by placing an uneven stress on them.
4. Exercise regularly to help prevent injury and promote good posture. Regular aerobic exercise such as walking, bicycling, or swimming will help your body stay aerobically conditioned. Along with specific strengthening exercises for your back, the muscles in your entire back will stay strong and continue to support proper posture without you having to think about doing so all the time. A strong muscle is more developed and can hold a position for longer without tiring out.
5. Wear supportive footwear when standing. Avoid regularly wearing shoes that can affect the body’s natural center of gravity. This includes high-heeled shoes which can alter the body’s natural alignment and thus make you more prone to developing back pain (and foot pain for that matter!). When standing for long periods of time, place a rubber mat on the floor to improve comfort.
6. Remember to maintain good posture and ergonomics when in motion. Walking, lifting heavy materials, holding a telephone, and typing are all moving activities that require attention to ergonomics and posture. It is important to maintain good posture even while moving to avoid injury. Back injuries most commonly occur while bending, lifting and/or twisting and also occur because of awkward movement and control of the upper body weight alone.
7. Stretch regularly throughout the day. Gentle neck stretches help keep the neck relaxed and out of a tension state. To stretch your neck, sit up nice and straight in your chair. Slowly bring your chin towards your chest until you feel a nice stretch along the back of your neck. Hold this position for 15-30 seconds and bring your head back to neutral. Now slowly bring your right ear towards your right shoulder until you feel a stretch along the left side of your neck. Hold this position for 15-30 seconds and bring your head back to neutral. Repeat the steps above to stretch the right side of your neck. For all of these stretches you can use your hands to apply a little more pressure in the direction of the stretch for maximum benefit. Just remember, stretching should fee good and not painful. If you are experiencing pain while stretching, it is likely you have pushed the muscle too far, so just back off a bit and don’t apply extra pressure to the stretch.