The Myth of the “Ergonomic Workplace”

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BY KEVIN CAPATA, DPT, RAUSCH PHYSICAL THERAPY
 
 
Should I get a standing desk? Do I need a chair with a lumbar-support cushion? Is it okay to cross my legs? How can I keep correct posture for eight hours at work!?

As a physical therapist, my patients ask me these types of questions far too often. I can understand why; we’ve heard that sitting at a desk all day is (literally) killing us, we can feel the aches and pains of the 40-hour work week, and we want a quick fix. Enter: “The Ergonomic Workstation”—the latest “solution” to the daily grind.

We’ve all heard or read about the ideal “ergonomic” setup for your office, and people will spend hundreds of dollars on products to achieve it. Try a treadmill desk. Swap out your chair for a stability ball. Get an ergonomic keyboard. Sit up straight… no, lean back… NO, stand up! From desk accessories to office furniture, my patients are buying anything that promises to alleviate their poor posture and the pain that comes with it—but is this money well spent?
 

The Myth of the “Ergonomic Workplace”

Now, I believe that ergonomic products are great in theory, and yes an “ergonomic” set up at your office may help correct some “poor” posture during your workday. But as a physical therapist, I’m here to let you in on a secret: it doesn’t really matter what kind of chair you use or how you sit at your desk; what matters is YOU.rauschpt.net/ergonomic-myth

Yep, when it comes down to it, the ergonomic workstation is a myth. The truth is, being desk-bound and sedentary is what’s killing us.

When you’re at your desk for hours, it doesn’t matter how you’re sitting, or if you’re standing, or even if you’re walking on a treadmill—if you do the same movement or hold the same position for a prolonged period, it’s unhealthy. You can be sitting in the most ergonomic chair money can buy, but if you sit in it for hours at a time, your body will adapt and struggle to function when you’re no longer in that position, which is why you feel that soreness, stiffness and pain.

So yes, always sitting hunched forward at your computer is bad, BUT always sitting stick straight is not great either. Maintaining ANY position all day, every day is not good for you! As biomechanist Katy Bowman puts it in one of my favorite books, “It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.”

You may think the posture on the right has it perfectly correct—think again! Both of these positions can be “wrong” if they’re maintained for more than 15 to 20 minutes at a time.

You may think the posture on the right has it perfectly correct—think again! Both of these positions can be “wrong” if they’re maintained for more than 15 to 20 minutes at a time.

DID YOU KNOW? The Average American is Sedentary for 21 Hours Per Day

In fact, sitting has joined smoking and obesity as a top risk factor for chronic disease. Recent studies show that too much sitting contributes to a host of diseases—from obesity and diabetes to cancer and depression—and literally shortens your life.

Right down to the cellular level, our bodies crave frequent and varied movement. Yet I bet you can count the number of positions you are in throughout the day on one hand:

  1. Walk to your car
  2. Sit while you drive, at work, for meals, while watching TV…
  3. Lie down to sleep

In total, Americans are sitting an average of 13 hours a day and sleeping an average of eight hours, resulting in a sedentary lifestyle of around 21 hours per day. Sure, maybe you squeeze in a trip to the gym, but when you think about it, a sedentary lifestyle plus an hour of “exercise” is like eating candy and junk food all day, then deciding to have an apple for dinner!

The British Medical Journal claims that reducing the average time you spend sitting to less than three hours per day could increase your life expectancy by two years, but that’s definitely easier said than done considering that 13-hour average. So, what can we do to get—and stay—moving?
 

Stay Moving, Stay Healthy

It’s time to forget this notion that there’s one “best” work setup or posture; instead realize that the best position is your next position. Get up. MOVE. Change positions. Get into a new posture that you haven’t tried in a while. You don’t have to allow your environment to determine how you interact with it.

Kevin’s Three Rules for Avoiding Sitting

Bound to your desk? Here are three rules to remember throughout your workday to help restore proper function to your tissues and muscles and combat sitting at work:

  1. For every 30 to 45 minutes of sitting, you should do five minutes of stretching or mobilization exercises
  2. Set an alarm for every 20 to 30 minutes to remind you to change positions. We all have smart phones, so no excuses!
  3. Find alternative positions to work in (e.g. kneel/stretch in front of your desk, use a headset and pace while on the phone, etc.)

EXAMPLES OF ALTERNATIVE WORKING POSITIONS:>

rauschpt.net/ergonomic-myth

KNEELING

Place a towel under your knee, and alternate every few minutes.

rauschpt.net/ergonomic-myth<

HIGH/LOW CHAIR

Stand, then sit and hang one leg off at a time, switching sides every few minutes

rauschpt.net/ergonomic-myth

STANDING

Try putting one leg on a small stool or box, and alternate every few minutes.

rauschpt.net/ergonomic-myth

STRETCHING

Stretching while working is a great way to maintain productivity.

Apply this mantra to everything you do throughout your day. Been standing up for a while? Sit down. Sitting down? Stand up! Lay on your stomach while you’re watching TV, sit cross-legged while you read, stand on one foot while you brush your teeth. If you have kids, just watch how they move and how often they move, then imitate them for once.

To borrow again from Katy Bowman: “Exercise is movement, but movement is not always exercise.” Let’s change that! Make the decision to consciously create more movement in your daily life and you can exercise all day long. Instead of thinking of a 30-minute gym workout as your “exercise” for the day, recognize the fact that taking out the trash, choosing stairs over elevators, or jogging down the hall to talk to a colleague are all forms of daily “movement,” and movement is what your body truly needs to function properly.

By transforming your “exercise routine” into a daily “movement practice,” you can drastically decrease those creaks and pains that supposedly show up one morning out of nowhere. Don’t get me wrong, we are human and our bodies will breakdown. Still, I can tell you that by focusing on a daily movement practice, you’ll lower your risk of throwing out your back while doing a mundane task like taking out the trash.
 

Conclusion

Healing our country’s addiction to a sedentary lifestyle starts with a culture shift within the workplace. We need stop fearing that it’s taboo or unacceptable to leave our desks and move around. We shouldn’t feel weird doing exercises at our desk or standing during a long meeting. And if you are struggling to conjure up ways to get out of your chair and still maintain productivity, ask your PT for help! As movement experts, physical therapists can assess your work/home-life setup and create a personalized movement practice to help alleviate aches and “chronic” pain, and ultimately extend your life.

 


K2Kevin Capata, PT, DPT, CSCS is a licensed physical therapist at Rausch Physical Therapy & Sports Performance. After receiving his Doctor of Physical Therapy degree at Columbia University, Kevin started his career at Rausch PT, where he used to work as a physical therapy aide. Now, Kevin enjoys helping his patients recognize and fix movement faults to help them overcome their injury or pain, as well as empowering them with the knowledge and tools to prevent re-injury or potential new injuries.

Click to learn more about Kevin and our other physical therapists »

 

 

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