What the health: What’s the best way to sit at your desk?

1 Oct 2019

'Sit up straight or you are going to hurt your back.' Many of us may have heard this from well-meaning parents, teachers or co-workers. But is it true?

For those of us who sit for prolonged periods in front of a computer, is there one ideal posture we should assume? Most people think we should sit up straight but there is no good evidence for this. Sitting up straight unsupported all day is just as likely to cause pain as sitting slumped.

But why? Many people adopt the upright posture by contracting their trunk and back muscles to hold them there. This muscle contraction over time causes increased loading on the back joints as well as making the muscles sore, both being a cause for low back pain.

Most researchers and clinicians in the low back field now emphasise the importance of variability in posture. No one posture is right or wrong unless it is held for prolonged periods of time. We need to be constantly changing how we sit to distribute stress and load through different structures in our backs. If you naturally sit slumped, then frequently sit up straight for a while. If you tend to sit bolt upright, frequently let yourself slump for a short while. 

We also need to be getting out of our seats to stand or go for a walk as regularly as possible. Regularly switching from working seated to standing is also a great idea if you have a sit-stand desk.

A good chair may be helpful as long as you can relax into it. If possible, the degree of support a chair gives to your spine will need to be adjusted to the most comfortable position for you. Everyone’s anatomy is different – there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to chairs.

If you do have pain already, then it would be wise to see a physiotherapist to see if your symptoms could be managed better with a certain sitting regime. For the rest of us, your best posture is your next posture! Set an alarm every 30 minutes and adjust how you are sitting or stand up or go for a walk. Keep moving – it’s healthier for you and your back.

AUTHOR: Stephen West-Newman is currently lecturing physiotherapy students at UQ's School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences on the lumbar spine & pelvis. Stephen is a musculoskeletal physiotherapist with an interest in sports & musculoskeletal physiotherapy and in particular how to incorporate research findings into clinical teaching and practice.