Is Your Home Office Set Up for Success?

As a physical therapist, I treat many patients for pain caused by poor posture, particularly because of prolonged sitting in front of a computer. If you’re going to spend more than a few minutes on your computer, it is important to take time to set up your workstation well in order to prevent injuries and unnecessary pain.

Setting Up an Ergonomic Workstation 

Sitting with poor posture causes excessive stress to the discs in your low back, tightness in your hip flexors and hamstrings, and underutilization of your core and gluteal muscles, which can result in low back and hip pain. Poor placement of your keyboard can result in hand/wrist pain and shoulder pain. 

To enable sitting with good posture, your chair should be adjusted so that your hips and knees are bent to approximately 90 degrees and you can reach your keyboard with your elbows relaxed at your side and bent to approximately 90 degrees. I’m short, and my feet don’t touch the floor once I lift my chair up high enough to reach my desk, so I use a footrest. You can get creative by finding things around the house to put under your feet, like an upside-down drawer.

Your kids will need a similar set-up, unless you are able to get them a child-sized desk and chair. Find something to prop their feet up on, and place a pillow behind their back if they are using an adult-sized chair. 

Most of us let our heads shift forward or look up or down for long periods of time while working on a computer, which can cause neck pain, shoulder pain, upper back pain and headaches. Your computer screen should be close enough to you that you don’t have to lean forward to read. If you use more than one monitor, the one you use most should be directly in front of you, and the other should be at an angle to one side. If you use two monitors equally, they should be placed in a slight “V” shape with the center of the “V” directly in front of you. The top of your computer screen should be at eye level. For a laptop, that may mean you need to prop it up on a few books or a stand. Things that you use regularly should be close to you, and things that you use infrequently can be moved further away. 

Most of us nowadays work on laptops rather than desktop computers. I would advise against working on your laptop on a couch, cushy chair or lying on your stomach on your bed. These are positions my patients have mentioned that they work in, contributing to their back and neck pain. Since laptops were designed for convenience and not ergonomics, I strongly recommend getting a separate keyboard and mouse for your laptop so that it can be set up more ergonomically. 

Take Standing Breaks

Sit-to-stand desks can be nice, and they’ve become more economical, but you don’t have to have one. You likely have a countertop that is an appropriate height for standing to work. It may take some set-up ahead of time to make it easy to move back and forth from your desk to the counter, keeping in mind the height of your monitor and your elbow position while using your keyboard. If you choose to alternate between sitting and standing, I recommend you do so every 30–60 minutes.

If you don’t have a sit-to-stand desk or a good place to stand and work, you should take standing breaks from your computer. If you’re busy, you can stand while on a phone call or while reading an article or document. Standing up to stretch for as little as 30 seconds is beneficial, but take longer breaks when you can. Taking a break depends on your work, of course, but I suggest that you don’t sit for more than an hour at the very most. If you can get up every 20–30 minutes—great! Choose an amount of time that works for you and doesn’t disrupt your work, and use a timer as a reminder. You can use a kitchen timer or an app on your phone or computer.

Exercises for Good Posture

The following is a list of stretches and exercises that you can do to maintain good posture while working in your home office.

  • A standing back extension stretch can help alleviate pressure on the discs in your low back.
    • Stand with both hands on your low back, fingers pointed toward your spine. Keep your core tight, and bend back over your hands, extending your spine.
    • Repeat 10 times; hold for 6 seconds; complete 1 set; perform 2 times a day.
  • Hamstring and hip flexor stretches can help counteract the tightness caused by prolonged sitting.
    • Seated hamstring stretch: Sit on the edge of your chair, straighten one leg, resting your heel on the floor, and pull your toes up. Keep your back straight and eyes straight ahead as you gently lean forward until a stretch is felt along the back of your leg.
      • Hold for 30–60 seconds; complete 2 sets (1 on each side); perform 2 times a day.
    • Hip flexor stretch: Standing, place one foot on a chair (use one hand on a wall or counter for balance). Tighten your abdominals by pulling your belly button toward your spine. Keep your belly tight and shoulders back as you press your hips forward until you feel a stretch across the front of your standing hip/thigh. If you feel the stretch in your calf instead of your hip, lift your back heel.
      • Hold for 30–60 seconds; complete 2 sets (1 on each side); perform 2 times a day.
  • Doorway pec stretches can prevent your shoulders from rounding forward.
    • While standing in a doorway, place hands low on each side of the doorway. Look straight ahead and take a small step forward with one foot. Shift your weight forward until you feel a stretch in your shoulders and chest. Hold for 30 seconds. Repeat this with hands at shoulder height and elbows bent. Repeat again with hands high on each side of the doorframe (head height or higher).
    • Perform 2 times a day.
  • Dumbbell neutral grip rows can help build the muscles that keep your shoulders pulled back and down.
    • With a dumbbell in each hand, start by standing tall with your feet hip-width apart. Next, sit back so that your hips and knees are bent to roughly 90 degrees. Stretch your arms out toward the ground, and turn both palms should to face each other. Lastly, squeeze your shoulder blades back and down and back while pulling both dumbbells toward your body until your elbows come even with your ribs. Then, slowly return your arms back to the original position.
    • Repeat 15 times; complete 2 sets; perform 4 times a week.
  • A plank can help to build the muscles that hold your spine straight.
    • Start on hands and knees. Stretch your legs back so that your knees are lifted, toes are on the ground and heels are raised. If you have wrist pain, you can lower down onto your forearms. Tighten your abdominals to keep your back straight and supported. Look at the ground between your hands so that your neck is in a neutral position. Press your chest and back of the knees toward the ceiling. Your hips should be in line with your shoulders and ankles. This exercise can be modified by placing your forearms/hands on a chair or couch to decrease difficulty.
    • Hold for 20–60 seconds, until fatigued; complete 2 sets; perform 4 times a week.

If you are experiencing back or neck pain associated with prolonged sitting that doesn't improve with an ergonomic set-up, and if you can't do these exercises without pain, see your healthcare provider. Treatments are available with Overlake Outpatient Rehabilitation Care. 

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