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Sedentary Lifestyle: How Did We Get Here?

Time Magazine Machine of the Year 1983For centuries, mankind had been on the move. Our lifestyle was anything but sedentary as we fished, hunted and tilled the land to provide for our families. We carried our wood, coal, water, grains and milk. We saddled our horses and built our homes using hand tools. 

Then, in the 1800’s all that changed with the emergence of the Industrial Revolution. People moved from working the oceans, forests and fields into factories and into the offices that evolved to support them. By the millions, we traded our active lifestyle for a sedentary one. We sat down to work.

Over the past 200 years, automation and technology has vastly elevated this sedentary lifestyle. In most office scenarios, we no longer need to go to the file cabinet, mail-room, photocopier and fax machine. All can be accomplished without leaving our seat. What’s more, most of us drive to and from work or sit on public transit and, at the end of the day, we sit down to dinner, then spend the evening sitting in front of the TV and/or our computer until it’s time for bed.

Ergonomic SeatingThe move from “desk-task oriented” to “deskbound” has been an expediential progression over the past 45 years. In the 70’s, personal computers started appearing in our offices, replacing the typewriter. As secretaries and data entry operators began spending more time at these new computers, more attention was being placed on the need for sturdier, adjustable seating. Five prong bases replaced the old four prong bases and height adjustable gas cylinders became the norm.

5150 IBM Personal ComputerThrough the 80’s and 90’s as computers moved into the ranks of management, not only was there an increasing awareness for the need of ergonomically designed seating that provided better dimensions and support, computer keyboards were separated from the CRT’s (Cathode Ray Tubes) so that the CRT screen could be pushed back for more comfortable viewing. The spin-off of this resulted in more flexibility for individual adjustment of the keyboard. Computer users were already complaining of neck and shoulder pain and headaches due to the keyboard being too high when placed on their normal 29” high desk. (Computers were too deep to fit on the old typing returns which were commonly at lower height of 27”.)

Height Adjustable Keyboard TraysHeight adjustable keyboard trays, whose slide out track could be retrofitted to the underside of a work surface or desk top entered the market, thus enabling typing (keying) to be accomplished at a lower and therefore more comfortable level, taking stress off the complaining shoulder and neck muscles.  Although they gained wide acceptance and are still popular, many users abandoned using Keyboard trays because much of the desk top became out of reach.

Enter, the Laptop

Portable computers, now known as laptops, first appeared on the scene in the in the early 90’s.  Their ability to go anywhere where electrical power was available presented many advantages redefining take-home work. Soon they became battery operated adding even greater flexibility.

Laptop then vs. nowDuring the ensuing years, laptops have become greatly more powerful with longer battery life. They have become sleeker, slimmer and far less expensive than their predecessors and in many ways have replaced the desktop computer becoming the computer of choice for both business and personal use.

Unfortunately, in some ways, most present day laptops bring us full circle back to the issues experienced in the early 80’s when the keyboard and monitor were combined into one unit. Laptops find themselves equally at home on the kitchen table or the office desk top or work surface. Because they are powerful tools for both work and leisure, laptops are being used for extended periods in less than ideal ergonomic environments. Remember, as I said in an earlier article, normal desks and work surfaces in North America are about 29” from the floor to the top of the surface. That is about perfect for someone who is about 6’-4” tall. If, like me, you are less than that lofty height, this fact will go a long way toward explaining why you are experiencing discomfort.

Typical Dilemma of a Laptop User

“When I get my laptop down low enough so that the keys are at the right height, the screen is so low and so close that I really have to slouch, and if I get my laptop up so the top of the screen is level with my eyes and at the recommended arm's length, the keyboard is way too high and too far away.”

Symptoms of poor posture on a laptop

Once again, as laptop users, many of us struggle with neck, shoulder and back pain and headaches all related to laptop computers, our posture and the length of time we spend with them.  It doesn’t have to be that way. A wireless remote keyboard positioned at the correct keying height and a laptop stand or monitor arm that places the screen at the correct height (top of the screen approximately at or just below eye level) will alleviate much of the discomfort.

Your Next Posture is Your Best Posture

We’ve come a long way. We have access to a multitude of excellent, adjustable, ergonomically designed seating solutions. We have the ability to place our input devices and monitors, (desktops or laptop) at the correct position. We can check off all of the boxes for correct posture:

  • Head straight up or bent slightly forward
  • Shoulders relaxed and upper arms hanging naturally at our sides
  • Elbows bent at a 900 to 1200 angle
  • Forearms horizontal to the floor and wrist in the neutral position
  • Monitor at a comfortable viewing position, approximately an arms-length away and at the proper height (see above)
  • Back and bottom are properly supported
  • Thighs horizontal to the floor and knees bent at a 900 to 1200 angle allowing a small gap between the back of the knee and the seat pan
  • Feet flat on the floor or supported by a foot rest

Okay, now stay that way – for three or four hours!

No correct and ergonomically supported posture is good for extended periods. We were designed to move!

All the above accepted truths were radical revelations 40 years ago. I know. I was there. Now we should be listening to the warnings about our “sedentary lifestyle” and the potential harm it can have on our personal well being.

We’re being told that “sitting is the new smoking”. We are also hearing that “your next posture is the best posture”. Sitting for long periods, even in the best chair, is not good. Stand up! Standing for long periods is not good either. Sit down!

“Sit-stand workstations were developed to incorporate the benefits of both a seated and standing posture, with the ultimate goal being a computer user not having to choose between sitting and standing. A good ergonomic practice is adopting a variety of good postures throughout the workday. In fact, some ergonomists say “your best posture is your next posture” - http://www.cardinus.com/next-posture-best-posture/

Visit us at updowndesks.com to view more articles and to access a broad selection of sit-stand workstations and ergonomic accessories.



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