Why you’re sitting all wrong (and how to fix it)

According to medical science, sitting hunched and twisted like a pretzel in a chair is killing our body and soul, hour by hour. In an analysis of 47 studies of sedentary behavior, researchers found that sitting significantly increased your chance of death by cardiovascular disease and of getting a chronic condition like diabetes. Sitting down all day even overwhelms the benefits of exercise, for those who find time despite their desk jobs.

Is the solution to chuck our desks out the window and become standing-desk devotees? For able-bodied people, having a height-adjustable desk can provide a much-needed respite from sitting. But not all of us have the access or willpower to stand on our feet all day while typing away. Giving yourself small breaks to stretch your legs and walk around helps. An Australian study found that taking small, frequent breaks every hour to get up and move can significantly decrease the health risks associated with sitting.

But eventually, our tired muscles give way, and we will all be humbled. We will need to sit. This is the ergonomic research for that moment that has relieved my lower back pain and hopefully bought me back a few years from my decades of typing cross-legged and hunched over a blue screen on a lumpy couch.

1) Your feet need to be on the ground

This ergonomic advice was the biggest revelation for me. You want to adjust your chair until your feet are comfortably planted on the ground. You want your hips to be equal to or slightly higher than your knees, according to physiotherapists. You need to have both legs on the ground; sitting with our legs crossed puts one hip higher than the other, and that puts undue strain on our spine.

For petite people like me, we often sit in chairs with our legs swinging, unaware that doing so for hours on end inhibits blood flow to our legs and leaves us with an unstable lower back. It not only causes that unpleasant pins-and-needles sensation, but it can also lead to chronic pain. If you can’t adjust your chair’s height, find or make a footrest so that your feet can touch the floor. In a pinch, I’ve used boxes or books as homemade footrests.

2) Your back needs to be supported

Sometimes, you can get so wrapped up in your work that it may be too late for you to realize that your nose is inches from your screen or you’re leaning so far back you’re barely in the chair. This posture is bad and is what leads to disc herniation and lower back sprains. UCLA says you should move your butt as far back as you can into the back of your chair. That way, your posture automatically shifts for the better and your back and spine get support.

If you don’t think your office chair is giving you enough lumbar support, try adding cushions just above your hip in the small of your back.

3) Your head should be level with what you’re looking at

I am guilty of working with my laptop on my lap. This often causes to me to work with my head hanging down, which may not sound like much, but this angle is putting enormous pressure on my spine and could lead to pulled muscles and strained ligaments. The average head weighs about 10-12 pounds and a 2014 spinal study found that tilting our heads 60 degrees feels like 60 pounds on our spines. This is not a pressure your head should have to bear.

Sitting up straight means that your screen should be level with your eyes. You shouldn’t need to look down, up, or sideways to read what you’re doing. Adjust your screen monitor’s height accordingly.

Saving yourself from years of future pain begins with protecting your posture — especially when you’re sitting still for long periods of time. Adjust your chair to your height and hunker down in it properly with no slouching. You may not feel the consequences of bad sitting now, but I promise you: You will later.

This article was first published on September 12, 2017.