The decades-old prescriptions of office ergonomics sought to minimize musculoskeletal damage to people who were sitting fixedly at their desks for hours at a time. But today's office ergonomics experts increasingly do not see sitting for long periods as a good thing.
Meanwhile, the upsurge of mobile devices would seem to offer a way to alleviate the problem -- but it turns out that such devices come with their own ergonomic baggage.
"For decades, ergonomics was billed as a way to get people to stay at their desks longer and more productively," notes Dr. James Levine, director of obesity solutions at the Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, N.Y. and Phoenix. "Over the past six or seven years we have realized the consequences of people sitting too long, and it is an astonishing list."
Specifically, he lists (in no particular order) diabetes, low productivity, hypertension, apathy, clinical depression, hyperlipidemia (elevated levels of lipids in the blood), low moods or mild depression, cardiovascular diseases, obesity, back problems, deep vein thrombosis and mental sluggishness.
"Modern thinking is that we need to reverse the process of 40 years and get people out of their chairs and off their bottoms," Levine says. "Office productivity and school grades improve as people get mobile, as they get up and move. They will tell you that they feel brighter and sharper. They will say, much as I hate the term, 'I feel more alive.' About 10 years ago I had senior scientific colleagues screaming at me in lecture halls about this, saying I was wrong, but now there is international recognition that sedentaryness is killing people."
Mobile's new ergonomics
Oddly enough, no one is saying that mobile devices hold the answer with their potential for personal mobility. This may be because, as it turns out, the mobile gadgets introduce new ergonomic problems.
Tablets, for instance, might at first glance seem to free people from their desks, but in fact people tend to place them flat on their desks and read them as if they were books, explains Dr. Alan Hedge, director of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Laboratory at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. With a book, people will occasionally change posture as they turn the page, but with tablets they can remain hunched for long periods, he notes.
"Leaning forward doubles the compressive forces on the vertebrae in your lower back compared to leaning back," explains Hedge. "When leaning back 20 degrees in a lounge chair you are really relaxing and halving the compression. That is why we say 'sit back and relax,' not 'hunch forward and relax.' "
One result of hunching is a syndrome called iPad Neck -- chronic soreness of the back of the neck and upper shoulders. Hedge recommends propping up the tablet or putting it on a holder so you can read it with a straight neck.
Overuse of tablets may also interfere with getting a good night's sleep, says Dr. Mariana Figueiro, director of the Light and Health Program of the Lighting Research Center at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. Exposure to bright light in the evening will suppress the body's production of the sleep-aid chemical melatonin, making it harder to go to sleep.
The use of an iPad at full brightness for two hours is enough to trigger melatonin suppression, she has found. (She also tried the experiment with TVs and CRT computer screens, but did not find any suppression, presumably because they are less bright and used at greater distances from the eye.)
Some old-school ergonomics still apply
You've probably heard them since the fourth grade, but the admonitions about posture in relation to office ergonomics still hold true.
"As a rule of thumb, you should be able to touch the screen with your fingertips," says Dr. Magdy Akladios, associate professor at the University of Houston-Clear Lake. "The knees, hips and elbows should be at a 90-degree angle. But it's also okay to, for instance, cross your legs -- as long as you don't do it for eight hours straight."
The keyboard should also be flat on the desk. "There is no functional reason for the feet on the back of the keyboard," adds Linda Weitzel, senior ergonomist for Xerox in Rochester, N.Y. (One keyboard maker says the feet serve only to improve visibility for those who can't touch-type.)
Ignoring the rules is as risky as ever. "The complaints have not changed that much since the 1990s," says Weitzel. "The number one problem is back complaints, since they are sitting all day long. Part of it is how effective the computer is today. Whereas five years ago office workers still printed out documents, today they don't even have to get up and go to the printer because they are forwarding documents electronically, or sending links."
In the face of discomfort, act immediately. "The best fix is to stay away from the cause," says Akladios. "You need to prevent the problem motion and introduce a new set of motions, or take frequent breaks. Rather than do any one specific thing, you need to do something different from what you have been doing."
Extensive typing on a tablet opens another can of worms, Hedge warns. "We've done a lot of work on this," he says. First, it slows people down compared to typing on a regular keyboard since it provides no feedback, the varying resistance of a key as it's pressed.
Second, "the fingers tend to get sore since there is no give on that surface. It's like drumming your fingers all day on your desk," Hedge says. "For the convenience of technology we have moved people away from typing and back to poking and prodding, dramatically reducing their productivity. It's ludicrous."
Haptics, which attempt to provide that missing feedback from flat screens, might be a help here -- eventually. But the technologies are still being developed and not yet widely adopted in mobile devices.
Laptops, meanwhile, are considered non-ergonomic by nature, since there is no way to adjust the distance between the keyboard and screen. "Your hands want to be close to your chest, but your eyes want to be focused on something two feet in front of you," making an ergonomic posture unobtainable with a laptop, Hedge explains.
Using laptops on a desk, in place of a desktop, only compounds the problem, he adds. "Desks are usually about 30 inches high, which is a good height for writing by hand on paper but dreadful for typing, as it is too high unless you are taller than 6'2". Then you are adding the height of the laptop."
But he notes that the problem can be alleviated by the use of LCD monitor arms, which hold the laptop in an elevated position where its screen can be used as the system display. An add-on keyboard and mouse can be placed on the desk.
An alternative setup is to close the laptop and use an external monitor as well as the external keyboard/mouse, but Hedge feels that the displays on late-model laptops, such as the Retina display on the MacBook Pro, are too good to waste.
As for smartphones, the reliance on thumbs for texting has led to an upsurge of a condition variously called BlackBerry Thumb, Text Thumb, Nintendo Thumb or De Quervain Syndrome.
"BlackBerry Thumb is really tendinitis at the base of the thumb, caused by rapid texting, and it's a growing trend," says Linda Weitzel, senior ergonomist for Xerox in Rochester, N.Y. Using other texting input options will help, she adds, such as predictive spelling and speech recognition.
Standing up for frequent breaks
If mobile devices are not the answer, neither is gym membership, since exercise outside the office does not undo the unnatural effects of sitting fixedly at a desk for hours, says Dr. Joan Vernikos, former director of NASA's Life Sciences Division and based in Culpepper, Va.
"There is a foundation of activity that we need to do throughout the day to stay healthy," she says. "This is the kind of activity that our parents and grandparents used to get throughout the day, but gadgets have taken it away from us," Vernikos says. Going to the gym for half an hour in the morning and then sitting for the rest of the day does not provide that foundation, she elaborates.
"The signal to stand up does something to the body that tunes it, controlling the blood pressure and circulation," says Vernikos. "Every 20 to 30 minutes you need to stand up. More often is fine, but doing it 20 times at once and saying you are done is not sufficient; you must do it throughout the day."
She bases her conclusions on research she did for NASA on the bodily effects of having no gravitational stress, such as what astronauts experience in free fall. Volunteers stayed in bed for a month; some of them got up to use a treadmill and others just got up. A third group just stayed in bed. The completely bedbound volunteers lost 25% of their aerobic capacity in just four days, Vernikos recalls.
As for the ones who got up, "To my surprise, standing was more effective than walking. You need to stand up once every hour, and every 30 minutes was even better," she says. Extrapolating the results to people who are sitting rather than lying down, people need to stand up 36 times a day, she says.
To take it to another level, Weitzel says she personally uses a standing desk and has recommended that solution to hundreds of Xerox employees over the years. "Most say pretty quickly that it does help their back. Out of all those people I only know one that went back to sitting. Maybe it was high heels," she surmises.
Weitzel is quick to point out that it is better to both sit and stand, saying that she works with employees to recognize the signs of fatigue. "I educate them on how their body should feel and [tell them] not push it beyond a certain point, since standing all the time can create as many issues as sitting."
The office as submarine
You may also be feeling sluggish because of what's streaming down from overhead: fixed, unchanging artificial lighting, especially in the absence of windows.
Figueiro has done studies for the U.S. Navy concerning the use of light to enhance crew alertness on submarines. She found that, left to itself, your body will drift into a 24.2-hour schedule, and so eventually your sleeping hours will begin to overlap your office hours. To reset your body to the 24-hour day, you need to expose yourself to sunlight, but in winter people often commute in darkness. In the absence of sunlight, exposure to bluish light will serve, she says.
"Exposing yourself to sunlight can be a kick like a cup of coffee," Figueiro adds. Bluish cubicle lighting is also available, but, whatever the source, the light has to reach your retinas -- you have to see the source, directly or reflected, she explains.
For general eyestrain, Weitzel recommends that sufferers make sure that their display screen is clean and that their eyeglass prescriptions are up-to-date. They should also take breaks every hour that involve looking off into the distance, she adds.
The search for relief
Unlike the posture-bound prescriptions of the old office ergonomics (see sidebar), the new playbook is more art than science, especially as it has to constantly address new technology, sources agree. In other words, there is no one answer.
"Sitting should be a posture of choice, not the posture of obligation," says Levine. "I am not saying to stop working and go for a walk, I am saying you should do the same amount of work but do it while in motion."
Besides standing desks, Levine recommends treadmill desks, plus less elaborate fixtures such as telephone cord steppers that let you pace up and down while on the phone. Office workers should schedule calls when they can be walking while on their cell phone. These can be color-coded green in Microsoft Outlook, so they can see at a glance how "green" their schedule is.
He also suggests holding office parties in art galleries (or other venues where everyone stands) instead of in sit-down restaurants or bars. Instead of rewarding employees with movie passes (and encourage yet more sitting), management might bring in massage therapists or yoga instructors. Office competitions can be launched with health-related objectives.
"Take the stairs. Go to the water fountain," Vernikos adds. "If you would get in trouble for going to the water fountain, keep a water bottle across the room. You have to change your habits, but the amazing part is that when you do you have more energy."
Finally, sources agreed that office workers need to accept a basic premise that, for many, apparently flies in the face of their work ethic: You are supposed to be comfortable at the office.
"The first principle is to be comfortable," Hedge says. "Have a neutral posture. If there is any sign of discomfort change what you are doing straightaway. Do not think that if you are at work it is supposed to hurt."
If it does hurt, Weitzel says, "we have to figure out something different."
This article, Surprise: Mobile devices don't help office ergonomics, was originally published at Computerworld.com.
Lamont Wood is a freelance writer in San Antonio.
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