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Muscle strengthening, prevention of back and neck pain, posture improvement and even weight loss are just some of the huge benefits that the correct setting of a working area could bring to those who spend many hours per day at a desk.

The much-loved summer holidays are over and it's time to go back to the office. As if nostalgia for beach parties wasn't enough, the nightmare of back and neck pain caused by office life shows up punctually at your door.

Every week I receive several requests for help from employees suffering from back pain or neck pain. It doesn't matter if they work in the office or from home, it's a problem that affects anyone who works long hours at a desk regardless of where they work. Indeed, the problem is not the place itself, but rather the setup of the station in which they operate. Having done an office job in the past and living with a IT husband who works 12-hour shifts I can state that I have experienced the problem firsthand.

Office work: postural problems and more

Over the years I have helped many people with musculoskeletal problems and I have encountered some recurring mistakes among office workers. For example:

  • limited number of breaks

  • screen height too low or too high

  • screen placed on one side only

  • use of a laptop without riser

  • non-ergonomic chair or a chair with non-adjustable backrest

  • lack of foot support

  • using the mouse and keyboard with suspended arms or without forearm support

Beyond back pain and neck pain, incorrect behavior in the workplace can also have consequences on a physiological level like:

  • slowing down blood circulation

  • migraine

  • swelling in the legs and feet

  • weight gain

Strategies to fight the sedentary lifestyle at work

At this point in the article, office work may sound like a sentence to you, but luckily there are many strategies that can be applied to prevent the negative effects of a sedentary lifestyle.

Take a break

Take a break every 45 minutes, up to an hour, to get up and walk away from the screen for at least 5 minutes. Walking will help stimulate blood circulation. Our feet are like pumps that promote venous return by preventing fluid stagnation and swelling in the lower limbs.

Furthermore, observing the landscape from the window looking as far away as possible helps to relax the optic nerve that is subjected to a continuous effort when we are in front of the screen, having to look more closely. A long exposure to the screen could cause not only vision problems, but headaches (migraine) as well.

Change the position of the screen

Your computer screen should be slightly higher than your eye line. Once set up, a little trick you can use to maintain the correct posture at your desk is to stick a post-it to the side of the screen, at eye level. During the day you will notice that the post-it moves upwards. Obviously, it's not the post-it that moves by itself (unless you have prankster colleagues), it's you that are gradually losing your position. If you use a laptop, consider using a riser to elevate it.

The screen should be facing you, but if you're like my husband and it looks like you are working for NASA for how many screens you are using, make sure you have them on either side so you don't have to look in the same direction all the time. This trick will be useful to you in the long run, because a position maintained for a long time and always in the same direction can lead to muscle imbalance and consequently pain in the neck. Some muscles will in fact be overactive, while others will be inhibited and weak.

Ergonomic chair and footrest

Most offices should already be stocked with ergonomic chairs, but if the office you work in still uses classic chairs (the old school ones with wheels and one non-ergonomic backrest), ask to provide you with an ergonomic chair that allows you to maintain the natural lumbar curve even from the sitting position.

Combining the ergonomic chair with a footrest will bring benefits to both posture and legs, promoting blood circulation. Consider this solution especially if you are of short stature and your desk is not height adjustable.

Increase the distance between torso and mouse/keyboard

A good way to avoid conditions such as carpal tunnel syndrome, De Quervain syndrome and other inflammatory conditions of the hand, wrist and forearm, is to position the mouse and keyboard far apart so that there is enough room to rest your forearms on the desk. In doing so there will be no joint effort as the wrists work in a relaxed position and with minimal movement.

However, despite the support given by the desk, the use of the classic mouse can still cause inflammation in the wrist and hand through continuous movements. In this case it would be better to opt for a vertical mouse, in which the hand assumes a neutral position instead of the prone position, or a trackball, that is a mouse that does not require movement since the pointer is moved with the fingers via a small ball.

As you can see, there are many solutions that can be adopted to improve the quality of life at work and prevent back pain, neck pain and other negative consequences of a sedentary lifestyle.

The best solution for office work

I would like to talk about another solution that I have personally adopted and that has really changed my way of working on a PC: the adjustable desk (standing desk).

The adjustable desk differs from the classic desk as it gives you the opportunity to change the height at any time, allowing you to work both standing and sitting according to your needs. There are various types and sizes on the market, manual or electronic.

Having the ability to work on your PC while standing is a real godsend, especially if you're someone who can never sit still like me. Having the possibility to choose the position in which you want to work can really make a difference both on work performance and on the quality of life.

The benefits of working standing up

A 2018 meta-analysis published by the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology reports that standing burns more calories than sitting. When we are standing we burn an average of 0.15 Kcal per minute, more than when we are sitting. If we think that an employee spends an average of 7 hours a day at a desk, standing up would burn about 63 Kcal more per day, which in a year is almost 3 kg of body weight that could be lost effortlessly. Not to mention the further benefits in terms of posture, strengthening of the back muscles, load on the thoracic, lumbar and cervical spine and improvement of blood circulation. With regard to the latter, I am not referring only to the possibility of avoiding swollen legs, but above all to benefits such as:

  • decrease in blood pressure

  • reducing risk of cardiovascular diseases such as heart attack and stroke

  • prevention of metabolic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and obesity

Obviously it is not expected that with the adjustable desk you spend all the working hours standing up, as with everything you need to find the right balance since overdoing it would become counterproductive.

Benefits for the company as well

The benefits of standing work have been reported not only for the individual, but for the company as well.

A 2015 study published by the IISE Transactions on Occupational Ergonomics and Human Factors Journal reports that standing up increases productivity by about 45%, because those who have the opportunity to work in the position they prefer are able to maintain concentration for longer. Also, as the benefits improve the employee's health, they are less likely to get sick and ask for sick leave.

These tricks should be enough to improve your quality of life while in the office, but if they are not and despite having applied them all, you still suffer from back pain, neck pain or other musculoskeletal conditions, contact me and I will help you to solve your problem.

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