Everything You Need to Know About Ergonomics and Staying Healthy while WFH or Distance Learning
An Interview with Dr. Brad Metzler
When the COVID-19 pandemic started, many of us who are lucky enough to be able to work at home were thrilled by the flexibility, but also figured we'd be back to the office in a month or two. Fast forward six months later and we're still working at our dining room table in sweatpants… that's 2020 for you. Since many of us are still working from home for the rest of the year (and maybe even longer…), it's important to take a critical look at our set up for work. A lot of the time home workplaces are less than ideal ergonomic setups, which can lead to poor posture, eye strain, and back pain and more.
That's where Dr. Brad Metzler comes in! He's a chiropractor and certified ergonomic specialist who focuses on whole body care with an emphasis on ergonomics and movement. As well as having a private practice in San Francisco, Dr. Metzler works at Crossover Health as an in-house chiropractor/ergonomist for companies like Facebook and Square.
Dr. Brad Metzler, chiropractor and certified ergonomic specialist
We sat down with Dr. Metzler to ask him his thoughts on home workplace setups, how to improve your work setup, and why ergonomics is important for everyone, including ergonomics for kids who are distance learning
Because Health: Thanks for talking with us today! Can you tell us about your ergonomics work? Why are ergonomics important?
Dr. Brad Metzler: I started focusing on ergonomics after I noticed many of the issues my patients were experiencing were due to their faulty workspace and how they interacted with their work environment. Many employees are spending a large portion of their time at a desk with little movement throughout the day. I realized that addressing poor workplace design was key to helping them achieve their health goals. The goal of ergonomics is to make a person the most efficient at their workspace; I view it as examining both the hardware (equipment) and software (how the person interacts with workspace).
BH: Many people are now working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. What are some common ergonomic problems associated with working from home?
BM: The common ergonomic problems stemming from WFH include neck, upper back, and low back pain. Many people feel they don't have the right space or equipment to be set-up properly to work from home. People are used to the standard cubicle or office setting.
BH: It sounds like many would benefit from improving their home workplace setups. What are your top tips for home ergonomics?
BM: Some of my favorite tips include:
- Your shoulders, elbows, wrists and hips should be at a 90-degree angle or slightly tilted down. Imagine placing a ball on your head. It should be able to roll down your neck, shoulder, forearm, wrist and onto your keyboard. It should be able to roll off your chest, down your thigh and shin and onto the ground without getting caught.
- Windshield Wiper Rule. Imagine your body is a car and your elbows are windshield wipers. All your primary tasks (generally typing and mousing) should be within windshield wiper range. Avoid reaching with an extended arm for your keyboard and mouse.
- While sitting upright in a good position with your head over your shoulders and looking straight ahead you should see the top third of your screen. Typically, people have their external monitor at the right height but then have their laptop too low and far off to the side.
- Move more often! It is better to be in a bad position for 5-10 minutes and then switch positions then try to be in perfect position or any stagnant position for long periods of time.
- Avoid working on soft, unstable surfaces like your couch or bed.
- Avoid using only your laptop. There is no good ergonomic position when just using a laptop. Get a wireless keyboard and mouse/trackpad and connect it to your laptop.
BH: Great tips! Love the visualizations and how easy they are to remember. Do you have any creative hacks for how to get a better ergonomic set up without spending a lot of money on new furniture?
BM: I tend to put more emphasis on software (microbreaks and proper biomechanics) than hardware (equipment). The most important equipment to have is a basic but functional wireless keyboard and mouse or trackpad. With these relatively inexpensive devices you can hack your workstation and will give you versatility to work from multiple places.
You can hack the rest of your workspace using household goods to make any space work! It doesn't take much to improve your ergonomics. An ironing board can magically become an adjustable desk, a game box or books can be a laptop riser, a pillow to raise your chair height, you can use your kitchen counter as a standing desk…. All you need is a little creativity!
BH: We can feel our setup getting better already! Now onto overall health. What are some ways you stay healthy throughout the work day?
BM: Microbreaks are key to staying healthy throughout the day. A microbreak is taking a brief break every 20-30 minutes for 30-60 seconds to do some type of movement-based stretch or strengthening exercise. This could be some squats, stretching out your hip flexor, squeezing your shoulder blades together, stretching your neck, or looking out the window at a far distance to decrease eye strain.
BH: We've got ergonomics for adults down now, but what about children? Many kids are stuck at home doing distance learning via Zoom. Are ergonomics also important for kids?
BM: The same principles apply to children and their remote learning environment. The great thing about kids is they get fidgety and move frequently which is one of the reasons they have less pain than adults. Movement is medicine!
BH: Who knew fidgeting was beneficial?! That's great. What should parents look out for when designing a remote learning area for kids at home?
BM: Have them avoid using just a laptop, phone or tablet, as there is no good ergonomic position with just these devices alone. Consider getting a wireless keyboard and mouse/trackpad. Now is a great time to educate them on proper biomechanics, alternating sit/stand and incorporating movement into their long study hours. Trying to ingrain these principles now will pay major dividends in the future. Parents can also advocate for their teachers to incorporate proper posture and breathing and movement breaks into their classes as well.
BH: What else can I do to ensure my kids' bodies stay healthy when they are in front of the screen learning all day?
BM: Make sure to have them switch positions frequently, take microbreaks, and move! Remember the amount of movement your child typically gets from commuting to/from school, recess, and moving from class to class and now they are stuck on a screen all day. Get creative and have them move outside or inside. Races, scavenger hunts, obstacle courses... whatever you need to do to get them to move even if it's just for 5 minutes before another virtual class.
BH: And finally… what's the #1 most important thing you recommend to your patients to maintain a healthy body and prevent work related injuries?
BM: We are meant to move! Your best posture is your next posture. Keep moving!