Sitting is the new smoking. No, this is not scaremongering propaganda but the conclusion of years of research conducted by Dr James Levine on how sedentary lifestyle is causing permanent harm to our bodies. The American inventor of the treadmill desk, Dr Levine further said that, ‘Sitting is in fact more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV and is more treacherous than parachuting.’
And to drive home his point, Dr Levine further said, ‘We are sitting ourselves to death.’
Furthermore, Dr Levine’s studies have proven that effects of long-term sitting are not reversible through exercise or other good habits. ‘Sitting, like smoking, is very clearly bad for our health and the only way to minimise the risk is to limit the time we spend on our butts each day,’ he said.
He and several other researchers have found evidence that long-term sitting ‘increases the risk of developing several serious illnesses like various types of cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes’.
These studies in consequences of inaction prove that our workplaces are fast becoming ergonomics minefields. We not only sit in one place for long hours, which actually sends our body’s metabolism into hibernation mode, the furniture and equipment we use strains our muscles and ligaments in a manner that causes painful impairment.
In order to control the damage, Friday asks Dr Binu Abraham, specialist orthopedics at Aster Clinic and Alan McDonald, managing director, the mena region at Humanscale, a company that designs and manufactures ergonomic products, about the most common injuries caused by poor ergonomics and tips and advice on the kind of changes we can bring about to our lifestyle so as to effectively slow down our health’s downward slide.
The most common ergonomic injuries
Back injuries are caused by a range of simple movements like bending, twisting or pulling improperly, says Dr Abraham. Explaining further, he adds, ‘the nature of our work decides the kind of back injuries we may suffer.’ Sitting or standing for long periods, maintaining a poor posture, such as while working on the computer, can cause lower back pain. Headaches and migraines can happen for various reasons. Poor posture is one factor that can cause severe headaches. ‘Also, sitting in an office with bright or dim lighting or improper laptop screen brightness can lead to eye fatigue, itching or a burning sensation in the eyes and put excess stress on vision – causing migraines and headaches,’ adds.
Stiff neck is caused when the neck is kept rigid for too long in the same position. ‘Slouching, or staring at a computer screen for prolonged periods of time, for instance, are some of the most common reasons for stiff neck,’ explains Dr Abraham.
Ganglion cysts commonly found on the wrist, fingers and the back of the hand, are caused due to pinching of the nerve. ‘These cysts generally come and go and can be removed surgically. Sometimes these cysts are extremely painful,’ he explains.
Carpel Tunnel Syndrome is caused due to repetitive pressure on the median nerve that runs from the shoulder to the arms and hands. The nerve gets pinched and causes a sharp tingling pain in the fingers causing the hand to become numb and weak. ‘This condition is quite serious and can affect the mobility of an individual by causing partial paralysis,’ he adds.
Rotator Cuff Injury is caused due to excessive and repeated motion in the arms and hands with very little shoulder movement. ‘This leads to certain tightness, fatigue and substantial stress in the shoulder muscles,’ explains Dr Abraham.
I inherited my crippling workstation. What can I do?
➽ ‘Adjust the height of your chair in such a way that your feet are firmly on the ground,’ says Alan. If you are unable to do so, then use a footrest, he adds. This will ensure proper support for your lower back.
➽ ‘Place the keyboard and mouse of your computer close to you.’ Your arm and hand should not be stretched to reach them, he says.
➽ Your computer’s monitor should be about 20 inches away from you and the top of the monitor should be at or slightly below your eye level. If you’re using a laptop, again ensure it’s at eye level, says Dr Abraham.
➽ Ensure there is plenty of light on documents that you read during the day. Get a desk lamp, if needed, suggests the doctor.
➽ Take a 20-minute break after sitting for a few hours. According to a study, sitting for too long slows blood flow so oxygen doesn’t get to muscles effectively, the body shuts down and goes into hibernation mode.
➽ ‘Stretch your arms and legs when standing up and relax your shoulders frequently in the sitting position,’ says Dr Abraham.
➽ Adjust the armrest of your chair in a way that your shoulders are relaxed. ‘This will help you to avoid stiffness in your shoulder, elbows and your arms,’ says Alan.
➽ ‘Follow an exercise regime that includes leg, arm, abdomen and back movements,’ says Dr Abraham. These, he says, will not only prevent stiffness in these areas but will improve your overall metabolism and well-being.
➽ Make sure the strap of your laptop bag has shoulder pads, says Dr Abraham.
➽ Do not talk on phone with the receiver cradled on your shoulder with your ear pressed to it. ‘If done for a long period of time, it can cause stiffness and severe pain in your neck and shoulder area,’ Dr Abraham adds. Also, remember these movements are not natural to our body and therefore are bound to cause strain, he says.
➽ ‘Avoid carrying excess weight on your shoulders,’ Dr Abraham warns. Lighten your load, he adds, ‘Carry only what’s required, especially in your laptop bag.’
➽ Don’t lean forward or slouch while sitting. ‘It is one of the main reasons for backache,’ says Alan.
If you’re working from home:
It’s not unusual to have fashioned the corner of the sofa into a cosy study space, or set up a laptop on the kitchen worktop, but while these can be convenient for short bursts of activity, they are not conducive to longer-term comfort, well-being and productivity. Make-shift desk set-ups lead to bad posture and could potentially lead to usual strains in the arm, shoulder or back. In such situations, Alan advises that we create a set-up that is similar to that of an ergonomically efficient office.
If you drive for long hours:
Similar to the harm caused to a person’s back due to excessive sitting at work, one’s seating posture while driving can also contribute to back pain, says Dr Abraham. ‘Continuous driving for an hour or more can have an adverse impact on the driver’s back, cause high blood pressure and fatigue too,’ he adds. Giving tips, he says, ‘It is vital to maintain the right posture while driving: Sit with the knees and hips at the same level, while a back support placed between the lower back of the driver and the car seat will provide support for the inward curve of the lower back.’
Drivers must always maintain a comfortable distance from the steering wheel, he adds. Reaching out increases the stress on the neck, wrist and shoulder. A safe and comfortable distance must be maintained as sitting too close or too far can both be harmful.
What can companies do to ensure the employees have an ideal work environment?
➽ Each employee must have a proper space with the necessary accessories to work comfortably.
➽ Encourage short breaks during work hours. Taking small breaks at regular intervals helps employees be more productive at work. The human body was not designed to sit continuously for prolonged hours and stare at a computer screen.
➽ Provide access to exercise. Working out for at least 30 minutes a day is a good way to reduce stress and improve productivity. Many offices have their own gyms, where employees are encouraged to lead healthy lives.
➽ Ensure safety standards in the building: Safety measures in the office gives employees peace of mind.
Ergonomics: The impact of standing desks
A recent study conducted by the Mayo Clinic has shown if you stand for just two hours through the day, you can burn an additional 340 calories, says Alan. ‘We should stand for at least three minutes every hour. In doing this you reduce health risks and increase your productivity.’
A Gallup study says, sit/stand desks* have proven to improve overall health of the users. Businesses benefit as much as employees with 21 per cent increased productivity, 22 per cent increased profitability and 37 per cent lower absenteeism.
* Available at select stores from Dh795.