These days, many of us spend hours at home in front of our computers for school or work. Sitting incorrectly or for too long without breaks can lead to headaches as well as neck, shoulder, and back pain or injury. To help you create a healthier workspace and routine, we sought out advice from Dr. Shannon Herrin – a physical therapist with more than two decades of experience and the current Assistant Dean of College of Health Professions and Program Director of the Associate of Science in Physical Therapist Assistant program at South University, Austin.
1. Take steps to reduce eyestrain.
Staring at a screen for extended periods? If so, you could experience headaches, blurred vision, irritated and tired eyes, and upper body soreness. One common cause of eyestrain is easy to fix: improper lighting. “A lot of us want to look out the window when we're using our monitor, so we put our screen up against a window or a backlit surface, and it actually makes it more difficult on our eyes to focus,” explains Dr. Herrin. Beyond fixing your lighting, occasionally looking away from the screen into the distance will reduce eyestrain by allowing your eyes to relax. Finally, consider wearing blue light blocking glasses, as excessive and prolonged blue light exposure from screens could lead to long-term retinal damage.
2. Set yourself up for good posture.
Having a good seat for your workstation is essential. “What else do you do for eight-plus hours straight besides sleep and work?” poses Dr. Herrin. “Anything you do for a prolonged period can contribute to neck and back pain, muscle fatigue, and potentially lifelong postural problems.”
Wherever you sit, aim for a comfortable upright posture that supports the spine, especially at the bottom of the thoracic spine (where the ribcage ends). Your seating cushion should be level or angled slightly forward and down, so that your tailbone is not supporting all of your weight. Your elbows should be supported on armrests so that your shoulders can relax at approximately 90 degrees from your neck. “Even if you have a desk chair, you sometimes can't adjust it enough, so you may need to place pillows or towels on your armrests to get the right height,” advises Dr. Herrin. “If you don't have armrests, you can create them by placing a big firm pillow sideways to rest your arms.”
When sitting, your feet should be supported (not dangling), and your hips and knee should be even. If your feet don’t reach the floor, buy a footrest or make your own out of an old phonebook or a firm cardboard box.
3. Place your keyboard and mouse within easy reach.
With your arms on armrests, your keyboard and mouse should be at the same level and within easy reach. “If my elbows are at about 90 degrees, I should be able to reach for my keyboard and my wrist should stay neutral,” explains Dr. Herrin. “If you are constantly reaching or using your wrists in awkward positions, that can lead to joint problems and carpal tunnel syndrome.” To support your wrists, use a gel wrist rest for your keyboard and mouse. If you primarily use a laptop, invest in an external keyboard and mouse, so that you won’t need to reach for your keyboard.
4. Adjust your screen height and distance.
Whether you’re using a laptop or a separate monitor, your screen should be approximately an arm’s length away with the top of the screen at eye level. When we look straight ahead, our line of sight actually falls slightly downward. When the top of the monitor is at eye level, you’ll be looking close to the middle of the screen, where people typically work. If your monitor is too high, you’ll be looking up all day, which will cause tension in your neck. Likewise, continually looking down is not good either.
5. Try creating a standing workstation.
Dr. Herrin recommends standing for 10% to 25% of your workday. “At home, you can use boxes or books to create a standing workstation at a kitchen counter or a high table,” she says. If possible, stand in 30-minute increments throughout the day and be sure to wear good shoes!
6. Move around more.
Regularly moving and stretching can have a big impact. As a starting point, Dr. Herrin suggests setting an hourly reminder on your phone to do the following:
- Tuck your chin and gently bend your head down and back up and then look side to side.
- Sit up straight and arch your back, with your shoulders back and your arms out.
- Stretch out your wrists and hands, holding for 15-20 seconds each.
- March in place.
- Perform ankle pumps and circles.
“You can do that in 30 seconds to one to two minutes,” she says. “Yes, more is better, but if you do that at least once an hour, you'll notice a difference at the end of the day.” You can also incorporate these movements into your existing routines. For example, you can stretch while you’re getting coffee or march in place while you heat up your lunch. Over time, those movements will become a habit!
7. Seek the help of a physical therapist.
Physical therapists are experts on proper and dysfunctional postures and body movement. If you have relevant symptoms, speak with your physician and work with a physical therapist to address your issues. And, symptoms or not, everyone should proactively follow the tips above. “You avoid so much injury and problems when you move better and smarter,” says Dr. Herrin. “These small things can make a lifelong difference and help you to avoid chronic injuries later on.”
Are you interested in the science of how we move and helping others through physical therapy? Learn more about our Physical Therapist Assistant associate degree programs or request information to speak with an admissions representative today!