When many of us hear the words “good-posture” our mothers voice begins to ring in our ears, “stand up straight, you’re slouching”. As is often the case, your mother had a point; to a point!
Over time, poor posture may be caused by habits from everyday activities such as sitting in office chairs and looking at the computer, driving, standing for long periods of time, or even sleeping.
Poor posture can easily become second nature, causing or aggravating episodes of back pain and damaging spinal structures. Lucky for you, the main factors affecting posture and ergonomics are completely within your ability to control and are not difficult to change.
The following guidelines suggest several ways to improve posture and ergonomics (good posture/body mechanics in the work-place), especially for people who work sitting in an office chair for most of the day.
Back pain caused by poor ergonomics and posture: know the warning signs.
If your back pain is worse at certain times of the day or week (but not during weekends) it may be the result of poor ergonomics and posture which occurs after a long day of sitting in an office chair in front of a computer.
Some of the typical warning signs of pain caused by poor ergonomics and posture include pain that starts in the neck and moves downwards into the upper back, lower back and extremities; or pain that goes away after switching positions while sitting or standing; sudden back pain that is experienced with a new job, a new office chair, or a new car; and/or back pain that comes and goes for months.
Get up and move around and stretch out.
Picture yourself at the end of a long day; I would hazard a guess and say you’re hardly standing straight in this vision. As muscles tire, slouching, slumping, and other poor postures become more likely; this in turn puts extra pressure on the neck and back. In order to maintain a relaxed yet supported posture, change positions frequently. One way is to take a break from sitting in an office chair every half hour for two minutes in order to stretch, stand, or walk.
Try to keep the body in alignment while sitting in an office chair and while standing.
When standing try and distribute your body weight evenly to the front, back, and sides of the feet while standing; feel your connection to the ground. While sitting in an office chair, take advantage of the chair’s adjustable features. Sit up straight and align the ears, shoulders, and hips in one vertical line. Any single position, even a good one, will be tiring if held for too long.
Try alternating between leaning forward with a straight back and with sitting back, using the back support of the office chair to ease the work of back muscles.
Also be aware of and avoid unbalanced postures such as crossing legs above the knees while sitting, leaning to one side, hunching the shoulders forward or tilting the head.
When trying to achieve good seated posture, ask yourself one simple question: what muscles can I relax or support with the chair or props (pillows foot stools) that will make me feel more comfortable. Good posture is not necessarily sitting or standing as straight as possible, it is minimal muscle activation.
Use posture-friendly props and ergonomic office chairs when sitting.
Supportive ergonomic “props” can help to take the strain and load off the spine. Ergonomic office chairs or chairs with an adjustable back support should be used at work. Footrests, portable lumbar back supports, or even a towel or small pillow can be used while sitting in an office chair and while driving.
The use of purses, bags, and backpacks that are designed to minimize back strain can also help you achieve good posture. Proper corrective eyewear, positioning computer screens to your natural, resting eye position can also help to avoid leaning or straining the neck with the head tilted forward.
Increase self-awareness of posture and ergonomics in everyday settings.
Being aware of your posture and ergonomics at work, at home, and at play is a vital step towards instilling good posture and ergonomic techniques. This includes making conscious connections between episodes of back pain and specific situations where poor posture or ergonomics may be the root cause of the pain.
The posture related neck and back strains I see regularly are usually caused by what you do most of. Try and give some objective thought to what that is and you’ll go a long way to being aware of the postures that cause you daily discomfort. Better still get someone to take a few photos of you in a typical work posture. You’ll be surprised how you look, and they may help you gain better postural objective analysis.
Use exercise to help prevent injury and promote good posture.
Regular exercise such as walking, swimming, or bicycling will help the body stay aerobically conditioned, while specific strengthening exercises will help the muscles surrounding the back to stay strong. These benefits of exercise promote good posture, which will, in turn, further help to condition muscles and prevent injury.
There are also specific exercises that will help maintain good posture. In particular, a balance of trunk strength with back muscles about 30% stronger than abdominal muscles is essential to help support the upper body and maintain good posture.
Wear supportive footwear when standing.
Avoid regularly wearing high-heeled shoes, which can affect the body’s center of gravity and change the alignment of the entire body, negatively affecting back support and posture. This is especially important as you age. High-heeled shoes require good spinal and pelvic mobility and as you age there is a natural decline in this capability and you will be more at risk of injuring you back and muscles if used for long periods.
Always remember good posture and ergonomics when in motion.
Walking, lifting heavy materials, holding a telephone, and typing are all moving activities that require attention to ergonomics and posture. It is important to maintain good posture even while moving to avoid injury.
Back injuries are especially common while twisting and/or lifting and often occur because of awkward movement and control of the upper body weight alone. Tennis elbow is on the rise in my clinic due to excessive mouse use and poor ergonomic positioning of the arm.
Create ergonomic physical environments and workspaces, such as for sitting in an office chair at a computer.
It does require a small investment of time to personalize the workspace, home, and car, but the payoff will be well worth it. Undue strain will be placed on the structures of the spine unless the office chair, desk, keyboard, and computer screen, etc. are correctly positioned. If you work in a company that has access to Human Resources, then ask for an ergonomic work-station assessment.
Avoid overprotecting posture.
Remember that it is important to maintain an overall relaxed posture to avoid restricting movements by clenching muscles and adopting an unnatural, stiff posture. Remember; good posture involves minimal muscle activation, that is, it must be a relaxed body-alignment.
For individuals who already have some back pain, it is a natural tendency to try to limit movements to avoid the potential pain associated with movement. However, unless there is a fracture or other serious problem, the structures in the spine are designed for movement and any limitation in motion over a long period of time creates more pain and a downward cycle of less motion and more pain, etc. So don’t try to sit up straight like a statue for hours and remember; we were made with round joints in the skeleton- not square ones so keep moving throughout your day and your body will thank you for it.