“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”—Annie Dillard
The average American spends 8.7 hours at work on the average workday according the aptly named American Time Use Survey. Those precious hours in your office add up to about fourteen years and four months of your life at work! If how we spend our days is truly how we spend our life, it would make sense to dial in our office experience so it’s something we can look back at and say, “Heck yeah, I spent fourteen years in my office—it was the best room in the house!”
We largely still accept a well-antiquated story of how the office is supposed to look. A large desk with sharp corners and lots of space for us to sign important documents, a prestigious leather chair, a few paper weights and perhaps a trophy buck on the wall to remind you that you’re the man (or woman) of the space. Remember, if that silly buck was as smart, courageous, and good looking as you, you’d be on his wall. This traditional office model is fighting to hang on, but I think it’s about time to put it to rest for good.
I should note, there’s another model that’s becoming increasingly popular, as well: The open floor plan. The stereotype here is a giant, wall-less room filled with long rows of dozens of employees working at their computer stations, most of whom have headphones on to cut themselves off from each other. More likely than not, though, the basic setup is still chair, screen, keyboard—just out in the open. This is a step in the right direction but could still use a lot of improvement if the goal is healthy bodies and productive minds for employees.
We really should look on the bright side, though: the old model of extended chair sitting has served back surgeons very well. We spend approximately $90 billion annually on the diagnosis and management of low-back pain.
Before we start making any rash decisions around enriching modern work environments with movement opportunities to heal the spines of employed people, let’s be respectful and take a moment of silence for the spine docs out there who might miss a yacht payment. All right, moment taken—let’s heal some backs!
Standing Desk, Floor Desk, or Both?
Sorry to break the news to you, but there is no one magic bullet position or posture that will save the world or your body. Standing desks have become misunderstood as a panacea for improving health in the workplace. The reality is that standing is just another range of motion; if done excessively, it brings a similar set of problems we were attempting to avoid with chair sitting. It should be known that the standing, or tadasana (mountain) pose in yoga is an incredibly technical position, and the value you derive from your standing desk is directly influenced by the quality of your standing mechanics. The keys to a pain-free, flexible, and healthy body are continual postural shifts in a variety of balanced ranges of motion. If you can, I highly recommend embracing the floor culture concept discussed previously in your daily work life if it’s possible in your occupation (tag #floorculture to share your setup with the Align Community!). For those that are bound to a traditional desk to pay the bills, here are a few key points to optimize your movement.
Raise Your Screen Height
If your screen is low, there’s a good chance you’re practicing a postural state of depression (Mopey archetype) while at work. An aligned, upright position is linked to the up-regulation of feel-good neurotransmitters, and the inverse is true with a slumped-over position. Get yourself into your most upright sitting or standing position (if you have a standing desk) and align the screen to the height of your head or even slightly above to encourage even more growth (most people literally will grow taller as they begin aligning their posture). This will be a friendly reminder to continually return your body to an upright, stacked position and start to retrain your eyes to look up instead of being glued to the ground.
Keep Your Pelvis above the Knees
If you are sitting on a chair, refer back to the principles discussed in the Hip Hinging chapter—it’s your blueprint for sitting on a chair from now on. The starting point to sit functionally on a chair is to make sure your pelvis is raised above your knees, as this puts your pelvis and low back in a more balanced position by allowing you to rest on the front edge of your sit bones (ischial tuberosities).
What does it mean for your low back and pelvis to be in a more balanced position, you may ask? As we learned previously, your lowest vertebrae are actually a bit more wedge-shaped, naturally tilting your pelvis forward just a bit in a sitting position. You want to embrace that curve in the sitting position, and the seat height is a crucial part of making that happen. This will save your lumbar discs from being squished continuously throughout the work day, setting you up for a long and healthy relationship with your spine.
Eye Breaks—Get a Window
A frequently cited study published in 1984 in the Journal of Science by environmental psychologist Roger Ulrich showed the powerful healing effects of placing post-surgery patients by a bedside window exposed to leafy trees, compared to a brick wall. Patients with a view healed and were ready to be released from the hospital a full day faster on average, used less pain medication, and experienced fewer post-surgical complications.
If you are calm, content, and living in a more parasympathetic state during your work day, you will be more productive, happier, and healthier. If relocating your office to a room with a window is not possible (perhaps think about changing careers), make regular trips outside to recharge. At a bare minimum, every twenty minutes or so, take an “eye break” to look to points at various distances from you to exercise your eye muscles’ full range of motion. For more on this, check out the Sight chapter.
Switch Hands Regularly
Did you know you can stimulate creativity simply by squeezing a ball with your left hand (or using it more in general)? An Israeli study led by Abraham Gold-stein in 2010 demonstrated that participants could activate the left hemisphere of their brains through simply contracting their left hand, leading to higher scores on a creative thinking test. It is immensely important that we exercise both sides of our brains and bodies for optimal physical, mental, and emotional health. Another important reason to mix up hand usage is to prevent carpal tunnel and wrist pain. Wrist problems have become far too common in our modern world, and repetitive stress is a major culprit. These issues can be alleviated and/or prevented entirely by expanding our range of motion on both sides of the body. Regularly add a few minutes of clicking on your computer mouse or scrolling on your phone with your non-dominant hand. Start noticing how much you do with your dominant hand and make a conscious effort to mix it up—your brain and wrists will thank you later!
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