When it comes to ergonomics and self care around using my laptops, I used to think that there are two kinds of people: the people with their exercise ball chairs, standing desks and other gizmos, and us normal folk who crack our necks and keep coding.
The truth is, though, that absolutely everybody could benefit from any number of changes large or small to their workspace and laptop usage. Posture related pain might not always be the biggest problem, but being sore and uncomfortable is a good way to write worse code.
If you have soreness and pain from working at a desk there are three main things you can do: change your posture, stretch, and change your desk setup.
The answer is that as developers, or laptop users in general, there are four main areas that are stressed when we work: The lower back, shoulder, neck, and wrists. With your spine and shoulders, the key problem when you use a laptop at a desk is that you hunch. More specifically hunching involves having a curved lower back, shoulders rounded forward and probably tense, and your neck bent to face your screen.
I definitely hunch, especially when I’m intensely focused or stressed. As soon as I started thinking about it I would try to un-hunch myself, sit with a perfectly neutral spine, shoulders back, neck straight, and wrists flat. I essentially tried to force myself into perfect posture.
Sitting this way felt like much needed relief, but it honestly wasn’t much more comfortable, often felt strained, and I would be back to hunching as soon as I stopped focusing on my posture. This brought me to the realization that sitting with “perfect” posture wasn’t the answer, improving my posture was.
Figure out which spot is bothering the most, and improve that part of your posture.
For those with lower back pain (which is so common, it is known in the health world as LBP and up to 25% of desk workers have it!): move your lower body further back in your chair and lean back as well until your lower back is slightly curved inwards.
For those with shoulder pain: lean your upper body back and roll out your shoulder when you find yourself hunched over.
For those with neck pain: lower your seat as much as you can so you aren’t looking down as far, and think about lifting the back of your head upward to elongate the neck.
Generally, just being more focused on posture is the key to improving it over time. So whenever you remember to adjust, take a moment to reinforce that memorization and feel how you change your posture.
There are an infinite number of online resources about at-your-desk stretches to improve mobility (some of my favorites are here and here ) but generally any movement that stretches and relaxes your tense muscles is good for you. When you’re feeling sore, the key to any good stretch is that the muscle that your stretching is as relaxed as possible, and you are only using the weight of your body, not the force of other muscles, to stretch.
Some of the most simple and unobtrusive stretches are: tilting your ear towards your shoulder with the weight of your hand, and holding your hands behind your back then lifting them while arching your back.
The two main things that I try to optimize are having a higher monitor, and having a lower keyboard that is the right distance away from me.
Having a monitor at eye level is the best position, because it forces your neck to be straight and supported by the rest of your back all of the time. The three things you can do for this are:
- If your workspace has monitors available, use them whenever possible
- Have your chair as low as possible so that the monitor is relatively higher
- Tilt your monitor back so that it is easier to look down at it without bending your neck
For your keyboard, the goal is to always keep your elbows at a greater than 90° angle resting close to your side. This keeps your wrists neutral and also makes it easier to relax your shoulders down. The best place for your keyboard to be takes a bit of fiddling, and is different for people of all shapes and sizes, but generally lower is better (so don’t go too far down in your chair!) and further away is better (your elbows might even be on the table!) until your wrists start tilting upwards.
There are tons of ways that you can improve your posture, and most of them are super simple, totally free adjustments that you just have to remember.
But if you’re anything like me, you can often feel both guilty about your bad posture and hesitant to start fixing it.
So don’t be overwhelmed by how many different things you’re supposed to do to have perfect posture, just make little adjustments here and there whenever you remember, and eventually those things will become habits. Suddenly you might realize that your posture is actually pretty good and you’re in a lot less pain if you stick with it!
Also don’t forget that nothing can replace taking regular breaks to get up and walk around - movement is the best cure for stiff muscles!