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Diet Detective: Keep body aligned when sitting in front of computer all day

Saturday, August 30, 2014 - 12:01 am

Recently, I was able to catch up with an expert in physical therapy and dance, Colorado-based Mieke Scripps. She studied dance and kinesiology at the University of Wisconsin while performing in the modern dance troop Li Chiao-Ping Dance. After her dance career, she received her doctorate in physical therapy from Northwestern University and then worked as a physical therapist for the New York City Ballet, the School of American Ballet, the Miami City Ballet, the Juilliard School, the Colorado Ballet Academy and on many Broadway shows. I was able to do an extensive three-part email interview with Dr. Scripps.

Diet Detective: So many of us are spending a good part of our day sitting in front of a computer. I'm sure there are precautions we can take; what are some of those?

Mieke Scripps: The goal while at your desk is to keep your body in alignment and out of pain. We always come back to finding the neutral spinal alignment and positioning ourselves so the skeleton ­not our ligaments and muscles ­takes our weight. Your positioning in relation to the keyboard and screen are crucial.

Here is a checklist of factors that will keep you comfortable while working those long, grueling hours at the computer.

1. Spine: You should be sitting on or slightly on the front edge of your sit bones. Maintain a small curve in the lower back, the sternum relaxed so it lines up with your pubic bone and your head just floating on your neck (which has a gentle curve in it).

2. Elbows: Upper arms at your sides (don't reach forward), elbows at about a 90-degree angle and, hopefully, supported by armrests.

3. Wrists: Think neutral, flexed neither up nor down but more as an extension of the forearm.

4. Chair seat: Slightly sloped forward to relieve the pressure spot at the front of the chair on the underside of the thighs. Seat height adjusted so your hips are at a 90- to 95-degree angle.

5. Feet: Firmly planted on the floor (or a small foot rest if you need it), and make sure you maintain a right angle at the knees. Don't cross your knees. Knees and feet should be at 90 degree angles. And you should have some weight-bearing through your feet; they should not be floating.

6. Computer screen: center of screen slightly below eye level.

7. Computer keyboard: Should feel most comfortable positioned slightly below elbow level, so that elbows maintain a 90-degree angle and the fingers can drop down to the keys.

Diet Detective: What about the “office chair?”

Mieke Scripps: When you buy a chair you should look for seven separate points:

1. Get a seat with hydraulic controls, which give you ease of adjustment. This will encourage you to adjust it "on the fly" rather than just put up with that annoying ache in your lower back.

2. A seat back that adjusts up/down and forward/backward. This will allow you to fit the seat to your back, rather than your back to the seat.

3. A seat back that is shaped to help maintain the curve in your lower back.

4. A seat pan that is rounded in the front. This will help to take pressure off the underside of the legs, allowing for better circulation. It also should tilt forward/backward.

5. A five-roller base for stability. This gives you confidence that the chair will not tip over when you extend your body and arms trying to snag that last doughnut.

6. A seat that adjusts in height, allowing you to control the amount your knees are flexed.

7. A seat that is an appropriate size for your body. Not too big or too small but just right.

Diet Detective: Any other tips?

Mieke Scripps: 1. Make sure the seat back gently supports the curves of your lower back. Also note that in order for the seat to do its job you must sit all the way back in your chair (repeat throughout the day).

2. The seat pan should angle your thighs slightly downward in relation to your torso (i.e., the angle of your torso to hips should be greater than 90 degrees).

3. The seat height should keep the angle of your knees at 90 degrees.

Diet Detective: Do you have a few tips to prevent slumping?

Mieke Scripps: First of all, follow the above listed steps to keep the spine in a neutral position when at all possible. When you do try to “sit up straight” try not to stick the chest forward, but just let the ribs gently rest over the pelvis with a soft sternum. Always try to sit at a table. A big problem now is with all of our portable electronics. It is nearly impossible to sit up straight while on a big couch or in bed.

When you sit, follow a few simple rules:

• Place your feet flat on the floor.

• Sit evenly on your sit bones (when you sit down, put your hands under your hips and rock side to side, you should be able to feel them).

• Don't collapse your chest. Lift it forward and up.

• Relax your shoulders down.

• Keep your head back over your shoulders.

• Lengthen the back of your neck (in other words, keep your chin down).

• Reach the top of your head to the ceiling.

• If you drew a line from head to seat on the side of your body it should run down the middle of your ear, through the center of your shoulder and end at the bony part of the side of the thigh bone.

• Don't sit for prolonged periods. Get up and move around. We were not meant to be sedentary.

• Last comment: Sitting up straight makes you feel better and gives you a brighter outlook on life.

Charles Stuart Platkin is a nutrition and public health advocate and founder of DietDetective.com.