Healthy at Work - Your Workstation Setup

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Is Your Workstation Setup a Posture Hazard?

Woman working on computer replying to emails
AMV Photo/Digital Vision/Getty Images

It is amazing how much emphasis many of us put on fitness, yet we completely neglect our workstation setup. Those of us who do Pilates are especially attuned to good posture and alignment, but I can't tell you how many Pilates and fitness-conscious people I've seen with workstations that are absolutely working against their bodies.

Joseph Pilates was all about lifestyle -- famously telling people how to do everything from how to sleep to how to take a shower, so I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that if he was living now, he would have a lot to say (and invent) about this computer workstation thing. Fortunately, we do have good resources for giving our bodies the best chance at keeping the fitness we've worked hard for, even when we have to sit.

I've teamed up with office ergonomics expert Karen Burke, founder of Kare Products, at the Kare Products showroom in Boulder, CO to show you, step by step, just how set up your workstation. Jump right into step one, best chair height, or review some of the common workstation setup mistakes below:

You might find some of your own risky habits here (photos above):
A. Seat too low/desk too high and monitor too high. Result: tight shoulders, pressure on wrists, crick in neck
B. Too much stuff under the desk. Result: no place to put feet and legs in a good posture position.
C. Desk too high. Result: when the feet are not supported by the floor, it pulls on the low back and poor posture such as resting the feet on chair legs or other places compound problems over time.
D. Un-contained workspace. result: Constantly Reaching and leaning for things you need leads to chronic imbalances in the body. Imbalances lead to compensation patterns which can result in compromised mobility and pain.
E. Office Chair too big -- too high, too deep. Result: Legs and feet are not well supported which pulls the whole body out of line. Lumbar spine is not supported. Weight of arms is pulling on shoulders and neck.
F. Chair too low: Result: Elbows below wrists takes the hand-wrist-elbow alignment out of balance putting pressure on hands and wrists.

Do any of these issues look familiar? There are more, of course. Slumping into the low back is another common example, but the way to start fixing them is the same: Sit at work with a workstation setup that promotes good posture. We are going to show you, set by step, how to do that.

Start with the best office chair height

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The Best Office Chair Height and Seat Depth

(c)2012, Marguerite Ogle

Chair Height: To find the best chair height, pull your chair away from your desk. Then, raise or lower your chair so that your knees are level with your hips or slightly lower, never higher. Your feet should be well supported by the floor when they are flat on the floor.

Chair Depth: The best chair depth leaves about two to four fingers distance between the back of the knee and the front edge of the chair when your back is fully against the back of the chair.

Chair Back Height: Set the height of the back of the chair so that your low back has support from the lumbar support curve in the chair (you have that, right?). Ideally, your whole back is against the back of the chair.

Chair Back Tilt: The best office chairs will give you an option to tilt the back of the chair forward and back. Guess what? You can use it. The best way to sit in your chair when keyboarding is sitting upright and as close to the desk edge as comfortable, with shoulders over hips in a plumb line like that we use when standing with good posture.

Best Chair Notes: The Kare Products office chair we are using for our demonstration shows all the controls one might need for adjusting a chair. These include up/down, seat depth, chair back height chair back tilt, and seat tilt. An ergonomic chair is well worth the investment, even for a home office chair. However, if you can't get one at the moment, there are ways to improvise such as adding a lumbar support cushion or a foot rest.

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The Best Keyboard Height

keyboard height
Happy necks and shoulders have the right keyboard height. (c)2012, Marguerite Ogle

Pull your chair up to your desk. Sit up tall but relaxed. Rest your hands on your keyboard.
Here are your best keyboard height checkpoints:

  1. Your wrists are flat -- not bent
  2. Your wrists are level or slightly lower than your elbows
  3. Your upper arms are hanging straight down from your shoulders so your elbows are directly at your sides, not in front or behind.
  4. Your shoulders are relaxed -- not hunched up and not being pulled down by your arms.

Now, here it gets interesting. You've already adjusted your chair height, so here are your options for getting the best keyboard height:

Keyboard too high: Lower your keyboard tray (or get one), lower your desk, which is less likely but they do have adjustable height desksĀ or raise your chair. If you raise your chair, you now need a foot rest to keep from pulling your pelvis and spine out of alignment.

Keyboard too low: you cannot make your chair lower than the ideal height. You need to raise the keyboard by adjusting the tray, putting it on top of your desk, or raising the desk.

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The Best Computer Monitor Height and Distance

monitor height
Easy Measure: Shoulder to Fingertips. (c)2012, Marguerite Ogle

Most computer monitors are moveable so this should be an easy adjustment -- and one that you shouldn't skip since having your computer monitor at the right height and distance will help you avoid workstation problems like neck pain and eye strain.

Once you are settled at your desk with the preceding steps in place, decide how to adjust your computer monitor height and distance with the following principles in mind:

Distance: The best computer monitor distance is typically the distance from your shoulder to fingertips if your reach your hand toward your monitor without moving your shoulder out of line. See photo above.

Height: The best height for a computer monitor is where the center of the screen is at or just below eye level.

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How to Sit at Work

workstation setup
(c)2012, Marguerite Ogle with thanks to Kare Products

If you've followed the preceding workstation setup steps, you should be ready to sit at your desk and be comfortably productive. Let's review the top points of setting up your workstation with the health of your body as a priority:

  1. Both feet are supported by the floor or footrest.
  2. Knees are in line with, or slightly lower than, hips.
  3. Sitting on or slightly in front of sit bones
  4. Back is against the backrest with lumbar spine supported
  5. Sitting upright and as close to the desk edge as is comfortable.
  6. Upper arms are parallel to sides
  7. Shoulders are relaxed
  8. Wrists are even with or slightly lower than elbows
  9. Gaze is level or slightly lower than center screen
  10. Legs are not crossed.
  11. All the things you need -- mouse, reading material, water -- are within easy reach so that you do not have to twist or lean out of good alignment to get to them.
  12. Be alert and engaged but not too rigid. You don't have to "hold a perfect pose". Take breaks!

Thanks to Karen Burke Stewart at Kare Products Ergonomic Office Furniture for giving us expert advice and demonstrations on how to sit at work with a great workstation setup.

Now it's time to stand up! Studies continue show that too much sitting is a health-risks, which you knew already, yes? Yes.

Here are some moves you can do at home or at the office -- almost in secret:
5 Pilates Moves You Can Do Anytime, Anywhere
Five Minute Pilates
Standing Pilates Legwork

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