In Tina Fey’s memoir Bossypants, the comedian describes what a lifetime of hunched, harried typing over a computer has done to her body. She calls special attention to her “permanently rounded shoulders.”
Tina’s shoulders aren’t alone. Most of us slouch at some point during the workday (if not all day) while clicking through our computers or scrolling our phones, and it’s led to a modern phenomenon called “tech neck.” When you hold your head in line with your shoulders, it only weighs 10 pounds. But for every inch you bend forward, that weight doubles. This leads to the rounded back position Tina noticed, and fiddles with the head’s center of gravity; we’re rapidly turning into a society of off-kilter sitters and wobbly walkers, even if we don’t realize it.
Over time, this unconscious devotion to second-rate ergonomics has damaging effects on the lower back. More than 80% of Americans experience low back pain at some point in their lives, and eight-hour workdays full of slouching and hunching are a massive reason why. The unhealthiness of the practice won’t reveal itself dramatically — akin to years of heavy drinking or overeating — but that doesn’t make it any less serious. If you’re accustomed to a dull, nagging tightness in your back, especially after a full day at the desk, it’s time to make some changes. Improper sitting mechanics will sabotage your exercise efforts once you’re finally off-work and trying to put in work at the gym. And long-term, this could lead to musculoskeletal disorders or take years off your life expectancy.
Obviously, we’d rather avoid all of that. Which is why we’ve compiled this brief guide to improving your office posture. Don’t worry — we’re not going to tell you to get a standing desk. We recognize they are an acquired taste, and would rather recommend some more universal tricks and tips, plus useful gear and exercises you can try without drawing too much attention from the neighboring cubicle.
Assess Your Workstation
For starters, take stock of your sitting situation at work. How high is your chair off the ground? Are you looking down at your computer screen? Are there any inherent inefficiencies present that might contribute to poor ergonomics? When staring at your computer, it should be as close to eye-level as possible. This will allow your body to stay in a “neutral position,” whereby the spine is naturally aligned — straight from head to toe. Don’t worry about furniture decisions that your company’s administrative manager had to make with some distributor; control what you can control.
Meaning, if the desk is too low, lower your chair, if it’s too high, adjust it in kind. You want your ears to hover over your shoulders. This, by the way, will seem impossible. Try typing with your ears above your shoulders; you’ll feel like Frankenstein. But notice how it pulls your shoulders back, and activates “scapular contractions.” This is a natural, healthy orientation for the upper body, and will pay dividends for your low back. Another key: resist the urge to cross your legs. Keep your feet planted firmly on the floor, and notice how it lightly engages the core.
Don’t Use a Posture Corrector
On the topic of equipment, do not get yourself a posture corrector. Dr. Robert Zembrowski, a specialist in functional medicine, helped us with our How to Defeat Low Back Pain guide earlier this year, and was adamant on this point. He said: “Resist. Devices that artificially create ‘good’ posture disrupt output from the cerebellum, weakening your postural muscles and cheating yourself out of proper biomechanics.” The internet will convince you a a little girdle shocker can prevent you from lounging all day, but it really comes down to putting in your own effort.
If you are going to buy something, pick up a lumbar support pillow. There are memory foam options on the market, which are also marketed to people who have to drive long hours at a time. Strap one to an office chair though, and it will preserve the organic curve of your spine, without you sweating to stay upright all day long.
Take a Daily Constitutional
We’ve already shouted this from the mountaintops, but it is insanely important that you’re getting up from your desk throughout the day and moving around. To quote a biomechanics expert named Dr. Mark Cucuzzella, “Your best position is your next position.” Staying in your seat during the day instead of taking time to move around is sort of like snoozing your alarm to sleep an extra 20 minutes. It seems helpful, but the reality is you’re only making yourself more lethargic for the rest of the day. A constitutional will afford you sharper afternoons, and introduce some very necessary blood flow to your limbs and joints. It also doesn’t always have to be a mammoth walk outside; go to the kitchen and get yourself an apple. Throw out some weak jokes at the water cooler. Anything!
Try Desk Exercises
Leave those deskside push-up sets to the office showoff — there are a number of exercises you can execute at your workstation that will engage areas of the body in a discreet, effective way. Here are a few:
- Neck extensions: Tilt your head back into the headrest of your chair, and hold for 30 seconds.
- Shoulder blade stretch: Clasp your hands together on the top of your head with your elbows pointed out to each side. Tilt your head to the right, keeping that formation, hold for a second, then tilt to the left, holding for a second. Alternate back and forth, keeping a steady flow.
- Leg crosses: The one time it’s okay to cross your legs! Wrap your right leg over your left leg, and lean the body in that direction, taking time to look over your left shoulder. Repeat in the opposite direction. Go nice and slow.
- Toe points: Assuming you have enough room under your desk, stick one legs out at a time, and flex the foot upward, then forward. This will stretch your hamstrings and induce blood flow into your legs.
- Once you leave the office, try some wall angels, either at the gym or at home. This is one of the best posture-correcting exercises in the game. It activates everything — core, legs — and can help stem the “shortening” of your hip flexors, which happens from sitting all day, and adversely affects your legs and glutes. Once you’ve nailed the formation for the exercise, try to do three sets of 6-to-8 reps. This article also includes some helpful information on how to master it.