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Beyond Standing Desks: 5 More Ways to Work at a Computer Without Ruining Your Posture

My expertise is in nutritional sciences, and I spoke at Paleo f(x)™ this year about how to use fat-soluble vitamins and foods rich in those vitamins to optimize sex hormones. In this post, I’d like to give a behind-the-scenes look at how I work to produce all my nutritional content without ruining my posture and mobility.

My nutritional work requires that I spend lots of time on a computer for research and writing. Sitting at a desk working on a computer is well outside the experience of our ancestors, and when done the “normal” way is a recipe for poor mobility in the ankles, hips, upper back, and shoulders, and chronic tightness throughout the body. Like many others in the Paleo movement – and a steadily growing kernel of the mainstream – I do the bulk of my work at a standing desk. That’s a great first step, but here I will share five tricks I use to move beyond a standing desk to get work done in ways that improve my mobility and reduce my muscular tension.

1. Squatting

Squatting DeskWhen we sit in a chair, our hips are at 90 degrees and we fail to use most of their range of motion. Standing helps open up the front crease of your hips, but it doesn’t do anything to use the opposite end of the same range of motion. Alternating between standing and squatting uses more of your natural hip function than standing alone. I learned this trick from Jessa Zinn of Brooklyn RolfingAs I described in Episode 7 of my new podcast, The Daily Lipid, you can sit in a squatting position by sitting on two stacked yoga blocks.

Right now, I can’t comfortably type in squatting position. However, it’s a great position to record a podcast, conduct consultations, or conference call with colleagues. I can also prop my laptop at eye level to read in this position, with a wireless mouse or trackpad at a lower level to comfortably scroll through the material.

 

2. Sitting on Your Shins (Vajrasana)

Kneeling Desk

Squatting not only reaches into a greater range of motion in your hips, but also your ankles. When you’re squatting, the top of your foot and your shin come closer together. In vajrasana, a yoga position that is often described as sitting on your shins, or kneeling while sitting on your heels, the ankle exercises the opposite end of its range of motion. The tops of your feet rest on the floor and become stretched away from your shin.

This is something I learned in yoga class, but I do it with a modification suggested by my rolfer. Since my joint mobility is limited, I roll up a blanket to provide a cushion underneath the front of my ankle. This helps the stretch across the front of my ankle become gentle instead of excruciating. It also helps ensure that I am not stretching the front of my ankle so intensely that I crush the back of it. I also fold up a blanket and put it between my calf and my thigh to make the stretch at my knee more gentle and to help prevent me from stretching my ligaments (stretching your muscles is great, but stretching your ligaments is a no-no).

I can do all the activities in this position that I do in squatting position, but I can also maintain it for about ten minutes at a time while working and typing at my computer.

3. Lotus or Cross-Legged

Lotus Desk

Methods 1 and 2 help exercise the ankles and hips in a singular plane of motion that moves the segments of your body up and down, but they don’t do anything to help us move these joints through their natural range of rotation. I open up my hips into external rotation by using a modified half-lotus position. You could achieve something similar by sitting in cross-legged position, or something more advanced by sitting in half-lotus or lotus position. Since I have a lot of mobility restrictions, I have to sit on a yoga block to make this comfortable. It’s important to find a version of this that allows you to comfortably maintain a neutral spine and doesn’t put stress on your ankles.

Although it took me a long time to be able to spend more than a few minutes in this position, I can now spend 20-40 minutes in this position – alternating which leg is on top once or twice – while working at the computer or doing any of the other tasks discussed above.

4. Voice Dictation

Regardless of the position I work in, there is no getting around the fact that typing is a repetitive task that puts chronic stress on the muscles involved. Computer work causes trigger points to develop in the trapezius muscle. My upper traps generally feel like a big pile of knots. One of the most helpful things I’ve found to reduce this is to switch from typing to voice dictation. Right now I use Dragon for Mac. Using it to reduce the time I spend typing seems to have made reversing my chronic muscular tension much less of an uphill battle. For example, body work I receive when I am mostly using voice dictation seems to help correct my muscular imbalances and skeletal misalignments much more effectively than when I am spending large amounts of time typing every day.

Switching from typing to voice dictation requires a major change in habits and it can be frustrating at first. However, as technology improves, the learning curve shortens. I started using Dragon for Mac when version 4 was current, and the upgrade to version 5 has made it a much smoother experience. I consider it well worth the investment.

5. Consume Information in Audio Format

The last trick that I’ve found useful is to, where feasible, rely less on reading information and more on listening to it. If I need to heavily annotate material, I find it most helpful to be at the computer. When my goal is to be familiar with material rather than to analyze it, however, listening to it is a great way to ensure that I can consume the information without bending over a book or stressing my shoulders trying to hold reading material at eye level. It also allows me to consume the information while walking, stretching, or doing mobility work. Audible books and podcasts have been indispensable for this. For the future, I am interested in using iSpeech or something similar to convert information from text format to audio format to fulfill the same purpose.

Be Careful and Have Fun!

Everyone has their own mobility restrictions and challenges, and your experience will not necessarily be the same as mine. I hope this post inspires you to diversify your work positions like I have, but I also want to stress that it’s important to find positions that offer gentle challenges to your mobility rather than extreme ones, to be able to comfortably maintain a neutral spine, and to avoid stretching your ligaments or accidentally compacting or impinging any of your joints while you are trying to stretch or mobilize other parts of your body. If you are moving into uncharted territory, it’s a great idea to ask a personal trainer or a bodywork specialist for help.

Now that you’ve gotten a glimpse into how I put my nutrition work together, let’s hit the nutrition work itself! Check out my talk at PFX16 when it’s available on Paleo f(x)™ TV, and we can start chatting fat-soluble vitamins!

Standing Desk image licensed under the Creative Commons.

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Chris Masterjohn

Chris Masterjohn, PhD is Assistant Professor of Health and Nutrition Sciences at Brooklyn College in Brooklyn, NY. In 2012, he obtained his PhD in Nutritional Sciences from the University of Connecticut, where he studied the role of vitamin E and other antioxidants in regulating the metabolism of methylglyoxal, a potentially toxic byproduct of energy metabolism […]

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