Does Good Ergonomics Equal Good Posture? pt. 2

by Chris on March 18, 2010

Over the last twenty years, I’ve seen all manner of things come on the market for improving ergonomics and correcting posture.  All of them suffer from the same problems as I outlined in my last post.

Let’s review the formula for having a happy, low stress (work) life:

Individually adjusted ergonomics + good biomechanics + neutralizing accumulated tension = low stress levels and a happy body.

I put my formula together in this sequence for a reason; if you follow it in the way it was designed, it works best.  Sequence determines result.

Let’s take the first part of this equation today: your ergonomics.  Then we’ll tackle the biomechanics issue and the neutralizing of tension in the next two (or three) posts.

Here’s the thing to keep in mind – the equipment is a far smaller part of the package than manufacturers would have you believe; adjust just about anything properly and it’ll be far better than spending more money on something that’s “better”.

Individually adjusted ergonomics.

Why is this important?  Like I mentioned in the last post, you are not a statistic; things need to be adjusted to you specifically.

What this means is that you’ll have to pay some attention to how your body is and how it sets up with relation to “the norm”.  How will this pay off? If your ergonomics fit you, the amount of effort you have to use for positioning your body in space (all of your office tasks) goes way down.  Low effort = low stress.

For most of my clients, the payoff is that they cease to have pain altogether.  For the rest, the relief is so dramatic that they wouldn’t have it any other way.  And, let’s keep in mind, that although it takes me some time to explain it here, it is actually quite easy once you get the idea – and you can apply it.

Coming back to the office to get more specific: chairs, tables and computer gear.

Chairs

If you’ve had a chance to see my post on chairs, you’ll see that there is a fundamental flaw with most chairs in relation to how we use them.  How we address that flaw is rather simple, but requires that we pay attention to the particular dimensions of our own body.

Take me, for example.  My wife describes me as having a physique like a tree trunk.  Big wide shoulders and then from the ribs to the floor, I’m about the same width.  My friends in France used to refer to me as the armoire.  I am, however, not that tall, coming in at just under 6 feet and, in addition, I have a torso that is proportionally longer than my legs.  This means that most chairs are about the right height and that, for the most part, I just need to pay attention to the neutralizing the negative space on the chair (and really, if you haven’t seen my post on chairs at this point, you need to CLICK HERE).

Most ergonomic recommendations talk about having your feet flat on the floor and putting something in your low back to “support” it.  That’s too general for me and doesn’t deal with the fundamental chair problem (that the back of the seat of the chair is lower than the front) – just tries to shore up the symptom.

I recommend that you make sure that the chair is a height that allows you to have your pelvis just slightly higher than your knees AND, more importantly, make the back of the seat of the chair slightly higher than the front.

If you can’t adjust the height of the chair for you, it’s not the end of the world – it’s more important to have the chair seats rearward tilt filled in by a towel or pillow or wedge of some sort.  This allows for free movement of the pelvis with the spine, which is crucial in supporting the back, shoulders, arms, etc.

Tables or Desks

Desks are, frankly, the least of my concerns, for a couple of reasons.
1)    I want something that’s going to hold all my stuff that I need to work with and
2)    the computer gear that I work with allows for a lot more leeway in the other features that others may find necessary.

The real key here is to adjust your chair to you and THEN to integrate and adjust the height of your desk to that specific orientation.  Your chair is what you’re using to support your body, not your desk.

DO NOT make the mistake of adjusting yourself and your chair to the height of your desk.

Think about what you’re going to be using your desk for – writing by hand or merely as a stand for your gear, or a combination of the two.

If the table is to be used for doing paperwork, how much and how often?  If ‘yes’ and ‘often’ are the answers, you’ll need to have your table height dialed in pretty well.  The sticky part is that, for the most part, the makers of chairs and tables never talk to each other and the height of tables and desks is rarely adjustable.

Contrary to popular opinion, if you’re doing any lengthy amount of paperwork, you’ll want a desk that you can:

1)    snug yourself under without having your thighs touching AND
2)    be able to rest your elbows on without bending your spine forward (flexion) AND
3)    be able to maintain a good base in your chair with your feet at the same time (don’t worry, this isn’t as bad as it sounds).

If your desk is basically a platform for your gear and some miscellaneous paperwork, then you might even want to think about getting a lap desk to hold your keyboard and mouse.  More on this idea when we start talking about your biomechanics.

You will likely have to adjust the height of your desk. Depending on what you need, there are LOTS of height adjustable desks, in all price ranges.  Most of us have a desk that we’re stuck with already, though.  Fortunately, if you do a little research on the net, you can find all manner of goodies for blocking up the height of the desk (because, let’s face it, most desks are made for Lilliputians).  Search for bed or desk risers.

A final note about desks: just say no to keyboard trays. They anchor you to the height of the desk, and are so rarely at the right height, keep your arms at funny angles and/or get in the way so much that I usually bring a screwdriver and just take them off the desk altogether.  Even more importantly: the farther away your arms are from your body, the greater the strain on your arms, shoulders and wrists.

Gear

Here are a few thoughts about what will make your body happy.  Keep in mind that the option to vary your positioning is far more important than pretty much any other consideration.

If you have a keyboard that’s mobile (wireless or wired), you can adjust your position much more easily and make your body far more happy.  If you have wide shoulders (like myself) you may want to think about a wider keyboard or a split- or v-shaped keyboard.  If you find your shoulders up around your ears during the day, this is likely a large part of the problem – your shoulders are trying to narrow to accommodate your keyboard and the only place to do to do that is up.

On to the ubiquitous mouse.  The shape and size of your mouse is less important, I’ve found, than how you use it.  We’ll get to this more in the explanations on mechanics.  Wired or wireless doesn’t really matter – mostly as I have an extender on my wired keyboard and mouse which allows me to be practically any distance from my computer that I like AND, most importantly, I can keep my upper arms in close alignment to my torso and my hands close to my lap (hint, hint).

Same goes for your computer.  I’m a big fan of two things: laptops and big monitors.  There is a lot out there about putting the monitor at the right eye level, etc.  This somewhat misses the point, as what is really the issue is your head and neck being in alignment with your torso and your shoulders being able to rest on your ribs.   When you have a laptop and a separate keyboard and mouse that’s not really an issue, as you can move it wherever you need – in other words, you can adjust it to YOU, not the other way around.

In addition, with a big(ger) monitor, you actually solve two problems at the same time:

1)    text and graphics are big (you can see them clearly), so your head has less tendency to come forward off the mid-line and hang out in space while you squint at the 8 point type that someone has put on their site (gads…) AND

2)    the size of it allows you far more leeway in your positioning relative to the monitor.

As a quick review then, start with your chair and adjust it to you.  Then deal with the height of your desk.  Finally, get a few pieces of gear that allow for maximum flexibility in your positioning, because variation is one of the things that make life nice and keeps your body happy.

In the next post, I’ll talk about (and show you!) how you use your body with this positioning (and even without it) to get the maximum work done with the least stress possible.

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