Ergonomics for Programmers: A Concise Introduction

Ergonomics should be a top priority for programmers, given the nature of their work. Having worked as a frontend developer for as long as 12 hours daily, I can testify to the potential health hazards of such a lifestyle. In fact, I opted out of the industry solely for that reason.

A study conducted on IT professionals in India has revealed that around 50% of the participants suffered from lower back pain. The second most prevalent Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs) reported were shoulder and wrist pain, followed by neck pain. This data highlights the possibility of a potentially harmful work environment in the programming industry.

Wouldn’t you want to avoid being part of these statistics? Here are some contemporary best practices for programmers that are ergonomically sound.

Ensure that the upper part of your laptop screen is at, or a little below, your eye level.

Programmers often spend extended periods sitting in front of a computer, which can result in neck discomfort. In fact, chronic symptoms can develop in 30% of individuals with neck discomfort, making it the fourth leading cause of disability worldwide. This can significantly affect people’s lives and professions.

Programmers frequently make use of laptops to work remotely from places like cafés and shared office spaces. However, prolonged use of laptops can lead to considerable strain on the shoulders and neck.

One of the primary reasons why laptops are uncomfortable to use is their screen’s low positioning as it is attached to the keyboard. Using a laptop on most surfaces requires the user to keep looking down at the screen, which can be awkward and uncomfortable.

Dr. Kenneth Hansraj, a spine surgeon, explains that tilting the neck 15° forward can increase the weight felt on the neck four times over. Therefore, prolonged use of this position can negatively impact posture and result in neck and back discomfort.

Fortunately, you have the option to choose between two straightforward solutions.

  • Buying a laptop stand to raise your screen to eye level is an inexpensive initial step. Prices for a stand start from approximately £20, but you may consider spending more on additional accessories for your home office. Using a stand to elevate both the screen and keyboard may necessitate the use of an external keyboard as well.
  • When working remotely, having a laptop with an external display that can be adjusted in height is advantageous. While one display can suffice, it is preferable to have two, as it increases the field of vision and allows for more efficient completion of multiple tasks. The monitors should be spaced approximately an arm’s length apart, with the top line positioned at eye level for optimal viewing. This setup can significantly enhance a programmer’s productivity.

According to research conducted by Jon Peddie, productivity can be increased by up to 42% when working with multiple monitors. By connecting your laptop to two external monitors, you not only safeguard your wellbeing, but also improve your productivity.

Check for Wrist Flexion or Extension

Regrettably, the keyboard is a common source of ergonomic discomfort and is used by every coder.

Typing involves two common wrist postures.

  • Extension:

    The wrist is bent upwards towards the back of the forearm.
  • Flexion:

    In this position, the wrist is bent downwards instead of being extended. A common cause of this problem is typing on a laptop placed on the lap, with the arms resting on the chair’s armrests.

When the wrist is consistently extended or flexed, there is a greater risk of developing musculoskeletal disorders such as Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS) or tendinitis as a result of occupational activities.

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) refer to injuries to the muscles, nerves, tendons, joints, or cartilage. Sustained wrist flexion or extension can result in the emergence of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS) or tendonitis. It is worth noting that wrist tendons are impacted by tendonitis, whereas the median nerve is affected by CTS.

For optimal desk arrangement, it is essential to maintain a neutral wrist posture throughout the entire workday, such that neither flexion nor extension is possible and a straight line can be drawn from the forearm to the wrist.

To maintain a neutral wrist position while typing, the following suggestions should be considered:

  • An ideal keyboard position is on a level surface or at a small incline away from the user.
  • Position the keyboard so that it is just below your elbows.
  • Avoid resting your hands on the rear legs of a regular keyboard, as is the case with laptops, as this creates a positive tilt that promotes wrist extension.
  • Adjust your chair’s height so that your forearms are level with the keyboard.

Did You Know? Workers between the ages of 35 and 44 are especially vulnerable to Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS), which accounts for 32.5% of all Repetitive Strain Injuries experienced in the workplace.

Sit with your back straight and in a neutral position.

Research has demonstrated that not all chairs offer the same ergonomic advantages. The term ‘neutral sitting’ is commonly used in the realm of ergonomics and denotes a chair that is intended to provide the greatest back support and comfort.

Maintaining a neutral posture while seated supports all three natural curves of the spine and reduces stress on the back.

Below are recommended neutral sitting positions for programmers who frequently experience back discomfort after extended coding sessions:

  • Reclined sitting posture is achieved when the trunk is tilted backward, and the backrest supports the torso while opening up the chest and hips. This posture demands minimal back muscle engagement, making it highly effective in preventing back strain. A chair with synchro tilt is recommended to experience the full advantages of this position.
  • A.C. Mandal’s suggested practice of declined sitting has proved effective in reducing lower back strain by shifting some of the body weight to the thighs. The ideal declined posture would involve the buttocks being higher than the knees, a straight back, and resting arms on the desk. Given that forward-tilting chairs are not widely used in most workplaces, kneeling chairs and saddle chairs are the preferred options for comfortable seating.
  • The spine bears more pressure when seated upright than when lying flat. It may be necessary to purchase a workstation that’s specifically designed for this reclining posture or devise an innovative solution.

As per the Occupational Demands Survey of 2023, developers spend 90% of their workday seated, the highest percentage among all professions included in the survey.

It’s Refreshing to See Code Featured Once in a While

Over time, consistent sitting in even the “perfect” position could gradually restrict blood circulation and exert excessive pressure on the spine. This prolonged sitting may result in long-term health issues for programmers.

Standing is a position that alleviates strain on the spine and enhances blood circulation to the lower limbs, hence it’s advisable to include it as part of your daily routine.

Studies conducted at the University of Waterloo indicate that the ideal ratio of sitting to standing is between 1:1 and 1:3, implying that you should spend 15-45 minutes standing for every 15 minutes of sitting.

Really? A recent study found that 54% of participants experienced pain relief by alternating between standing and sitting on different days.

Consider the following tips to simplify your sit-stand routine:

  • If you like to stand while working, you can use a monitor riser or a makeshift cardboard stand to position your computer screen and keyboard at the appropriate height. It’s important to ensure that your display is at eye level and your external keyboard is set at a height that facilitates a neutral wrist position.
  • For those new to this routine, it’s better to start slowly and gradually adopt the optimal sit-stand ratio to give your body time to adjust.

Take a Good Stretch Break at Least Once Every Hour

As per DeskTime, a software intended to monitor employee productivity, a study of 5.5 million daily logs from office workers discovered that the most productive top 10% worked continuously for 52 minutes followed by an average break of 17 minutes.

In terms of enhancing productivity, taking breaks to rejuvenate is priceless. Based on my personal experience, taking routine breaks aids in “resetting” the brain and re-energising the body, providing a refreshing effect when resuming work. Notably, stretching during work hours can offer numerous added advantages.

  • Improved blood circulation equals reduced fatigue.
  • Protection from Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs)
  • More upright posture
  • Improved balance and muscle coordination

Outlined below are several stretches that you can add to your break routine.

Fist to Fan Stretch

The Fist-to-Fan stretch is a beneficial exercise for developing hand and forearm muscles and enhancing wrist and finger flexibility. It is an excellent method to relieve tension and invigorate your hands and fingers during coding breaks.

  • Create a fist and clasp your fingers together.
  • Loosen your grip and open up your palms.
  • Stretch your fingers as far apart as you can.
  • Repeat this ten times.

Standing Backbend Exercise

This posture will enhance your circulatory, digestive, and respiratory functions, leaving you feeling rejuvenated and refreshed.

  • Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your body in an upright position.
  • Place your hands behind your lower back with your palms facing inward.
  • Contract your thigh and glute muscles while pushing down with your feet.
  • For optimal results, arch your back as much as you can by rolling your shoulders backwards. To avoid losing balance, it is recommended that you rest your hands on your hips.
  • Lift your head and gaze upwards.
  • Maintain this posture for a complete five seconds.
  • Breathe out deeply to return to your initial upright stance.
  • Repeat this two or three times.

Seated Pigeon Twist Exercise for Sitting Positions

Sitting for extended periods can cause stiffness in the hips. This stretch enhances hip mobility and helps prevent this issue.

  • While seated in a chair, place your right ankle over your left knee.
  • Clasp both hands around your right knee and pull it towards your chest.
  • Inhale deeply, then twist your upper body to the right while maintaining a forward gaze.
  • Return to your starting position at a slow and steady pace.
  • Repeat the process in reverse.

If you want more alternatives for desk stretching, there are plenty of options available.

Securing Your Code for the Future

One of my biggest mistakes during my time as a programmer was neglecting my health. Maintaining proper posture, taking frequent breaks, and staying physically active throughout the day are all critical measures to prevent long-term health problems that could force you to change your career.

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