As a student you probably have to work at your computer or on your tablet every day. As a modern citizen, you no doubt spend even more time doing things at your computer that aren't related to study in the slightest. By improving your workplace and your posture while sitting you can prevent headaches and stain on your neck and shoulders.
How many hours a day do you spend at your computer?
Do you get discomfort of any kind after sitting at your computer for a while? Here you can find out about computer ergonomics, some practical advice on how you can improve your work station and sitting posture, and some simple exercises you can do while taking a break. There are also links to further reading.
The pressures of time and performance cause stress, which eventually takes its toll on our muscles and joints. This leads to tension in the shoulders and neck, resulting in different forms of discomfort and pain.
Tips for a good sitting posture
- Sit with your lower back pulled in on the front part of the seat and tuck your feet underneath. This "riding" position is kind to the joints of the back and activates your back and core muscles. Rest your back now and then against the chair back, which is to support the small of your back.
- The distance to the screen is to be about one arm's length.
- Tilt the screen so that you can keep your head straight while you work, with your eyes on a level with its top edge. The head gets very heavy when bent forwards, which puts strain on the neck and back muscles. Avoid "vulture neck".
- Work in good light from ceiling lights and windows, and avoid glare on the screen.
- Blink often, computer work strains the eyes.
- Wipe the screen if it's dirty.
- Place the mouse at the same height as the keyboard and close to your body so as to avoid discomfort.
- Use hotkeys, change hands and take breaks to stretch (see below under RSI)
- Keep your work material as close to the screen as possible to avoid having to turn your head too much.
- Don't sit for too long! Time is essential to avoiding pain and discomfort. Take breaks and move about!
- Sit for no longer than an hour at a time.
- Change your sitting posture often. Try to avoid static load by, e.g. stretching, resting your eyes (see below), doing other tasks, and organising your work in a way that forces you to sometimes get up from your chair.
- Plan your work and your daily routines: a shortage of time creates longer sessions at work with fewer breaks, and the resulting stress increases muscles tension. It's also important that you have time to devote to exercise in your weekly schedule, preferably a kind that stimulates the blood circulation (e.g. walking or aerobics).
Study requires alert eyes, so let your eyes rest now and then by putting them through these eye exercises! (Remember to breathe properly as you do them.)
- Sit comfortably. Roll your eyes - slowly and gently - up to the ceiling as far as they will go, and then down to the floor as far as they will go. Stop for a few seconds at each extreme point. Repeat 10 times. When you're done, bring your eyes to a mid-position and look straight ahead.
- Do the same, but this time from side to side, stopping for a few seconds at each extreme point. Repeat 10 times. When you're done, bring your eyes to a mid-position and look straight ahead.
- Roll your eyes to the top left corner and then down to the bottom right corner as far as they will go. Repeat 10 times. When you're done, bring your eyes to a mid-position and look straight ahead. Do the same with the opposite diagonal, ending up again by looking straight ahead again.
- Roll your eyes to the ceiling, and then rotate them slowly in a circle: first to the right, then down to the floor, up to the left and finally back to the ceiling. Do this ten times. Return your eyes to a mid-position and look straight ahead. Do the same but in the opposite direction.
- End by bringing your eyes to the middle again, looking straight ahead and exhaling...
The optimal workplace
Ergonomic office chairs can be costly, but buying one is a good investment for your body and future health. It might be worth hunting out a second-hand chair on the net or in shops, but if you do, make sure it's not sagging and that it's adjustable and fits you and your body shape. The best kind of chair allows you to adjust the height and angle of the backrest (to give sufficient support for the pelvic-lumbar region), the height and depth of the seat, and the sitting angle for the sake of your posture and to relieve strain on the back. Armrests that can be adjusted vertically and horizontally give support to the arms. The chair mustn't be too soft or too hard. Wheels on the chair make your work run more smoothly.
The screen is to be clear and clean so that you can read from it without straining. It must be placed at a suitable distance under eye-level right in front of you. A screen that is too high can easily cause discomfort in the neck, shoulders and head. A suitable distance to the screen is 60 to 70 cm - the further away the screen, the larger it should be. At a distance of over 80 cm the text becomes too small to read. The screen should be hinged so that it can be rotated and tilted to the correct viewing angle for you, and placed directly in front of you so you don't have to turn your head to look at it; this will spare you discomfort and pain in the neck and shoulders. Think about how you place the screen in relation to the windows. Daylight and lamps can cause screen glare, and excessive light reduces contrast, which is a strain on the eyes.
Keyboard and mouse
There should be enough space in front of the keyboard for you to move your mouse and support your arms. Place the keyboard in front of you in line with your forearms so that your wrists are as straight as possible. Have the mouse at the same level as and close to the keyboard. When writing or using the mouse, it's good to have support for your forearms either from the table or from the armrests of your chair in order to reduce strain on the shoulders. Note that keyboards with a keypad section can be too wide for some people of a smaller build.
For seated work, your desktop should be at elbow height so that your forearms are at 90 degrees to your torso when sitting upright. The table should be between 73 and 79 cm high depending on how tall you are. The best thing is to have a desk that can easily be raised or lowered so that you can alternate between a seated and standing work posture. Your desk should have a light, matt surface, and be deep enough for the keyboard to be placed at least 15 cm in, which minimises the load on your arms. There must also be room for books, notepads, etc. The space under your desk for your feet should be spacious and uncluttered so that you can turn freely in your chair.
Since laptops have their keyboards attached to their screens, there is little you can do to adapt the way you work and how you sit. A laptop is best for brief, occasional use, so if you use one for longer periods, it's best to add a separate keyboard and screen.
When we can't see properly, we instinctively move the body to compensate, and this can interfere with good posture. The distance between your eyes and the screen is determined by, amongst other factors, screen size and the space you need for documents, keyboard and arm support. Screens are often best placed straight on the table so that your eyes are slightly lowered, and so that daylight from windows strikes it on the side. You should be able to shade it from direct sunlight when necessary. The screen must be free from flicker, glare and reflections, and the font should be easily legible and of a sufficiently high contrast. A screen with a light background and dark characters is usually preferable.
RSI (repetitive strain injury)
RSI, or what the Swedes popularly call "mouse arm", is an umbrella term for a variety of conditions affecting the neck, shoulders, arms and hands after long periods of intensive computer use. RSI is painful and difficult to deal with.