Business of Well-being

Staying Fit at the Office

Ergonomics and wellness tips for improving workplace health

Working in an office is usually considered a sedentary occupation, and is not generally associated with high levels of fitness. However, office environments, and especially workstations, pose a higher risk for bodily damage than we realize. To minimize injuries and maximize productivity, employee fitness and good posture in the workplace are essential. Years ago, prior to wide-scale workplace automation, office workers would naturally rotate tasks frequently during the day.

Now that our work is designed to minimize manual labor, it can be rare that we get up and move from one task to the next. The increased use of technology, combined with pressure to produce results quickly, means that most of us spend an increased amount of time seated at computer workstations. Extensive use of the muscles in the arms, hands, fingers, and shoulders, combined with long periods with little use of the lower extremities, results in weakened muscles, increased injuries, and frequent discomfort.

We feel the onset of aches and pains, but typically attribute the cause to stress, tension, and aging, rather than the real culprit - underlying physical and muscular issues resulting from limiting movement while maximizing keyboard and mouse use.

A Day at the Office - Like Training for a Marathon?

Fitness affects us at the work station in several ways. For example, most office workers use the tiny muscles in the hands and fingers extensively. In fact, one source estimated that we generate 13.5 tons of force through our fingers every six hours, assuming each keystroke requires eight ounces of force, and a rate of thirty typed words/minute. That amount of force is enough energy to lift several cars! Since we would clearly need to train to perform such a feat without injury, we should apply similar principles to prepare our bodies for the demands of our own workstations.

Seven Easy to Implement Workplace Improvements

We can improve how the typical office workstation is set up and used by implementing a few quick, low-cost modifications:

1.    Ensure that the computer monitor is at the correct height.

 The menu toolbar should be eye level. If working with dual monitors, set them in a V-shape, with each toolbar at the same eye level.

2.    Avoid using palm rests, especially if you are having wrist problems.  

A palm rest can encourage you to anchor your wrist, requiring all movement to come from the small muscles of the hand and wrist - leading to overexertion and possibly injury. The movement should come from the larger muscles of the upper arm which can only happen if the arm is hanging relaxed by the side of the body without anchor points (wrist or elbow).

3.    Make sure that your feet rest flat on the floor.

Your feet should not dangle or rest on the base of the chair.  If they do not rest flat and slightly extended in front of you, invest in a foot rest.

4.    Use proper posture at your workstation.

This is the key to the success of proper workstation usage. Leaning forward not only places unnecessary pressure on your upper and lower back, but can place the wrists in an awkward position that may lead to discomfort. Be sure to keep your shoulders down and back, rather than rounded forward. Keeping the chest lifted, and sitting all the way back in your chair, will help maintain good posture and circulation throughout the body.

5.    Remove the armrests on your chair.

Arm rests are for resting, not for moving. Arm rests should not to be used for typing or mouse use, because they can inhibit free movement of the arms. Arm rests may also become a barrier to pulling the chair in close enough to the keyboard and mouse, causing improper posture.

6.    Hold a walking meeting.

Try holding some of your meetings on the go, rather than in the traditional conference room. This accomplishes two goals: it gets you out of potentially poorly lit and poorly ventilated offices, and gets you moving without realizing you are exercising. It may even put you in a better mood! As a bonus, you might find that your meetings are even more productive when held this way.

7.    Stay Hydrated.

Drink fluids, especially water, as it helps to maintain proper metabolic functions. Strive for six to eight cups (eight ounces) of water per day, and even more if you exercise frequently. Also, consider minimizing caffeine intake.

Stretching and Fitness

In addition to workstation modifications, several other overall wellness tips will increase health in the office and at home, and reduce or eliminate nagging discomforts. First and foremost, incorporate a two to three minute stretch break every 60 to 90 minutes throughout the workday. Alternate upper body with lower body stretches. Taking a break and stretching keeps the muscles relaxed and loose, and gives them a much-needed rest.

For some excellent stretches, as well as yoga relaxation techniques that reduce stress and keep the mind mentally refreshed for the long workday. Lastly, consider hitting the gym a few times per week to maintain a healthy body weight, and include weight training to keep the muscles strong. Excess body weight can lead to decreased blood flow to the muscles, and cause back and other body discomforts which decrease productivity.

About the Author

Tina McHugh works at AECOM as a Safety, Health and Environment Manager, specializing in Ergonomics, Wellness and Drug and Alcohol program management. With 15 years of experience, she is a Certified Ergonomics Technician, and developed and manages an Ergonomics Program for the organization and Simply Well Resource Center. Tina can be reached at

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