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Staying Healthy When Your Work Keeps You at a Screen Most of the Day

Staying Healthy When Your Work Keeps You at a Screen Most of the Day

It crept up on me slowly. It started with a few aches and pains when I woke up in the morning. Then it turned into some occasional stiffness throughout the day. However, it really caught my attention early last winter when I actually yelped in pain as I attempted to look over my shoulder to make a lane change while driving.

By this time, I had developed a full-blown neck and shoulder issue. As someone who spends much of her workday sitting at a computer, I had become a statistic.

Approximately two-thirds of American workers use a computer regularly at work. Combine that with the fact that nearly 80 percent of Americans have jobs that require little or no physical activity, and you can see why some experts are calling sitting the new smoking in terms of the damage it is doing to our health.

At first, I thought my long stretches at the keyboard could not be the crux of the problem. I exercise faithfully every day, I reasoned. I have a supportive chair and an ergonomic keyboard, I rationalized.

However, after conducting some research, I found that, while those factors definitely help, they do not do enough to counteract the hours I spend sitting each day researching and writing. Our bodies are designed for movement when we are awake. That means that too much sitting or standing is harmful, according to a study published last year in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

A sedentary lifestyle – one that involves sitting for long stretches of time, whether it is on your computer, on your phone or in front of the TV – is bad for your health. It can slow your metabolism and research has shown that it can contribute to type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease.

Additionally, it can lead to neck and back pain – as it did in my case.

So what is a 21st century worker supposed to do to remain healthy and employed? Fortunately, the answer appears to lie in breaking up our sitting or standing time into chunks, according to Alan Hedge, a Cornell University ergonomics professor, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.

Here are some tips to help you sit less and move more while you are on the job at home or in an office setting.

Timing is Everything

Experts recommend that you get up every 20 to 30 minutes. When I paid attention to my previous work habits, I discovered that I was sedentary for the entire time it took to research and write an article. Then I would take a break.

Since this process takes multiple hours, that meant I was sitting in more-or-less the same position for hours. And, despite my best intentions, my head and neck were usually hunched over as I thought and wrote.

Now I take frequent breaks – even if it is just to stand up for a moment to stretch my legs and torso. I often combine my short breaks with going to get a glass of water, so I kill two birds with one stone, so to speak.

Move When You Can

I conduct many phone interviews as part of my work. I realized, as part of my neck therapy process, that I do not need to sit down for those interviews. I now use them as an opportunity to stand and stretch.

Using the speaker option on my phone allows me to stand at the counter and/or move around while, talking, listening and taking notes.

Switch Out Your Desk Chair

My family bought me a nice desk chair as a birthday present a few years ago, and I like it, but it does not have to be the only option I use. I sometimes can replace it with a standard straight-back chair for the different support it provides. I also use an exercise ball at certain times to work my core muscles while I work.

If you use a laptop, find times to forgo a chair entirely during your workday. Place the laptop on a counter or shelf and work while standing at different points during your day.

Plan Meetings That Move

Instead of asking to meet with colleagues over coffee or in their offices, suggest meeting them for a walk. Not only does getting outside help your body, but it helps clear your mind and allows your brain to recharge.

If the weather is inclement, you could walk in an indoor location, such as a mall or an indoor track.

Don’t Sit When You Can Stand

Another way to add movement into you day is to look for ways you can stand instead of sit. It may seem a little awkward at first, but you can usually find a place to stand during a meeting, for example.

If people offer me a chair, I find that smiling and saying something like, “I’ve been sitting all morning, so I think I’ll stand, if you don’t mind” does the trick.

Here are some other ideas for coaxing your body out of the sedentary position.

  • If you need to go to another part of your office building or to run an errand, take the stairs, not the escalator or elevator.
  • Go talk with a coworker at his or her desk instead of emailing or calling.
  • If someone stops by your desk, stand up to have that conversation instead of remaining seated.
  • Set a 20-minute timer to remind you to change positions.
  • Avoid eating lunch at your desk. Use it as an opportunity to move and stretch.

Now here are some easy stretches that help my neck and shoulders, which are the common tension points for people sitting at a computer screen. Breathe naturally while doing the stretches, and perform them gently without forcing them.

Shoulder Shrug: Breathe in deeply while lifting your shoulders up to ear level. Hold them there for a beat. Then exhale as you drop your shoulders. Repeat five times.

Neck Stretch: Gently tilt your chin to your chest as far as it can go. Hold for a few beats. Next, gently lift your chin and tilt your head back. Hold for a few beats. Now touch your left ear to your left shoulder and hold for a few beats. Do the same thing on the other side. Repeat entire process five times.

Leg Extensions:  Holding on to your chair for balance, extend both legs in front of you so that they are parallel to the floor. Now flex and point your toes five times. Next, lower your legs and repeat five times.

Arm Stretches: Clench your fists as you stretch your arms out in front of you. Draw circles in the air – first in one direction and then in the other. Shake out your hands and repeat five times.

Over time, the recurring stress placed on the joints, ligaments and discs of your neck from typing or texting can cause degenerative changes. There are other ways to reduce the stress that working on a computer can have on your neck, shoulders and back.

First, make sure your computer monitor is at eye level. When you are seated in a comfortable position, your gaze should land in the middle of your screen. If you need to look down, prop the monitor up so that it is at eye level.

It is not just your computer screen that can cause problems. Texting or looking down at your mobile device on a regular basis also puts excessive strain on your neck.  Look for ways to prop your phone up on a pillow or shelf so that your neck is not in an awkward position.

Also, if you talk on the phone frequently, use a headset or the speaker option instead of tilting your head to the side or cradling your phone to the side of your neck.

Proper posture is important no matter what kind of electronic device you are using. Aim to keep your shoulders relaxed and have your elbows close to your body as you work. Additionally, aim to keep your forearms, hands, wrists and thighs all parallel with the floor.

Try placing a firm pillow against the small of your back to provide extra back support as you sit in your desk chair.

By following these tips, I have been able to experience relief from my neck and shoulder pain despite the fact that I still log long hours on my computer. I will say that when I am under the stress of a tight deadline, the symptoms tend to reappear, but I look on them as timely reminders that I have been sitting too long.

When I modify my behavior and perform gentle exercises on a regular basis, I am once again pain free.

For more information on staying healthy in a sedentary job, here are few helpful websites:

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by Tricia Drevets // Regular Contributor to Businessing Magazine. Tricia Drevets is a freelance writer who specializes in business and communication topics. A community college speech and theater instructor, Tricia lives in beautiful Southern Oregon.

Opinions expressed by contributors are their own.