How To Sit At A Desk Properly: A Doctor's Guide
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Got pain or discomfort sitting at your desk? Join the club - you'll have plenty of company...
Sitting at your desk should be one of those things that's practically impossible to get wrong.
But... according to recent research, the vast majority of office workers are making at least one critical desk posture mistake that's putting their health at risk.
From my own experience, it's quite hard to get right. And I've known many patients who struggle with discomfort as a result of poor posture at their desks.
Sitting at your desk for extended periods can lead to chronic pain and other health problems.
Hopefully you're here early and you haven't found that out the hard way yet.
Sitting properly at your desk doesn't just prevent physical problems; it can also increase productivity and focus.
Here's how get your desk posture dialled in.
How Do You Find Good Desk Posture?
Here are some steps you can take to sit properly on your chair while working at a desk.
1. Adjust Your Chair Height
The first step to sitting properly at a desk is to adjust your chair height so that your feet are flat on the floor.
This helps distribute your body weight evenly, reducing your back and neck strain. When adjusting the chair, make sure that your knees are level with your hips, and your elbows are at a 90-degree angle to your arms .
2. Sit With Your Back Straight
When sitting at a desk, maintain good posture by keeping your back straight. Avoid leaning forward or slouching, as this can put pressure on your lower back and neck muscles.
To sit with your back straight, imagine a string attached to the top of your head that is pulling you up toward the ceiling [1, 3].
3. Use A Lumbar Support Cushion
To maintain the natural curve of your spine, use a lumbar support cushion. This helps reduce pressure on your lower back, which can happen after sitting at your desk for a while.
4. Keep Your Shoulders Relaxed
When sitting at your desk, it's easy to tense up your shoulders and neck muscles, causing discomfort and pain. To avoid this, relax your shoulders and keep them down.
You may also want to perform shoulder rolls or stretches throughout the day to loosen up any tension [2, 7].
5. Position Your Computer Screen At Eye Level
The position of your computer screen is crucial to prevent neck strain. Make sure that your screen is at eye level so that you don't have to tilt your head up or down too much to see it. If necessary, adjust the height of your monitor or use a monitor stand .
6. Take Frequent Breaks
Sitting for prolonged periods can put a lot of strain on your body. To reduce it, take frequent breaks to stand up, stretch, and walk around. Even short breaks of a few minutes can help alleviate discomfort and prevent muscle stiffness [1, 7].
7. Avoid Crossing Your Legs
Crossing your legs while sitting can put pressure on your hip muscles and affect your posture. To avoid this, keep your feet flat on the floor and your knees level with your hips. You can also try using a footrest to keep your feet comfortable .
The Desk Posture Debate: Sit Straight or Not?
When it comes to sitting at a desk, there's a debate about the best position. Some say sitting upright is best, while others argue that it's not necessary to sit straight all the time.
Let's explore both sides of the argument and discuss what works best for different people.
The Case For Sitting Upright at Your Desk
According to the Mayo Clinic, sitting upright is the key to maintaining good posture and avoiding back pain. When sitting upright, you engage your core muscles, which helps to support your spine and reduce the strain on your back. Also, sitting upright can help you breathe more easily and improve your circulation .
Work-Fit, a workplace ergonomics consulting firm, recommends sitting with:
- Your back straight
- Your feet flat on the floor
- Your arms at a 90-degree angle
This position helps to keep your spine in a neutral position, which reduces the pressure on your lower back .
Back Intelligence, an organisation dedicated to back health, suggests sitting with your back straight and your shoulders relaxed.
This position helps to reduce tension in your neck and shoulders and can prevent headaches and migraines .
The Case For Leaning Slightly Back At Your Desk
However, some studies suggest that sitting upright all the time may not be necessary. One study published in the journal Applied Ergonomics found that slouching on some occasions can help to reduce stress and increase relaxation .
Concept Seating, a company that produces ergonomic chairs, argues that sitting in a reclined position can be more comfortable. That's because it can help to distribute your weight more evenly across your body.
This position can reduce the pressure on your lower back and might be better for people who sit for long periods .
Find What Works Best for You
Ultimately, the best sitting position is the one that works best for you. Office Reality  recommends experimenting with different sitting positions and adjusting your chair and desk to find a comfortable and ergonomic setup.
The job search site, Indeed,  also suggests taking frequent breaks and standing up and stretching regularly to prevent back pain and improve circulation.
Chair Office  encourages using an ergonomic chair that supports your back and promotes good posture.
An ergonomic chair should have adjustable features, like a backrest and armrests, to help you find the most comfortable and supportive position.
Exercises To Improve Your Posture At The Office
Maintaining a good sitting posture is crucial for avoiding back pain and preventing long-term health issues. One way to achieve this is by working some simple exercises and stretches into your daily routine.
You might find it tough at first but, after a while, I assure you that you'll start doing it automatically. Then, it won't seem like such a chore.
Here are some exercises and practices that can help you maintain good posture while sitting at your desk.
Shoulder Blade Squeeze
This exercise helps to strengthen the upper back and improve posture. Sit up straight and relax your arms at your sides. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and hold for 5-10 seconds. Release and repeat 10-15 times .
Chin tucks help to correct forward head posture, a common issue associated with prolonged sitting. Sit up straight and gently tuck your chin in towards your neck, as if making a double chin. Hold for a few seconds and release. Repeat 10-15 times .
Seated Spinal Twist
This stretch helps to improve spinal mobility and reduce lower back pain. Sit up straight and twist your torso to one side, placing your opposite hand on the outside of your knee for support. Hold for a few seconds and repeat on the other side. Repeat 5-10 times .
Taking regular breaks throughout the day can help to reduce stress and improve focus, which in turn can improve posture.
Set a timer for every hour or so, and use that time to take a few deep breaths, stretch, or simply sit and relax for a few minutes. This can help you stay mindful of your posture and prevent slouching .
There are a variety of exercises that can be done at your desk, such as leg extensions, calf raises, and desk push-ups.
These exercises can help to improve circulation, build strength, and reduce stiffness . Of course, don't fall into the trap of distracting yourself from your work; we've all got to get things done after all.
Remember to watch that form, making a mindfulness practice out of sitting at your desk with that string pulling you up from the top of your head. Use the proper form in your exercises to prevent injury, and your desk posture will improve in no time.
Having a stronger back in general can be really helpful so see my full list of back strengthening exercises here.
What Are The Benefits Of Good Desk Posture?
If you know you need to fix your desk posture, you can skip this next section. For those unconvinced, read on.
Poor posture can lead to various health problems, including neck and back pain, headaches, and even breathing problems in some cases.
On the other hand, correct posture offers many benefits that can improve your overall health and sense of wellbeing. Here are some common benefits of correct posture.
Reduce Pain & Discomfort
One of the most immediate benefits of maintaining good posture is the reduction of back pain and discomfort.
Poor posture, especially at a desk, can put a lot of pressure on your back, neck, and shoulders, leading to tension, pain, and even headaches .
Sitting up straight and aligning your body correctly can ease this pressure and reduce pain and discomfort.
Improve Breathing & Digestion
Correct posture helps to expand your chest cavity, which improves your lung capacity and allows you to breathe deeper. Maintaining proper posture can also help prevent digestive issues such as acid reflux or heartburn, which can also cause back pain.
When you slouch, you compress your internal organs, causing them to work poorly by comparison. Good posture keeps your organs in their natural position and prevents compression, helping them to work optimally .
Improve Circulation & Posture Awareness
Sitting or standing with proper desk posture helps improve circulation throughout your body.
When you sit or stand for long periods with poor posture, you might get numbness, tingling. You can even get swelling in your hands and feet in extreme cases.
Proper posture helps to prevent these issues and improves your blood circulation. Also, if you keep good posture, you can increase awareness of your posture habits, making it easier to correct poor posture over time .
Put another way: the more you work on it, the easier it gets.
Increase Energy & Alertness
Another benefit of correct posture is that it can boost your energy and alertness. When you sit or stand up straight, you allow more oxygen to reach your brain, which can improve brain function and mental clarity .
This is great if you work long hours, study or otherwise need to stay focused and alert throughout your day.
Which, in my experience, is true for most people these days.
Prevent Spinal Misalignment
Maintaining proper posture can prevent spinal misalignment, which can lead to a range of health issues. When you slouch, you put extra pressure on the vertebrae and discs of the spine.
Over time, this pressure can cause misalignment, leading to conditions such as herniated discs or spinal stenosis.
Correct posture helps to keep your spine in a neutral position, reducing the risk of spinal misalignment .
Enhances Athletic Performance
Finally, correct posture can also enhance athletic performance. Whether that's getting gains down the gym, working a physical job or... just about anything else.
Whether you're a professional athlete or simply enjoy exercising, good posture can help you perform better and reduce your risk of injury.
By aligning your body correctly, you can improve your balance, stability, and overall form, leading to better results and a more enjoyable use of your body .
How Poor Posture Affects Your Health & Well-Being
Poor desk posture is a common problem that can lead to various health issues, both in the short term and the long term.
Whether you're sitting at a desk all day for work or spending hours on your computer at home, it's important to be aware of the consequences of getting your posture wrong.
Let's look at some worst outcomes and consequences of poor desk posture. I hope this next section either encourages you to sit better or helps you identify an issue that may have been caused by your bad desk sitting position.
Perhaps the most well-known consequence of poor desk posture is back problems. When you sit with poor posture for long periods, you put a lot of pressure on your spine and lower back, leading to pain, stiffness, and even injury .
Over time, this can lead to chronic back pain and other issues, such as herniated discs or sciatica . These conditions can be extremely debilitating and may require medical intervention, sometimes even surgery.
If you have upper back problems that seem more serious, you can find my article on upper back pain red flags here.
You may also be getting headaches. When you sit with your head tilted forward or your shoulders hunched, you put a lot of pressure on your neck muscles. That's what can cause them .
Also, poor posture can lead to eyestrain and fatigue, also triggering headaches . These headaches can be super painful and mess up your whole day, making it tough to get things done.
Poor desk posture can also be bad for your circulation. When you sit with your legs crossed or your feet propped up on a stool, you can restrict blood flow to your legs and feet, leading to numbness, tingling, and even blood clots .
Poor posture can also put pressure on your organs, making your digestion worse which will only cause a whole lot of other issues.
Fatigue and Low Energy
Fatigue and low energy are next. When you sit with poor posture, you put your body in a position that's not ideal for breathing .
This can lead to a feeling of sluggishness and low energy, making it difficult to focus. Over time, this means a decrease in productivity and work quality.
Reduced Life Expectancy
Finally, poor desk posture can reduce your lifespan. Seems pretty extreme... I mean... can it really lower your life expectancy?
In one study from in 2004, 1,353 elderly patients were examined. The study revealed that patients who exhibited a hyperkyphotic posture (that’s the medical term for when old people get a huge curve in their spine) had a mortality rate that was up 144% .
This is likely because poor posture can lead to a variety of health issues, including obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.
If you're here, you were probably looking for this information. So you're probably already motivated to get this right.
But I do hope the above info has helped that motivation grow even stronger.
Mayo Clinic. Office ergonomics: Your how-to guide. Available at: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/office-ergonomics/art-20046169
Work-Fit. How to Sit Properly at Your Desk. Available at: https://www.work-fit.com/blog/how-to-sit-properly-at-your-desk
Back Intelligence. Proper Sitting Posture at a Desk. Available at: https://backintelligence.com/proper-sitting-posture-at-a-desk/
The effects of ergonomically designed school furniture on pupils' attitudes, symptoms, and behaviour. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/0003687094900442
Office Reality. How to Sit Properly at Your Desk. Available at: https://www.officereality.co.uk/blog/how-to-sit-properly-at-your-desk
Concept Seating. How to Properly Sit at a Computer. Available at: https://www.conceptseating.com/resources/news-knowledge/blog/how-to-properly-sit-at-a-computer/
Indeed. How To Sit Properly at a Desk (With Examples and Exercises. Available at: https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/interviewing/how-to-sit-at-a-desk
Chair Office. How to Properly Sit At a Computer. Available at: https://www.chairoffice.co.uk/blog/how-to-properly-sit-at-a-computer/
Hyperkyphotic Posture Predicts Mortality in Older Community-Dwelling Men and Women: A Prospective Study Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. Available at: https://agsjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1532-5415.2004.52458.x
Cleveland Clinic. 6 Desk Exercises That Help You Get Stronger While Working. Available at: https://health.clevelandclinic.org/desk-exercises/