In 2012, I started working from home full time. Within just a few months, I threw my back out from sitting all day at a home office thrown together from what I had on hand. That event kicked off a quest to find office equipment that would be a bit easier on my spine. I expected the quest to consist of a trip to the store. Instead, it’s been years of learning what good posture really entails.
Before getting a new job that allowed me to work from home, I wasn’t making enough money to get by. The new job was a step up, but during those first few months I was working at a cheap metal desk from Walmart with a metal folding chair. The desk had a flimsy keyboard tray, but no space for a mouse. So my mouse and keyboard were at different elevations. My monitor sat on the desk, on a rigid, nonadjustable stand. It was an objectively terrible setup. Aside from the metal folding chair, though, it was a pretty common one.
So, over the course of several years — as I was able to afford each new upgrade — I searched for the best, most ergonomic option. In some cases, I found that buying a new piece of hardware could have a dramatic impact on my posture. But I also found that no amount of “perfect” equipment could fix bad habits.
Upgrade #1: A desk chair that allows for a variety of positions
The first thing that had to go was the metal folding chair. A good office chair can be expensive, but it’s also like buying a mattress. If you’re going to spend a third of your life in it, it should be comfortable. Wirecutter, The New York Times Company that reviews products, suggests looking at a few key criteria when picking an office chair, including:
Comfort: Everyone’s body is different, and finding a chair that’s comfortable is often a matter of personal preference. If possible, it’s important to sit in a chair before buying it to ensure it’s comfortable.
Lumbar and back support: While a cheap office chair might offer very little lumbar support (and my awful folding chair had none), a good chair should be adjustable enough to support your spine in a variety of sitting positions.
Adjustability: Not only is your body different from everyone else’s, but you’re not likely to sit in one position all day. Or at least you shouldn’t. Whatever chair you buy should have adjustable seat height, armrest height, tilt and seat depth. Some cheaper chairs might leave off certain adjustments, but the more you can customize your chair, the better.
You can read more about what to look for in a good office chair (and get some specific recommendations) in the Wirecutter guide here. According to Leon Straker, a professor at Curtin University’s School of Physiotherapy and Exercise Science, when choosing a chair, you should consider more than just one sitting position.
“There are three ‘good’ sitting postures,” he said. The first one, what he calls “upright” is “commonly shown in posters of good posture” and entails keeping the torso vertical and elbows relaxed by one’s side. It’s best for working on a computer.
The second, a “‘forward” posture, involves sitting at the front of the chair and leaning forward with the forearms resting on the desk. “This is useful for writing,” said Dr. Straker.
In the third, a “backward” posture, the body is reclined and receives support from the chair’s backrest “This is useful for talking on the phone,” said Dr. Straker. “Good desk and chair equipment allows you to vary between at least two of these, preferably three.”
Once I found an office chair that worked for me, it was an immediate relief. My legs, shoulders and especially lower back felt better. It’s hard to overstate how important a good chair can be, no matter what else may be right or wrong with your setup. However, while it was an improvement, I still found myself with an aching back, sore knees and especially strained wrists at times. It turns out, buying a new chair won’t magically fix everything.
Upgrade #2: A convertible standing desk, to avoid sitting for too long
Much ado has been made about standing desks in recent years. For some, it’s a miracle. For others, the hype is overblown. In my case, I just didn’t want to make the commitment. My old crappy metal desk wasn’t working very well, but the idea of standing for eight hours a day (or more) was too much to take on all at once.
So, I started with a better desk, with a wide top and a keyboard tray that had enough room for my mouse. I thought this would be an improvement, but it turned out to be a mistake. As Dr. Straker explained, “Wobbly small trays to put keyboard or mouse on are not nearly as good as a single solid surface with sufficient space.”
After I began developing chronic wrist pain, I opted to upgrade again. This time, I found a desk with one, large wide black top. More important, this one had a motor in the legs to adjust its height. Buttons on the side allowed it to automatically swap between multiple preset heights — such as between standing or sitting — as well as manual adjustments for everything in between. (Wirecutter’s favorite standing desk, after months of testing, is here.)
For the average person, this might be overkill, but for me it was perfect. I’m a fidgety person by nature, and sitting in one position for too long isn’t good for the spine no matter how supportive a chair is. As Dr. Straker explained, being able to both sit and stand at a desk with one “sufficiently large” work surface enables you to change your posture throughout the day.
Upgrade #3: A completely unnecessary adjustable monitor arm
For the longest time, I used two small monitors sitting on even smaller stands, which put the eye level of the monitor way too low for comfort. This can lead to hunching over and leaning forward to see text on a screen at a proper eye level. To alleviate this problem, I upgraded my workstation with an adjustable monitor arm. With my monitors on these arms, they can be moved to eye height, turned to any angle, and even rotated. I immediately noticed that I sat up straighter. Rather than contorting my body to my monitor, I was adjusting my monitor to my body. It seemed like a great upgrade.
The only problem is, I could’ve done the same thing with a small box.
A small box or a couple of books placed underneath a monitor stand can raise a monitor high enough to look at straight on without hunching over. Many computer monitors even come with adjustable stands to raise their height. Even that might not be necessary, according to Dr. Straker. “With screens now typically quite large, few people need blocks to raise their screens so the top of the screen is at their eye level.”
If you still have a small monitor, then it might be worth adjusting its height, but otherwise, just having a separate monitor — as opposed to, say, working on a laptop — should be good enough. “Having a computer screen that is separate from the computer keyboard allows you to get the screen in a good position for your head and eyes and the keyboard in a good position for your hands and arms,” Dr. Straker said.
I might enjoy my adjustable monitor arms, but as I learned later, they were hardly a miracle upgrade. They were just nice to have.
What truly matters isn’t the equipment, it’s your habits
Sometimes, I found that upgrading my office equipment provided a huge benefit to my posture. Just as often, certain upgrades were entirely useless, or at least could have been done at a less exorbitant cost. But more important, I learned that there’s no one perfect posture or set of equipment that will magically make back pain or long-term health problems go away.
No matter what position you sit in, staying in it for too long can cause problems. “Variety is key,” explained Dr. Straker. “Aim for a ‘Goldilocks’ day — where you get enough physical stress to encourage your body to maintain or build muscle and bone strength and heart and lung fitness — whilst allowing enough recovery time.”
And despite any diagrams or charts you may have seen to the contrary, there’s no one “correct” posture. There are many, and it’s important to change them up every so often. “The most common misconception I see is that people think there is one good sitting posture — and that if they sit like that they will be fine,” said Dr. Straker.
“In fact, prolonged sitting in any posture puts people’s health at risk,” he said. “The secret to reducing health risks associated with desk-based tasks is to design your day so you get lots of variety in posture and movement as you are doing productive tasks.”
In my case, the convertible standing desk helps me switch between standing and sitting — I may change positions a dozen times throughout the day — while my office chair helps ensure I have decent posture while sitting. What good posture looks like for you may be different and it requires some forethought to create the right system you need.
What to Buy is a new series in collaboration with Wirecutter, the New York Times Company that reviews products.