All Rise! – Ergonomics and Back Pain

Lynn ZimmermannBy Lynn Zimmerman
Associate Editor
Editor, Teacher Education

A few years ago I went to the Rutherford B. Hayes House in Fremont, OH. (In case you are wondering why, I had a friend who worked there at the time.) One of the things that struck me was his standing desk. When I first saw it, I assumed it was a podium for lecturing, but my friend informed me that, no, it was the desk where he often worked. Other than Thomas Wolfe (of Look Homeward Angel fame), who apparently wrote standing at his refrigerator, I had never heard of anyone standing and writing or doing other paperwork. I decided it must just be easier for tall people somehow and did not give it another thought.

Illustration from Brett and Kate McKay's "Become a Stand-Up Guy: The History, Benefits, and Use of Standing Desks," Art of Manliness, 5 July 2011.

Illustration from Brett and Kate McKay’s “Become a Stand-Up Guy: The History, Benefits, and Use of Standing Desks,” Art of Manliness, 5 July 2011.

Then, a couple of years ago I started having back and neck problems. I spend many hours, like many modern people, sitting in front of a computer for hours on end. After several doctor visits, I started changing the way I worked. The doctor gave me a website that would show me how to properly (ergonomically1) adjust my workspace. She also recommended a timer for my computer that covers your screen for a few minutes every so often. I did not do that, but I did start taking more frequent breaks. I mentally break my work into segments depending on what I am doing. When I reach the bottom of a page, I take a break. When I have completed five PowerPoint slides, I take a break. After I have graded so many pages, I take a break. Sometimes, I’ll just stand up and sit down, but I try to get up and at least walk into another room.

The doctor also showed me some folding shelves that you can mount on the wall at the appropriate height for standing and working on your computer. I didn’t buy one, but I did set up my iPad on a chest high bookshelf. Then, rather than checking my email while I was sitting and working on my laptop, I started checking my email on the iPad so that I would have to stand up and walk over to it and stand as I read and responded to emails.

I still have problems with my neck and hips, but there is a definite improvement. When I am in a situation, such as a hotel room, where I cannot set up my equipment as ergonomically, I can definitely feel a difference. Then I have to be conscious of taking those stand up breaks.

The reason this topic came up is that I ran across an article, “How Standing Desks Can Help Students Focus in the Classroom,” by Holly Korbey at MindShift.

I learned that many famous people, including Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Jefferson, and Charles Dickens, used standing desks. Korbey focuses on a study done by Mark Benden, Associate Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health at Texas A&M Health Science Center. He and his team believe that too much sitting contributes to a variety of problems that children have in school, as well as to obesity. They found that elementary students who stand up more to work burned more calories and were more engaged in learning when they could stand and move around. As an educator, this makes sense to me. Children need to move and twitch and fidget. And, maybe, adults do, too.

1 For more on ergonomics, see “Ergonomic Workstation Guidelines,” North Carolina State University.

4 Responses

  1. Lynn, this article hits home for me. I’ve been nursing an aching back for the past few days, and the cause is sitting for long hours at my computer desk. This happens at least once a year, during stretches when I don’t take the time to get up and go for a walk outside. Your article is especially helpful because I hadn’t thought of the little ways in which I could force myself to get up from the sitting position. You also remind me of my philosophy prof in my freshman year in college. I visited him in his office and was surprised to find there were no chairs. His desk was up high against a wall, and he did his reading and writing standing up. Visitors, too, had to remain standing. I asked him about it, and he said that it was a habit he retained from his college years in Germany, where students stood at desks designed without seats. As a child and young adult, I found sitting at a desk for long periods extremely difficult and preferred being on my feet and moving. Perhaps it’s time for some brave soul to experiment with a chairless classroom equipped with stand-up desks!

  2. I just found this article which may be of interest to educators of students of all ages – the importance of letting kids move around.

    • Very interesting! Here’s a quote from the article: “Four minutes of physical activity can improve behaviour in the classroom for primary school students, according to new research by Brendon Gurd. A brief, high-intensity interval exercise, or a ‘FUNterval,’ for Grade 2 and Grade 4 students reduced off-task behaviours like fidgeting or inattentiveness in the classroom.” I’d like to see them explore classroom settings where students are allowed to move around during learning activities — stand, walk, etc. within the classroom when the teacher isn’t lecturing. A simple set of rules could keep the students from disturbing or distracting others.

  3. […] All Rise! – Ergonomics and Back Pain […]

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