While your body may go through minimal physical exertion over the eight or so hours you clock in at the office everyday, the act of sitting at your desk has more physical implications than you think. Sure, most of the gears that grind are mental, but over time, a hunched back, strained neck and tense shoulders — often unnoticed, culminate in an unhealthy postural muscles and headaches that don't do our bodies any favours.
"Tightness is a big sign, because tightness is always more often than not a pre-cursor that the muscles are being overloaded," says Jane Lau, a physiotherapist at Melbourne's Collins Place Physio. "When people say, 'I'm a little bit tight in my neck, my shoulders or my arm', that for me is enough to question whether they're sitting correctly." Below, she lets us in on the most common postural mistakes people make in the office and how to correct them.
1. You're sitting all day without getting up enough.
"People are literally sitting seven, eight, maybe 10 hours a day continuously without taking any breaks," says Jane. "That in itself is forcing them to do posture damage to the muscles in the body, especially if they're not set up right at their desk, and they don't realise it." Over time, this causes pains and aches to become commonplace. Jane advises to compare being desk-bound to taking a two-hour road trip or going for a movie. "Usually, you do a quick stretch and then it goes away. So if you think about it that way, if two hours is already making you feel stiff when you first get out, what is eight hours going to do sitting at your desk in the office?" she says.
The fix: Every half hour, stand up to have a quick stretch, or a quick walk around. According to Jane, the key is to ensure you're constantly changing positions throughout the day and moving around, which is where standing desks can become useful. "The standing desk is not for people to stand [all day], it's more for people to change positions constantly," she says. "That way it will give your joints, muscles, ligaments some form of pressure relief from different positions and also for muscle activation."
2. Your feet aren't flat on the ground.
Consider this the rule of thumb for sitting at your desk: your feet should always be flat on the ground. "You want your feet to be at at least a ninety degree angle or more from your hips, so your knees should be either the same height as your hips or slightly lower," Jane says. This is because sitting with your knees slightly higher than your hips all day puts a lot of pressure in your hip joints and can jam them up.
The fix: Invest in a footrest to help prop up your feet correctly and ensure your knees are at the right angle.
3. You're not sitting all the way back in your chair.
"Your bottom needs to be able to go right towards the back end [of the seat]," says Jane. If the depth of your seat is too deep for your body, in other words, the cushion is too long for you, sitting back towards the end of the chair will cause your legs to hang off the ground. According to Jane, you should always be able to have two to three finger widths from the edge of your seat to the back of your knee when you're seated.
The fix: Go for a seat that is better suited to your body. If this isn't possible, Jane advises to opt for the footrest option. "I always say advocate for a new seat because sometimes, even if you have your feet on the footrest then, it brings your knees slightly higher than your hips," she says.
4. You're sitting too far away from your desk.
When you're seated and typing, your forearms should be able to be fully supported on the desk. "A lot of people have their keyboard right at the edge of the table and they're sitting a little bit far away, and that can cause people to lean forward a little bit more when they're reading off the screen," Jane says. "The minute you slouch forward, that takes your head in front of body and gravity is essentially dragging your head to the floor. So you need to work a lot harder through your neck muscles just to hold your head up to look at your computer screen."
The fix: The main culprits of this are the armrests on your chair, so try to opt for a seat without any. If you find that you can't go without them, make sure that they aren't getting in the way of you being able to sit close enough to your desk.