By DR LOH WEI CHEE AND LIESL TAN
Remember how your mother used to remind you to sit up straight and not hunch your back when you were younger? All you ever wanted to do was to lie or sit down in your most comfortable position to watch your favourite television show but all that resulted was just your mother’s nagging!
So, was your mother right, and why did she make it her mission to make sure you had the right posture even at such a young age?
Well, the reality is that our spines are designed in such a way that there are three nice curves when you look at it from the side. The neck (cervical spine) and the lower back (lumbar spine) should preserve a ‘C’ curve known as ‘lordosis’ while the mid and upper back (thoracic spine) should have a reversed ‘C’ curve known as ‘kyphosis’.
These curves, together with how the spine is biologically designed (segments and spinal discs), give us the flexibility to move around, to absorb the shock of gravity and are the main reason we are able to walk upright and not on all four limbs.
Prolonged sitting with poor posture, doing desk-bound computer work, as well as increased usage of mobile phones and other modern technology can alter the spines’ curvature, changes which could significantly affect a person’s quality of life.
The nervous system, which sends signals throughout the body and connects from the brain to the rest of the body, exits the spine at different, specific levels. Any misalignment or changes in the curvature of the spine can cause nerve irritation.
Some common conditions that result from these misalignments include early degenerative joint/disc disease, neck and lower back pain, headaches, and disc herniation to name a few.
These conditions vary in severity and are usually a result of an accumulation of years of wear and tear on a person’s spine. Some people may not show the symptoms of these common conditions just yet.
However it is always better to have your spine checked and undertake the necessary preventive measures before the condition becomes a serious problem.
Posture at work
Poor posture can also be the result of weak core muscles (inability to support the torso) or tight muscles. Having little or no physical activity to address these weak/tight muscles, coupled with long hours at work, may eventually take a toll on the body’s overall health and wellness.
Since there is a large number of us in the workforce who constantly work in front of a computer and are desk-bound, we will highlight some areas where you can make immediate corrections to ensure you have improved posture at work.
When you hunch over your computer at work, either as a direct result of the incorrect chair or desk height, you find yourself having a sore neck or tight shoulders due to the prolonged awkward angle.
This is an all-too-common scenario that is confirmed when we meet with employees during our health talks with corporate companies in which many of them have desk-bound roles.
So, what’s the best posture at work? To correct your sitting posture if you have a desk-bound role, make sure that:
• You’re seated with your shoulders relaxed
• Your elbows are at a 90-degree angle
• Your forearms are parallel to the ground (this is so the shoulders don’t shrug up)
• Your feet are comfortably on the floor
• You sit all the way into your office chair for good lower back support
Most office chairs have adjustable seat heights and good seating depth, so find the right setting that works for you. Alternatively, a small investment into an external keyboard and mouse (for laptop users) could significantly help with your sitting posture at your work desk.
It’s also recommended to have the laptop screen or monitor positioned parallel to your eyes so that it doesn’t place a strain on your neck. Sit at least an arm’s length away from the screen and then adjust the distance for your vision.
Once you’ve made changes to your work desk, it’s now time to get up and move! When you’re in a desk-bound role, you often find yourself seated in the same position for long periods of time.
Whether you’re working on a report, slide presentation, proposal or busy replying to emails, you find yourself sitting again – in a meeting.
Sitting actually adds large amounts of pressure to the structures in our backs especially the spinal discs and back muscles. Poor sitting posture (“slouching”) can cause a lot of strain on these spinal structures, and sitting with your legs crossed will alter your pelvic alignment.
Ideally, it is recommended that you get up and move around every 30 minutes and, whenever possible, stand and regularly stretch out those tight muscles.
We understand that during certain periods, it can get very intense at work and finding moments of rest in between those busy seasons might seem farfetched. During those periods, you might have to make a note to get up and move every so often in order to stretch out your tired muscles.
Pauses and breaks
Once you have correctly set up your computer workstation, use good work habits. No matter how perfect the environment, prolonged, static postures will inhibit blood circulation and take a toll on your body.
Some helpful practical tips include:
Taking short stretching breaks every 30 minutes to loosen up all those tight muscles. After each hour of work, take a break or change tasks for at least five to 10 minutes.
Avoid eye fatigue by resting and refocusing your eyes periodically. Look away from the computer screen and focus on something in the distance (not on your mobile device!)
Use correct posture when working. Keep moving as much as possible!
Examples of modifying sedentary tasks include:
using a standing workstation standing to read having a standing or walking meeting (at Spinefit, we sometimes have a work discussion while out on a run after clinic hours) stand while talking on the phone walking to deliver a message to a colleague rather than emailing or messaging.
According to the Malaysian Low Back Pain Guideline, lower back pain is one of the most common causes of reduced work efficacy and productivity. In severe cases, it can contribute to work loss and require a large amount of worker’s compensation cost.
If you’re a leader who’s wanting to see your team or business succeed, perhaps the first step you can take is invest in their health and well-being.
It may not be something physical (unless your company has the resources to purchase ergonomic workstations), but it could just be something intangible like time.
Make the time, as a leader, to remind your team to sit up straight and take regular breaks in between the work day. Take the lead and apply some of these practical tips that have been shared.
Conduct standing meetings, or have team members walk to deliver messages to another colleague.
Let your team know you’re doing this for their well-being because, as a good leader, you understand that a day off work could significantly affect your business’ bottom line (if you’re self-employed) or your teams’ productivity, which could result in missed deadlines and opportunities.
With all that’s been said, perhaps our mothers were right all along!
Dr Loh is a passionate and enthusiastic chiropractor who is dedicated to health and wellbeing. She enjoys staying active and regularly exercises to keep herself fit, having played competitive squash in her tertiary years and athletics during her early formative years.
Liesl is a member of the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA). Having completed her Bachelor in Health Sciences and Masters in Physiotherapy Practice from La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia, Liesl has a wealth of experience working within the Victorian medical healthcare system.
To connect with them, email firstname.lastname@example.org