employees sitting at computer workstations
From carpal tunnel syndrome to CVS (Computer Vision Syndrome) and everything in between, there’s a reason that Repetitive Strain Injuries are among the most common office place injuries: our bodies just weren’t made to do one thing all day. And while construction and manufacturing may steal the ergonomic injury headlines in terms of degree of deadliness, rates of injury in the office are just as high, especially given how poorly our bodies are equipped not just to repeat any motions, but also to repeat very fine, precise motor skills like typing and mousing.

Our muscles, just like our minds, do best when we change it up. But why is this, and how can you build this variation into your every day when there are certain tasks you know you have to do? Let’s take a look.

What Repeated Motion Does to the Body

Think of any motion repeated throughout the day like exercise. If you were to run every weekday for eight to ten hours each day, you’d be running multiple marathons every week (even if you were a tortoise of a runner). Such constant use would put a strain on your muscles including lactic acid buildup, swelling, and pure fatigue, which in turn would lead you to engage your muscles in less than ideal ways to compensate. Each of these symptoms is troublesome enough on their own, but they can in turn lead to greater injuries that will have you sidelined indefinitely, if not forever.

To understand why repetition is so tough for your muscles in the office setting, let’s take a look at one common office motion: typing. Typing presents a particularly tricky risk, as most of us use less than ideal flat, straight keyboards, which cause our hands to to splay outwards. This puts a strain on our wrists, elbows, and lower arms, and can also lead to poor posture that can in turn develop into problems throughout the back and neck.

Why Repeated Motion Is Bad

Typing wouldn’t be so risky if you used your muscles in the ways mentioned above for, say, ten minutes a day. But as we do so for countless hours, our overworked muscles and tendons go haywire. Swelling is common in the form of bursitis and tendonitis. If the swelling occurs in your carpal tunnel (the tunnel through which your wrist tendons run), you’ll feel both pain and tingling as pressure is put your nerves. Fluid buildup can lead to the rise of a ganglion cyst. The list goes on — all from typing up reports and answering emails.

Eventually, some of these injuries may require surgery. At the very least, the pain will cause you to use your muscles in an increasingly inefficient manner, which will decrease your productivity and efficiency rates, let alone your ability to be innovative on the job. And that’s just for one common RSI. Think of all of the motions you repeat throughout the day, and you’ll start to have a sense of just why changing things up is a pressing habit to weave into your daily to do list. Let’s take a look at a few ways to get started.

Five Fast Ways to Change It Up

1. Vary Your Seat Throughout the Day

We often admonish children for not sitting still throughout the day, but in reality, they’re on to a good thing. After all, is there really a good reason to sit behind your desk all day when you stand, walk, and even bike, too?

Change it up throughout the day by rotating between sitting and standing positions. Start by swapping your regular old chair for an ergonomic chair with an ample height range, so that you can find the right for you. An hour or so into your day, swap the chair for a stool. (Note: To do this, you would ideally also get yourself an adjustable desk so that you can keep your desk at the right height, no matter what your position). An hour or so after that, switch to standing, and then continue to rotate throughout the day. Even better: if your workplace has the budget, invest in a treadmill desk or an under the desk elliptical machine or bike.

Overall, these different positions will engage your muscles in new ways, forcing them to get out of their routine and decreasing the strain put on specific muscle sets. For the latter options, bringing in a little light exercise will keep your blood well-oxygenated and flowing both to your body to keep you energized and motivated, and also to keep your insulin levels relatively stable. You better believe that’s good for productivity!

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2. Stretch

For similar reasons, stretching at work — or even doing a little “deskercizing” — is also an excellent technique. Stretching, just like changing up how you sit, will gently engage your muscles so that they are working in a different way, thereby reducing the effects of fatigue and strain. While you can go all out with complete desk yoga, even just getting up to stretch your back, roll your neck from side to side, and rotate your wrists will be helpful. Try to have a small stretch break at least every 45 minutes, and to stretch in your seat whenever your work naturally comes to a good stopping point. Pair this with getting up out of your seat to go to the water cool or breakroom for even better results.

3. Build More Exercise Into Your Day

Noticing a theme here? Exercise is truly the key to variation, so the more that you can thread movement throughout your day, the better off you’ll be. Try hosting a walking meeting, either outside or at a bank of treadmill desks, to get everyone moving while they think. Alternatively, walking rather than driving to work is a great way to shake things up, as is sneaking in a good workout session at lunch. Biking is great for this too, as is taking public transportation, which will get you power walking to and from stops. Together, all of these movements run counter to the fine motor movements you’ll be using throughout your day, and therefore give your muscles a nice challenge to tackle before reporting for office duty.

4. Work on Ergonomic Equipment

In addition to providing a customized fit, one of the most important features of truly ergonomic equipment is its adjustability. In fact, it really isn’t ergonomic at all if it can’t shift along with your body as you use it differently throughout the day. An adjustable split keyboard, for instance, won’t just be split (as many keyboards are), but will also have ball and lever technology, so that you can change its settings constantly. Similarly, an ergonomic mouse will provide ample support, so that as your muscles tire throughout the day, you’ll have a place to rest them. In this way, ergonomic equipment adjusts with your body, not only to prevent injury but also to help you change up your approach.

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5. Rotate Between Tasks

If you’re like most people, you probably like to dig into your tasks and not look up until the job is done. But many projects are long term, and this can lead to indefinite periods of strain. What’s more, even your brain can burn out on doing the same thing over and over again. You’ll keep things fresh and engage your muscles in a gentle challenge simply by rotating between different types of task, and actively building such rotation into your day. You might, for instance, slot aside the first hour and a half of your day to answer emails, then schedule your first walking meeting of the day, and then do a little filing before heading back to the keyboard. This way, you’ll constantly stimulate your brain and keep yourself motivated, while also giving your muscles plenty of variation.

In Short

There’s no doubt about it: variation is the key to good ergonomics, and, really, to keeping yourself happy and productive. How do you change things up throughout the day? Tell us your best tips in the blog comments!