How to sit ergonomically without expensive equipment

Create a more comfortable desk setup.
woman working with back pain
Someone needs a more ergonomic setup. Depositphotos

You spend hours sitting at your desk every day. Sure, you know it’s bad for your health. You may have even tried to optimize your position with a few ergonomic tricks and products. Still, a lot of the advice you’ve heard may be overkill. Here are a few misconceptions about “ergonomic” office equipment—and the actually effective behavior you should keep in mind.

You don’t need an expensive name-brand chair

Too many people sit slouched over a laptop, leaning forward to see their monitor, or perching their arms on a too-high desk. These habitspostures can wreak havoc on your body. To prevent them, some people invest in expensive ergonomic chairs from Herman Miller, Steelcase, and Humanscale. But you don’t have to pay through the nose to fix your posture.

“When you’re looking for a chair, it doesn’t necessarily have to be from one of those big brand names,” says Karen Jacobs, a board-certified professional ergonomist and clinical professor of occupational therapy at Boston University. “The key is getting a chair that’s adjustable.”

Now, those brands have made a name for themselves for a reason—many have spent years researching and designing ergonomic chairs for maximum comfort. But they aren’t magical seats that fix your body as soon as you plop down in them. They’re great because they’re super adjustable—but that still means you have to actively tweak them to get that ideal ergonomic position.

Besides, while these brands are more adjustable than most competitors, you can find plenty of affordable alternatives that will fit the bill just as well. Your chair just needs to be comfortable for your body. Look for these traits as you shop.

  • Supports your lower back: “It’s really important to have a chair with some kind of back support,” says Jacobs. “It’s our lower back that’s taking a lot of the stress when we’re sitting In a chair.” So if you can find one with adjustable lumbar support, that’s ideal.
  • Moves up and down: Adjustable height is important. “You want to make sure that you can adjust your chair so that your feet are flat on the floor,” says Jacobs. “Your knees should be a little bit greater than 90 degrees, and you can stretch your legs out onto the floor or a footrest.” If your desk doesn’t allow for your feet to be flat on the floor, you’ll need an accessory that lets you keep your elbows between 90 and 100 degrees—either a keyboard tray that sits under your desk or a taller footrest. Speaking of that footrest, Jacobs recommends a rocking one, because it keeps your blood flowing.
  • Swivels: This is common even in fixed office chairs, but it’s more useful than you think. “When you’re typing, and you’re moving to maybe read a document on the table or on a tablet stand, you want to move your whole body and avoid twisting,” says Jacobs. “If you can turn the chair rather than the person, that’s ideal.”
  • Reclines: You don’t want to slouch, but a slight reclining position is actually good for your body, since it allows your back muscles to relax. So get an office chair that allows you to move the seat and back support into a mild recline. This is especially important if you’re working from a laptop, which all too often requires that you hunch forward. “Notebook computers were really designed for transient work, not for everyday work,” says Jacobs. “If possible, work on a desktop PC or dock your notebook computer.” Even putting your laptop on a stand and using an external keyboard and mouse can go a long way toward promoting healthy posture.

Finally, Jacobs says, “Try out the chair before you purchase it, if possible. Some companies will loan you a chair, and you should try it for about a week to see if it’s comfortable.” If it doesn’t fit your body, then move on until you find one that does.

Ergonomic keyboards aren’t always ergonomic

You spend most of your computer time clicking and typing. If you don’t position your wrists well, they can take a lot of abuse. Contrary to popular belief, though, some of those “ergonomic” keyboards can actually exacerbate the problem.

“Don’t be smitten by the word ‘ergonomic,’” says Jacobs. “There is no consumer protection over the word. So any company can put ‘ergonomic’ on their product without proper analysis of whether that product actually has user-centered features.”

In particular, avoid split keyboards. They force your elbows far away from your body, which is the opposite of what you want: Your arms and elbows should stay close to your sides. The same goes for keyboards with number pads, since they require you to place your mouse further to the right—again, away from your body. If you don’t need the number pad, look for a tenkeyless keyboard that eschews it in favor of more mouse room. If you live and die by the number pad, there are external ones you can pull out only when you need them, or keep on your left so they won’t interfere with the mouse. (Southpaws can reverse this.)

On a similar line, many keyboards these days include built-in wrist rests, which aren’t actually good for you. “Your wrists should be in a neutral position,” says Jacobs. “I don’t recommend wrist rests, because you’ll have a tendency to put extra pressure on your wrist, which can result in some issues over time.” Instead, she says, you should float your arms above the keyboard, keeping your wrists straight.

Finally, “Never use the feet on the bottom of your keyboard,” says Jacobs. “It takes your wrist out of that neutral position. Some people even like a slight negative tilt to the keyboard tray, where the front is higher than the back.” Of course, you’d need an adjustable keyboard tray to make this possible, and you won’t find that on all desks.

As with chairs, purchase your pick from a company that will allow you to try the keyboard for a week. If it isn’t comfortable, return it and find one that is.

Standing desks aren’t a necessity

We all know sitting is killing us. But standing desks, while they have their place, aren’t perfect either.

“The verdict is still out on standing desks,” Jacobs says. “For some people, they make sense, but for most of us, that’s not affordable.” Instead of fretting over how much time you spend sitting versus standing, Jacobs recommends putting that energy toward taking frequent breaks.

“It’s really important when you’re in a mostly static posture that you take a break,” Jacobs says. “And it can be a brief break, maybe for two minutes every 20 to 30 minutes. Get up from your seat, walk around, hydrate yourself, and then come back.” This is not just important for your lower back, but for your eyes, neck, and shoulders too.

That’s easier said than done, of course: It’s all too easy to gain momentum on a project, working for two, three, or four hours in a row before you look up and wonder where the day went. So Jacobs recommends some sort of external reminder.

You could set a recurring alarm on your phone or wearable device. Or check out a dedicated desktop program like Big Stretch Reminder (for Windows) or Stretchly (for Windows, Mac, and Linux), which allow you to customize these reminders. Jacobs has also co-designed a free program called Stretch Breaks for Kids (just as applicable to adults) that will recommend different stretches.

Whatever ergonomic measures you take, remember to get up and move regularly. “Change and vary your posture often,” Jacobs says. “If you’re sitting in your chair and all of a sudden you don’t feel comfortable, get up and move around.”