Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Office Ergonomics: Thoughts from an Active Couch Potato

Is this the solution? We could
put one of these in our bedroom.
According to my hubby,
"It looks great, but how do you
get out of it?"

As I write this post on ergonomics, it's not hard to see why the topic is weighing heavily on my mind. I'm sitting on a blue exercise ball, hoping for back pain relief. I'm hunched over my laptop at the dining room table, squinting at the screen. I work from home but I don't have an office. Today I've worked while sitting on patio furniture, kitchen bar stools and formal dining room chairs. Although I took a break to exercise on my garage sale elliptical machine, it wasn't enough; my back and shoulders are killing me. (Insert sad violin music here.)

My husband works from home, too. He doesn't have a formal office, either. He sits at a proper desk, but it's in our bedroom, and his chair is too tall to fit under the desk. He hunches over, too. Today he had an 8:30 am physical therapy appointment to help rehabilitate a painful shoulder. I'm convinced his shoulder problems are related to his workstation.

There is so much information on the web about office ergonomics and computer-related injuries that it was hard to decide who to reference. I settled on Office-Ergo.com, which is an information web site by ErgoAdvocate, an "Ergonomics Program Management Solution" for corporations. Office-Ergo claims to be "one of the oldest and most visited office ergonomics web sites on the web."

According to the site, there are important differences between office ergonomics and industrial ergonomics. The former centralizes around the computer and long periods of sitting at a desk. "The principles are the same," says the organization, "but there are so many subtle differences and different products used in office ergonomics that we believe it’s best to specialize."

There is a long list of hazards related to large volumes of computer use, including eye strain, repetitive stress injuries, carpal tunnel syndrome, and generalized pain in the neck, shoulder, trunk, back, hand, wrist and arm. (While doing research for this post, I even read a few articles that warned of the hazards of tripping over computer wires.)

That's a long list of potential injuries, but let's not forget about "sitting disease," which is a catchy phrase for problems related to office workers (and kids, too) who sit at our computers all day. According to Office-Ergo, many of us now sit for as many as 15 hours a day. Compare that with our ancestors, who hunted and gathered by walking or running six to twelve miles per day, or those that had to actively farm for their food! Some other interesting points about jobs that require large blocks of chair time (quoted from the web site):
  • It is estimated that half of all jobs in western society are computer-based. 
  • Sitting is harder on your back than standing.
  • Sitting disease or more accurately, metabolic syndrome, is a condition where the Lipoprotein Lipase enzymes in the blood vessels essentially go to sleep after 60 – 90 minutes of inactivity.
  • An hour of daily exercise won’t counteract the negative health effects of sitting. Running, biking and other types of exercise are great for improving fitness, but they don’t counteract the negative health effects of prolonged sitting. Exercisers who sit most of the day are known as active couch potatoes. (Yes, that describes me!)
  • You need to stand and move each hour or more to maintain health.
My husband and I could get up and walk or stretch more during the day. But when it comes to body aches and pains, what is keeping us from making needed changes to our office furniture? One word: finances. Do we move into a bigger, and more expensive, house so we can accommodate improved home offices? Do we splurge on an ergonomic consultant, chairs and desks that are more friendly to our bodies? Because the cost for such changes would come out of our own pockets, we're arguably at a disadvantage. However, most people who work in a traditional office probably don't have access to ergonomic environments, either. One size office chair or desk does not fit all, and most large companies probably prefer to buy furniture in bulk.

That's enough for now. I need to go to bed in our office-slash-master bedroom, the blue light of our wireless modem staring at me, and the hum of the television cable box lulling me to sleep.

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