business matters
Julie Saeler, a personal trainer and healthy living director at the Butler Family YMCA, prefers a desk that allows her to stand during the work day.

Chairs, a desk and a good stretch can combat office aches and pains

When Julie Saeler took her new job in 2018, she jumped into learning the role, dedicating 12 hours a day to computer research and following it up with email and more research on the cell phone at night.

Her back, neck, shoulders, and even her thumb, paid the price.

They hurt.

“I was spending all day with my shoulders pulled into my ears,” said Saeler, personal trainer and healthy living director at the Butler Family YMCA. “At the end of the day, you feel like the tin man, and you need oil in all of your joints.”

Saeler, like most office workers, inherited a computer, desk and office chair, and she ran with it.

Ultimately, she switched to a desk that you can only use while standing, and she said it's been a game changer for her overall health.

As computer use more frequently becomes the predominant duty of most careers, area employers and employees like Saeler are investing more into ergonomics … the study of people's efficiency in their working environment.

“We've had doctors write prescriptions for a certain type of chair,” said Bruce Weis of Officeplan, which is a division of BullDog Office Products. “It's the computers. People sit much more than they used to.”

Weis said when he starting selling office equipment decades ago, chairs were rectangles, constructed with plywood, foam and upholstery.

“The lever to adjust height wasn't even there,” he said, noting that height adjustment is standard today, and many chairs also offer posture adjustments.

People, Weis advised, should take advantage of them.

“When you're sitting properly with your back, your feet should be flat on the floor,” said Weis, who tells customers to buy chairs with adjustable arms and seats, sliding in and out. Some chairs also have a 3-degree knee tilt, enabling users to work on a computer without sitting on the seat's edge.

“Everybody is shaped differently. You need to adjust your chair,” he said. “And if a company is buying 50 chairs for 50 employees, they need chairs that adjust.”

Weis said look for chairs that are quality tested. The trade association for business and institutional furniture manufacturers, BIFMA, rates chairs good, better and best. And, if possible, Weis said buy chairs that tested beyond the 250 standard mark. Some companies test to 350 or 450 pounds, “And a lot of workers qualify for that.”

Also hot on the market, Weis said, are products to adjust the height and distance of computer monitors and work surfaces.

“You need a good chair, but you need the tools to go with it,” Weis said. “People really should not sit for eight hours a day. Adjustable work surfaces allow you to stand for at least part of the day.”

Often, Weis said, the biggest office furniture health offender is improper chair-to-keyboard height, which can cause body stress and carpal tunnel syndrome.

“Your fingers should bend down, like you're playing a piano,” Weis said. “Our company educates people on how to properly adjust their work environment.”

If you aren't in a position to buy new office equipment, Saeler said simple movement and stretching exercises can ease body stress

“With modern technology everything on the front side of our body gets locked in a shortened position. Because we are constantly pushed forward, everything is tight on the front side of our body. Everything in back is in a long position.”

Working on a computer for hours on end, she said, “puts your body in a constantly concentrated state. Literally like you are holding an isometric exercise for hours.” Stretching movements throughout the workday stimulate blood flow and improve circulation. Flexing your wrists, for example, can counteract the long-term contracted position.

“If you just make a 'W' with your arms in the air, you can feel the stretch on the front and contraction on the back,” Saeler said.

Avoid sitting with legs crossed for long periods. That can mess with pelvic alignment.

Or, if you can, avoid sitting.

“Set an alarm on your phone to go off every hour,” Saeler said. “Use that as a 60-second brain break. Do a different stretch every hour or power walk to the bathroom. In a perfect world, you are drinking enough water that you need to use the bathroom every hour.”

Saeler said periodic “brain breaks” not only can help physically, but they also allows workers to mentally refocus.

“You'll be much more productive than trying to plug away for eight to 10 hours,” she said.

If you're already feeling the aches, a spinal adjustment, “moves spinal bones into proper alliance to remove nerve interference,” said Shawn Finn, a Mars-based chiropractor. “That way, the body can heal itself properly.”

Pain caused by improper use of digital devices has become so prevalent that Finn said people in his business have a name for it — “Tech Neck” — and he has treated children as young as 5 for symptoms.

Neck, back, degenerative disk, arthritis, headaches … tech neck can cause a list of complaints that's lengthy and preventable, Finn said.

Finn calls chiropractic adjustments “the benchmark” to tech neck care. “An adjustment only takes three to five minutes. That's quicker than a stop at Starbucks unless you call ahead.”

But an appointment also includes working with staff to develop a therapeutic and preventative strategy.

Finn said it's optimal to keep your monitor or phone at eye level for starters. He also endorses standing desks, good chairs and frequent breaks.

“It doesn't have to be a long one. Roll your shoulders three forward, three backward,” he said. “I tell my patients to put a Post-it note on their monitor that says, 'Stand up.' Give yourself a visual cue to look up and shake it out.”v