Ergonomics, or How you do things matters!

By Jo Singer, PT, CMC

What is ergonomics? Why does it matter? The definition of ergonomics is: the study of people’s efficiency in their working environment. In this case, efficiency doesn’t mean how fast you do things. It means how well you use your energy to accomplish a task, at the least risk or stress to your body. And sometimes you don’t realize you are stressing your body until the pain starts. 

The efficiency concept applies to everyone. For those in the workforce– your work has been from home lately and things have gotten awkward. You are not at your regular desk, perhaps not in an adjustable chair as you had in the office. Or maybe it’s just you and the laptop on the couch, shopping online or playing solitaire? And there are lots of other kinds of work we do around home that have nothing to do with offices but everything to do with how you feel at the end of the day. Let’s look at a few scenarios.

We have to address posture first. Poor posture can be defined as poor alignment of the body. You are put together to balance all the joints so that muscles are not working overtime. For example, sitting in a forward-head position. When your head is far out in front of your cervical spine, your neck muscles are working very hard. Your head weighs between eight and ten pounds, so imagine holding a bowling ball out at that angle for 8 hours a day. 8 HOURS! So you see the need to give your muscles as much help as you can to avoid that aching, overworked feeling. They’re complaining about being mistreated! The same goes for your back. Holding a heavy load out away from your body does essentially the same thing. Instead of letting your sturdy hips take the load, you have your arms and upper back working too hard. It’s physics, but we’re not here to talk about that—just use it to make our lives easier. 

Let’s start by looking at sitting at a desk. Or, like this fellow—he’s at an office but something’s not right. What do you notice? Imagine spending your day in this position! Imagine what his neck and back feel like after even half an hour of this. So, what could he do to make his work space more comfortable? 

Office Management Clipart Company Worker - Adicto Al Trabajo Png ...

1. Raise the monitor to eye level, allowing your neck to straighten out. You can do this by stacking books. If you have a laptop without a separate monitor, you can put it on the books and use a wireless keyboard and mouse on the desk surface. These keyboards are relatively inexpensive and sold at office supply stores. And Amazon, I’m sure. Keeping things at eye level will prevent you from looking down all day and straining your neck and upper back. And be sure your eyeglass prescription is up to date. Some glasses are trifocals, with the middle level specifically for the 24” eye-to-computer-screen distance. 

2. Make sure the chair supports your back and your feet are on the floor. Sit all the way back in your chair and check it out. If it doesn’t support your low back and there is no mechanism on the chair to do so, roll up a hand towel and put it behind your low back. You can also get lumbar supports for chairs at office stores or, again, on Amazon. Keeping your back against the chair lets your muscles rest. Hips should be at a 90 degree angle because having your knees lower than your hips can cause back pain. If you have short legs, find something to put your feet on under the desk. 

3. If possible, have your elbows supported by the chair arms. Many office chairs have adjustable armrests. As you can see in this picture, her arms are supported at the level of the desk and keyboard. The armrests are also short enough that she can get close to her desk so if you’re looking for a work chair, check that the armrests aren’t at the very front of the seat.

4. Find a way to get the keyboard lower so you aren’t reaching up all the time. If you can’t, consider raising the chair and putting your feet on a small stool under the desk. 

All of these things balance your body and keep you in good posture, reducing muscle strain. 

Sometimes it isn’t possible to get your seating just right. No matter what you’re doing or how you’re doing it, it’s important to give yourself a break. Get up and move around. If you can take a break and do something else, do it. If not, here are some stretches to do. 

1. Roll your shoulders 

2. Turn your head side to side slowly

3. Grab under your chair and lean away from that side 

4. Arms overhead, lean side to side. 

Sitting too long is bad for you, whether you’re doing work or just watching TV. You need to move—get up, walk around, do some toe raises, move your shoulders and settle back into a well-supported position. And don’t make that walk always lead to the kitchen for a snack!

Another thing we do practically every day is lift things. Small or large, it needs to be done correctly to protect your back. You’ve heard “lift with your knees and not your back”? Well, it’s true. We need to bring whatever we’re picking up close to us and stand up, keeping the back as straight as we can. If you bend from the waist, it puts tremendous pressure on the lower spine. That physics stuff again. Imagine holding a broom or a hammer. If the head is close to you, near your center of gravity, it’s no big deal to hold it. The spine is aligned and taking the weight, back and arms not working hard. Now imagine you are holding the broom or hammer by the end of the handle, away from your body and parallel to the floor. What you’re feeling in your wrist and shoulders is what your low back feels when your bend over to lift something that is away from your center. 

Ergonomics can be a simple, low-cost solution to pricy workers ...

Whenever you are moving something from one place to another, especially if it’s heavy—plan your path. Make sure you and the object will fit through the doors, that the doors you need to go through are open or easily opened, and that the destination is ready. For example, if you’re brining a heavy box in from the car, look to see if you can get through the garage with the car in it. Maybe the front door would be better? If you are parked in the parking lot, is there a way you could roll the box from the car to the door or stair/elevator? I have put things on rolling office chairs to move them through a hospital, so be inventive! Do you have the kids’ old wagon or a wheelbarrow? Think like that. And please make sure you have a clear place to put the box down when you get it inside. You’ll be at the end of your endurance and it will not be a good time to look around for a landing spot. 

These rules apply in all cases. Plan your move and objective, lift with your knees, keep the load close to your center of gravity and keep your back straight.

There are lots of other ways we can protect our joints and muscles as we do everyday things—gardening, cooking, driving, etc. LifeLinks is able to coach you through any and all of these! Just give us a call. Stay safe out there!

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