September has always been synonymous with back to school and the return to the classroom. The postures and tasks of a student and an office worker are very similar, with both often spending long periods of time seated, either at a computer, during lectures/meetings or while working on assignments/projects. As a young student you may not notice the common ailments that many office workers feel, like the headaches you get when you let your head drop forward to use a laptop or the lower back pain when slouching down on a hard wooden desk chair.
At MoveSafe, we know that the aches and pains many office workers feel when they are working actually started from habits picked up when they were in school. But it doesn’t have to be inevitable that working at a computer results in discomfort.
Unlike individuals working in corporate environments who generally received some form of support, either with resources or assistance for their ergonomics concerns, students have been left to fend for themselves, often on a strict budget!
We have 3 simple ways that students can help themselves feel better when heading back to school.
Step 1 – Sit Well
Teenagers and young adults often have a reputation for poor, slouchy posture, but it is very important to remember that pain from poor sitting habits doesn’t start right away, it often sneaks up later in life. So be good to your future self and sit with good posture now, we are sure you will thank us later!
What does good posture look like:
Establish a Stable Base – Keep both feet planted firmly on a stable surface and hips positioned to the back of the chair.
Positions like crossing your legs one over the other, sitting with your legs criss-crossed under you, or putting your feet up on the base of the chair can cause you to sit awkwardly in your chair.
Avoid slouching down or perching on the front edge of your seat as both of these positions put a lot of strain on the muscles, joints, and discs of the back, which often leads to lower back pain.
Keep the Shoulders Anchored – Keep the bottom edge of the shoulders blades in contact with a backrest and your head in line with the shoulders.
Your head weighs 10-12lbs when it is balanced over top of your shoulders, in this position your neck and back muscles can handle this weight. However, when you hunch forward away from the backrest, the weight of your head ends up being closer to 60lbs due to the force of gravity pulling your head and shoulders down. Those muscles are designed to take only 10-12lbs, therefore they are strained under this load as they try to keep your head in line with your torso. This is a major contributor to eye strain and headaches.
Step 2: Use your Equipment Wisely
How and where you position your equipment (laptops, notebooks, etc) can bait you into some poor postures. If you position your equipment in a manner that encourages you to sit with good posture, you will make working easier for yourself. To put it quite plainly, work smarter, not harder.
Download a copy of our step-by-step Home Office Workstation Set-Up Guide and use some of the tips below to optimize your set-up.
Unfortunately there is really no good way to work directly from a laptop. Either your screen is going to be positioned too low, your keyboard too high, or an awkward combo in the middle where neither is right. What you really need to do is separate the screen from the keyboard. Here is how this can be achieved:
Invest in an external keyboard and mouse. These don’t have to be expensive and there are a ton of options. Look for something compact, but avoid products that are labeled as mini, they are generally too small for the average young adult.
Additionally, you can also purchase a laptop riser which will allow you to raise your screen higher while taking up a little less space on your desk. You can also just use those textbooks from last year that you paid an arm and a leg for and probably never even opened!
The chair is generally the most expensive piece of equipment in an office, in fact some companies spend upwards of $600 – $1200 per chair! Students typically do not have that luxury, the chair is often a worn out lecture room seat, a hard wooden/plastic chair, or the cheapest office chair you could find online. Here are some suggestions to try and make a basic chair a bit more comfortable and supportive:
Use your sweater or jacket as a little bit of extra cushion on those hard seats or backrests
Use a folded towel or blanket at home for some extra padding. If you need extra support in your lower back, try rolling up a small hand towel or dish towel to fit into the small of your back.
You will inevitably sit on the couch or bed to do some homework. Put a pillow on your lap to raise up your laptop or notes and put another pillow behind your back to provide support.
If you take handwritten notes during lectures or labs and later need to transcribe them onto your computer, take into consideration their position on your desk. If you have the papers flat on your desk they will encourage you to hunch forward to read them which pulls you out of your ideal posture.
Prop your notes up on a dedicated document holder, your laptop riser if you have one or even just up against a few of those textbooks you have lying around. This allows you to keep your head in line with your torso and your shoulders anchored to your backrest.
As a student there are going to be many situations where you can’t get your equipment to fit you perfectly. You may be in a situation where the chair isn’t height adjustable or you can’t position your keyboard and mouse at the same height as your elbow, and that’s okay. The best thing to do in this situation is to interrupt your poor posture by changing your position more frequently.
Step 3: Move More
Typically, schools have movement breaks built into the day when you move between classes, but as a student your day doesn’t end when your classes end. There are also long hours of homework at the dining room table, writing up lab reports in the library and let’s not forget pulling those inevitable all-nighters to finish an essay or study for a final! It’s important to remember to get up and move around when in these situations to break up time spent in static postures. These posture can put you at risk of injury for several reasons.
Static Posture: When you aren’t moving your body, your muscles don’t pump blood effectively. Blood is what provides our muscles with the nutrients they require to be healthy and it also removes the waste products of muscle activation. If we don’t get good blood flow to our muscles they may begin to break down due to a lack of essential nutrients and a build-up of waste products.
Contact Stress: This is when a part of your body is touching a surface or an object, and the weight of your body causes a force against that object. A good example of this when studying is your butt and your chair, or your forearms against the desktop, or table top. Prolonged contact stress can reduce blood flow, which may result in the breakdown of muscle tissue.
Awkward Postures: Even if you start sitting with the good posture we described earlier, you will likely slip into a slouchy posture if you stay seated for long periods of time. This occurs because the body wants to move! If you decide to stay in your slouched seated position instead of listening to the hint your body is giving you, you may end up straining muscles or aggravating joints in your neck, back and shoulders.
When you add more movement into your study sessions it helps to reset your posture, because typically, when you sit back down after a short break, you return to your optimal seated position. This good upright posture is also extra helpful for students because it has been linked to better mental performance1.
Getting up and moving more often can also help with your productivity and concentration too. Our blood carries oxygen, so if you are pumping blood through your body more effectively, that means you are also getting more oxygen up to your brain! This can help when you’re stuck on a tricky question or you’ve run into some writer’s block.
As a general rule of thumb, our MoveSafe Consultants recommend that people get up out of their seat at least once an hour to reduce these risks of musculoskeletal injuries. However we have witnessed that even though people know they should get up out of their chairs more often, they tend to get wrapped up in their work and forget. Try setting a timer or even downloading a break timer app to help you facilitate regular interrupt breaks. Adding in a few exercises when you do get up can also really help restore blood flow throughout your body. Check out some of our whole body exercise routines in our Downloads and Videos section of our website for some ideas!
Being a student presents enough challenges and stress on its own. Use the tools we have outlined in this article to help set your body up for success so you won’t have to work even harder. You only get one body so treat it well! Learn and practice these healthy habits now so keep feeling as young and healthy as you do now for years to come!