As more workers trade manual labour for sedentary office work, the amount of time we spend sitting at desks and staring at computer screens at work and at home is having serious repercussions for our physical health.

In April we looked at the negative effects this can have on our eyes and shared some tips on how to minimise the possibility of strain and permanent damage.

But it’s not just the retinas that are under attack in the digital age. Some researchers believe sitting down for prolonged periods dramatically increases the risk of cancer, heart disease, and, according to some studies, can even lower life expectancy.

It’s also absolutely no good for our backs. Strained necks, herniated disks and sore shoulder muscles call all be traced back to extended sitting and poor posture.

But you don’t have to be resigned to your fate and there’s plenty you can do to improve your posture and set up your workstation to minimise the risk of developing a bad back at work, while driving home and even after getting home and sitting down some more…

Here are some tips from the experts:

Tip 1: Improve your posture

If you’ve little choice but to be sitting for extended periods, there are several ways you can improve your ergonomics:

  • Sit with a straight spine instead of slouching
  • Keep your elbows at 90 degrees to help avoid nerve compression.
  • Keep your arms close to your sides
  • Keep your feet flat on the floor
  • Relax your shoulders

Remember to take regular breaks to avoid muscle fatigue.

[Related story: 7 surprising things that could be giving you back pain]

Tip 2: Optimise your desk set-up

The ability to maintain good posture is often dependent on your desk set up. Here are some tips to help keep you upright:

  • Keep regularly-used items like a phone or notepad within easy reach;
  • Place your monitor at eye level, perpendicular to the top of the viewable part of the screen. This allows you to see a greater portion of the screen without looking up or down too far, reducing strain on the neck;
  • Place your monitor directly in front of your seat, to ensure you’re not twisting your back or neck to see it;
  • If you sit all the way back in a chair, use a lumbar cushion or get a chair with built-in lumbar support.

Man at computer looking pained rubbing back

Tip 3: Raise your computer’s eyeline

If you’re working on a laptop, the chances are the screen is far below your eyeline, which means you’re probably hunched over with a great big curve in your spine. This is a big no-no. As mentioned above you should position the monitor at eye level (or slightly below where your eyes naturally fall), so you’re neither looking up, nor down which will also reduce the risk of straining your neck.

There are a host of monitor risers available online from as little as £10. However, if you’re on a budget, a stack of books would do the trick.

Tip 4: Learn to touch type

Another well-documented cause of poor desk posture can be constantly looking down at the keyboard when typing. Learning to touch type isn’t easy, but it’s worth investing the time to help improve your posture and keep your eyes focused on the display.

There are plenty of useful websites that can help you learn to touch type including Ratatype, Keybr and BBC Bitesize.

You’ll thank us when you’re knocking out the words at a comfortable 80 per minute.

Read more in our article: How can I speed up my typing?

Tip 5: Get an adjustable desk

Despite the current craze for standing desks, there’s little evidence from the scientific community to show that standing all day is any better for you than sitting. "What we actually found is that most of it is, very much, just fashionable and not proven good for your health," Dr Jos Verbeek of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health told American media organisation NPR earlier this year. Standing all day comes with ailments of its own.

Mikael Cho of start-up Crew wrote about his experiences of swapping to a stand desk. “It’s really hard to [work]​ when you’re thinking about the pain in your leg, when you’re trying to force yourself to stand, when your shoulders are starting to cave in. What you really want to do is focus on the next paragraph that you’re writing,” he wrote.

It doesn’t hurt to mix it up a bit and there are a host of adjustable desks that make it easy to switch up your workstation between upright and seated positions. Prices vary, some cost close to £1,000 while others convert your existing desk into an adjustable unit. You can save even more money by making your own.

Just make sure the ergonomics are right or you’ll be doing more harm than good.

Woman rubbing back with graphic of back pain

Tip 6: Try a Pilates ball

Some people are turning their backs on uncomfortable office chairs in favour of perching on a trusty exercise ball. Because they require balance, chairs like the Office Fitness Exercise Ball Chair (£79.99) encourage better posture, spinal alignment and have the added bonus of building core strength.

“People tend to slouch [in office chairs] and use poor posture, and sitting in a chair puts your abs on ‘slack’ and decreases core strength. Using an exercise ball counteracts both of these things,” says John P. Porcari, PhD exercise physiologist at the University of Wisconsin.

Tip 7: Remember, this is a mobile world

When you think about it, so many of our daily tasks can be handled away from the desk. The devices in our pockets can handle phone calls, emails, instant messages, calendar appointments, voice memos, web research, note taking and video conferencing. So why not get up and walk around while taking care of these tasks?

Take a stroll in a nearby park, or take the dog for a work. Of course, bosses tend to be averse to random departures from the office, so be sure to send them the chiropractor’s bill if they object.

 

Read more in our article: Exercises for back pain relief.

Have you had any computer-related back issues? Is there any advice you’d like to offer other BT.com readers? Let us know in the Comments section below.