Watch Your Back: The Downside to Sitting On Your Backside All Day

You’ve read this more than once: sitting all day is slowly killing us. It’s death by a thousand cuts from a litany of health problems. As a 45-year-old who makes a living working on a computer, I can attest to a slew of sitting-related ailments: back pain, neck pain, shoulder pain, wrist pain, eye strain and headaches.

Whether you’ve recently noticed similar symptoms or have endured them for years, the worst thing you can do is ignore the pain. Dr. Scott Weiss, a physical therapist and board certified athletic trainer in the state of New York, has been working with chronic pain sufferers for years. The list of health problems he sees from poor workplace ergonomics is lengthy: severe bursitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, sacroiliac joint issues, herniated discs and even high blood pressure. “Using flat or positive sloping (upward angled) keyboards, sitting forward in the chair when the butt should be at the back, keeping the screen too far away or at an improper angle and not taking enough breaks during the day,” are the top crimes that people are committing at their desks, says Weiss.

If you’re dealing with any of these symptoms, you need to stop sitting around. Dr. Weiss recommends a mixture of physical therapy, massage and exercise. “It may sound obvious, but strength training, cardio and stretching will improve your muscle function and help correct your body’s conditions,” he says.

The second-worst thing you can do is leave your current, ergonomically unsound desk as-is. Erica Matzkin, an ergonomic evaluator and founder of Portland Health Solutions in Oregon says that changing your space doesn’t have to be expensive, and offers up a few suggestions: raise the monitor to be at eye level, whether that means using reams of paper or buying a laptop stand. Getting up throughout the day can also help reset the body, and when you are sitting, ensure that your feet are flat on the floor using an adjustable chair.

Dr. Weiss is adamant about a good chair and recommends one with lumbar support, armrests and wheels.

Another big problem he sees is with “turtling”—the craning and stretching of the neck forward that people do to get a better look at their monitors—which is something that tends to happen when the screen is over 20 inches away. A good rule of thumb is actually a rule of arm: if you can’t touch your screen with your arm raised out (without stretching) it’s too far away.

Implementing these changes can be helpful, but for a bigger health impact, it’s worth investing in high-tech help. Sit-stand desks are adjustable workstations that offer the ability to switch between the two positions. Paul Manwaring, a London-based design consultant with a history in desk screen equipment assessment, says these desks are a must: “[Standing] is proven to increase productivity and we were designed to stand not sit.” Sit-stand desks come in a wide range of sizes, colours and configurations from wall-mounted, single-column electrically operated units, to counter-balanced, manually adjusted versions and everything in between.

Calibrating your workspace and posture is crucial to a future of ergonomically correct behaviour. And while I can’t avoid long days spent in front of my computer screen, I can take a literal stand on how I do it.