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Maintaining good desk health is very important

Do not sit for more than 30 minutes at a time – experts

Sibongile Mashaba Deputy News Editor
It is vital to set up your workstation properly by adjusting chair height, desk height, position of the monitor and keyboard.
It is vital to set up your workstation properly by adjusting chair height, desk height, position of the monitor and keyboard.
Image: 123rf

How much time do you spend sitting at your desk a day?

How do you usually feel when you finally get up after burying yourself in your work for long periods?

Do you experience neck and back pain? It could even be tight muscles.

Dr Bonke Sumbulu, a general practitioner at Netcare Medicross The Berg in Bergbron, Johannesburg, says there are far more health risks – physical and mental – associated with sitting for long periods.

“Sitting at a desk for long periods contributes towards obesity and the ripple effects thereof, including diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, as well as chronic neck, shoulder, wrist and back pain. It can result in poor posture.

“Mentally, it can result in decreased alertness and concentration. It can also impact mood and cause increased stress, fatigue, anxiety and depression.”

Murray Hewlett, CEO of Affinity Health, adds that sitting for long periods could also lead to reduced circulation.

Sumbulu helps us understand desk health and how we can take better care of ourselves.

What is desk health?

Desk health refers to the wellbeing of individuals who spend significant time working at a desk, usually in an office environment. An increased focus on desk health can contribute to improved comfort, productivity and the overall wellbeing of desk-based workers.

Desk health encompasses various aspects of physical and mental wellbeing for those who work at desks, such as using ergonomic chairs, optimising office setups, maintaining proper posture and incorporating movement. It also addresses stress management and promotes a healthy work-life balance for overall wellness.

What have studies on the subject shown?

Studies on desk health highlight the importance of promoting movement, ergonomic design and mental wellbeing in desk-based work environments to support employee health and productivity. Research has consistently shown the importance of setting up workstations properly, namely adjusting chair height, desk height, the position of the monitor and keyboard, and the placement of the mouse to support neutral body postures and reduce strain.

Sumbulu says it is difficult to provide an exact recommendation for sitting time that applies universally, however, experts generally suggest breaking up prolonged periods of sitting with regular movement breaks.

“Tips on maintaining good desk health and preventing the risks associated with sitting for long periods include a focus on preventing and reducing sedentary behaviour. Examples include sit-stand desks, active workstations, regular breaks for movement and stretching and workplace wellness programmes.

“By prioritising good desk health, the objective is to mitigate the adverse effects of sedentary desk work, including musculoskeletal problems, eye strain, stress and decreased physical activity. This goal can be realised by utilising suitable chairs, maintaining proper posture, incorporating regular walking breaks, stretching, opting for stairs over elevators or escalators and cultivating a healthy office environment with ample fresh air and sunlight whenever feasible,” says Sumbulu.

Proper posture prevents back and neck pain that often accompanies desk work.
Proper posture prevents back and neck pain that often accompanies desk work.
Image: 123f

Hewlett shares more tips for good desk health:

Take regular breaks: The American Heart Association suggests sitting for no more than 30 minutes at a time. Yet, a study by the World Health Organisation found that about 85% of the global workforce has jobs requiring them to sit for long periods during the day.

Stand up and move around for at least five minutes every hour. You can set a timer or use apps to remind you to take breaks. During these breaks, stretch your arms, legs and back, and take a short walk around your workspace. This will help improve blood flow, reduce muscle tension and boost energy levels. Frequent breaks can also enhance focus and concentration, increasing productivity.

Practice good posture: Proper posture prevents back and neck pain that often accompanies desk work. To ensure good posture:

Align your computer screen at eye level so you don't have to look down or up constantly;

Sit flat on the ground and your knees at a 90-degree angle;

Keep your back straight, shoulders relaxed and wrists in a neutral position;

Purchase an ergonomic chair that will support your lower back; and

Using a lumbar cushion or a rolled-up towel to support the natural curve of your lower back can also promote better posture. Try to sit up straight, and consider adopting posture reminder apps or gadgets that notify you when you slouch.

Stay hydrated: When you're busy working at your desk, forgetting to drink water regularly is easy. Dehydration can cause headaches and reduced cognitive function, which can reduce productivity. Keep a reusable water bottle on your desk to develop a healthy habit of staying hydrated. Make a habit of taking sips of water throughout the day. Herbal teas and infused water can also be enjoyable alternatives to plain water.

Incorporate desk exercises: You don't need to leave your desk to incorporate physical activity into your workday. Desk exercises can help improve your flexibility and reduce the harmful effects of prolonged sitting. Here are some simple exercises you can do at your desk:

Neck stretches: Tilt your head to the left and right, then forward and backwards for 15-20 seconds.

Shoulder rolls: Roll your shoulders backwards and forward to relieve tension.

Leg lifts: While sitting, lift one leg at a time and hold for a few seconds before lowering it. Repeat this exercise for both legs.

Seated marches: Sit up straight and lift your knees alternately toward your chest, mimicking a marching motion.

Desk squats: Stand up from your chair and sit back down without using your hands, engaging your leg muscles.

Plan nutritious meals and snacks: Planning nutritious meals and snacks can help you stay focused and productive throughout the day. Avoid sugary or processed foods that can lead to energy crashes, and opt for balanced meals that include lean proteins, whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

Tips on healthy eating habits to keep in mind when working at your desk: 

Eat a healthy breakfast: Eating breakfast before work keeps you full the entire morning and keeps you snacking at bay. 

Pack a balanced lunch: Prepare a nutritious lunch the night before to avoid reaching for unhealthy takeout options.

Snack wisely: Keep healthy snacks like nuts, yoghurt and fruit on hand to satisfy mid-morning or afternoon cravings.

Drink before you eat: Feeling hungry is frequently caused by your brain misinterpreting thirst, so the next time the office biscuit tin tempts you, drink a glass of water instead.


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