When a runner in her twenties came to physical therapist and ergonomics specialist Robert Gillanders complaining of leg pains, Gillanders asked how many hours a week she worked.
"About 80," the first-year attorney said. That's when Gillanders came to suspect that the problem might not be her workouts.
"Even if you're doing everything else perfectly, your body is going to feel a lot of stress and strain from sitting that much at work," says Gillanders, who consults with Sports & Spinal Physical Therapy in DC. He often sees athletes who think their injuries are from training too hard before or after work, when the problem really is that they're not moving around enough during the day. Washington may rank as one of the nation's fittest cities, but long hours at a desk can hurt.
When we sit, our legs are usually positioned at a 90-degree angle, putting stress on our hip flexors and hamstrings. The longer we sit, the more our leg muscles shorten and tighten, losing flexibility. And that can increase the chance of pulled muscles or other injuries during a workout, Gillanders says.
Backaches, neck pain, circulatory problems, and increased risk of heart disease and diabetes are some of the other hazards of sitting all day. A study by the American Cancer Society found that people who sat more than six hours a day shaved years off their lives. Men who sat that long were 18 percent more likely to die during the 13 years studied than people who sat less than three hours a day; women were 37 percent more likely.
It's no wonder that treadmill desks--at which you can work while walking slowly--and standing desks have gained popularity. Brook Heaps, head of sales and marketing for Atlanta-based Cessi Ergonomics Consulting, says that in the last two years he's seen tremendous growth in electric "sit to stand" desks, which on average can move from as low as 24 inches to as high as 48½ with the push of a button.
"The body's not designed to sit all day," says Heaps, who uses a standing desk from 9 am to 2 pm. "We're not meant to be planted in one place." However, standing and walking desks can take up more space than conventional desks and can cost as much as $8,000.
If you must sit all day, ergonomics experts recommend a chair that has wheels and can rotate--so you don't have to twist when reaching for a document in the printer, an action that can injure tissues in the lumbar spine--as well as adjustable lumbar support, armrests, and a seat that can move up, down, forward, and back.
Gillander recommends making adjustments to your chair when necessary. "For example, women should take note of what shoes they're wearing--if you wore flats yesterday and are wearing two-inch heels today, adjust the chair."
It's also a good idea to change your position every once in a while, either by perching on the end of your seat or by standing while reading a document. Even slightly changing the angle of your chair's back will prevent you from stressing the same muscles all day. "Movement is key," Heaps adds, so take a break from your desk every hour, even if it's just to get a drink of water.
Companies always seem to be trying to reinvent the office chair, and more unconventional options have been cropping up. We wondered whether, say, a fitness ball or a kneeling chair could reduce backaches and improve posture, so our editors put five chairs to the test. We also asked ergonomics specialists to weigh in.
Next: Results from the office chair test