For decades, the prescriptions of office ergonomics sought to minimize the risk of musculoskeletal damage for people who sat fixedly at desks for hours at a time. But today's office ergonomics experts increasingly don't think sitting for long periods is a good thing.
Meanwhile, the upsurge of mobile devices would seem to offer a way to alleviate the problem -- but it turns out that such devices come with their own ergonomic baggage.
"For decades, ergonomics was billed as a way to get people to stay at their desks longer and more productively," notes Dr. James Levine, director of obesity solutions at the Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, N.Y. and Phoenix. "Over the past six or seven years we have realized the consequences of people sitting too long, and it is an astonishing list."
Specifically, he lists (in no particular order) diabetes, low productivity, hypertension, apathy, clinical depression, hyperlipidemia (elevated levels of lipids in the blood), low moods or mild depression, cardiovascular diseases, obesity, back problems, deep vein thrombosis and mental sluggishness.
"Modern thinking is that we need to reverse the process of 40 years and get people out of their chairs and off their bottoms," Levine says. "Office productivity and school grades improve as people get mobile, as they get up and move. They will tell you that they feel brighter and sharper. They will say, much as I hate the term, 'I feel more alive.' About 10 years ago I had senior scientific colleagues screaming at me in lecture halls about this, saying I was wrong, but now there is international recognition that sedentariness is killing people."
Mobile's new ergonomics
Oddly enough, no one is saying that mobile devices hold the answer with their potential for personal mobility. This may be because, as it turns out, the mobile gadgets introduce new ergonomic problems.
Tablets, for instance, might at first glance seem to free people from their desks, but in fact people tend to place them flat on their desks and read them as if they were books, explains Alan Hedge, director of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Laboratory at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. With a book, people will occasionally change posture as they turn the page, but with tablets they can remain hunched for long periods, he notes.
"Leaning forward doubles the compressive forces on the vertebrae in your lower back compared to leaning back," explains Hedge. "When leaning back 20 degrees in a lounge chair you are really relaxing and halving the compression. That is why we say 'sit back and relax,' not 'hunch forward and relax.' "