Ergonomics for Less-Than-Optimal Environments: Student Edition


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We know you have enough to think about, what with the start of a new academic year, but if:

• your neck and shoulders are already bothering you,
• you feel achiness in your wrists or forearms, or
• you hate sitting in a particular lecture hall chair,

… this information might be of use to you!

When it comes to ergonomics, there are a few ground rules:

It is better to make small modifications rather than no change at all. These incremental adjustments, while they may not solve all of your pain or tension patterns, can make a difference. So, don’t feel like it’s an all-or-nothing proposition.

Do be conscious in your application of any of the suggestions listed here. Go back and forth at least twice between your habitual usage pattern and any proposed changes (ex: A-B-A-B-A) so that you can accurately determine if the changes are indeed helpful for you and if any additional tweaks make the changes even more beneficial.

This is not a “no pain, no gain” kind of situation. If you try one of the suggestions and it hurts, stop.

Even if the modifications are helpful, it’s okay to not use them all of the time- just know that the option is available to you.

Now that we have that covered, on to the applications!

Try to carry things in a backpack (preferably with a hip and chest strap to take the pressure off of the shoulders) or cross-body bag. In your hand is the next best option. On the shoulder is the least-preferred method, as your body will make accommodations, however subtle, for the tension required to hold the bag on your shoulder.

Rolling bags can be a good option, but try to use bags that you can roll by your side rather than pull behind you, as the pulling action can exacerbate rotation through your shoulder girdle and torso over time.

Computer work:
Try to bring your computer towards your body, rather than reaching out to it. Having a laptop on your lap to type is generally better than putting it on a table to type. If you tend to have forearm or wrist pain and find yourself typing on top of a table during lectures, it might be worth investing in a simple external keyboard. You can use the laptop/external keyboard at home as well, increasing the benefit for your body by raising the laptop higher to match the natural level of your gaze, while keeping the keyboard in line with the natural downward slope of the forearms.

If you mouse a lot, carrying an external mouse in your bag that you can use during lectures (or, let’s be honest, while sitting and working on the couch) can decrease strain in your hand, wrist, and forearm. Try and go to a store to test-drive various options, as each will feel slightly different in your hand.

Lecture Hall Chairs:

Generally, if you are typing or writing, you want your body to be supported in a neutral or sometimes even forward position so that you aren’t pushing outside of your natural range of support with your arms (which can increase strain through the arms, shoulders, back, and neck). Visualize the extra stress that can be put on the body if the pelvis is more central, with the back reclining, and the arms reaching forward.

Experiment with putting some extra padding behind your entire back (not just the lumbar area), so that your upper torso and shoulder girdle are supported in a more direct line on top of your pelvis. As it starts to get cooler outside, coats can be a great tool in creating this padding.

Pay attention to the curve in the seat. Many of the chairs in the lecture halls have a scoop towards the back of the seat. This can exacerbate lower back pain for some people, as it tends to increase posterior pelvic tilt. This isn’t such a big deal when you are just sitting and listening, but if your arms are forward while typing or writing, it can heighten tension in the back, shoulders, and neck. In this case, you can experiment with putting something in that scooped out portion of the chair- making it level with the rest of the seat or even a little higher.

The overarching idea that you should keep in the back of your mind is to try and match your environment to your body, rather than the other way around.

Remember, you don’t always need to be perfect in your movement or ergonomics, a few small modifications when you think of them are better than nothing.

Interested in learning more about how you can optimize your environment? Consider scheduling an appointment for an Aston® Kinetics session!


Amanda Skidmore is a staff member of the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center, where she helps people release long-held tension and pain patterns, while also teaching them how to use their bodies with greater ease and efficiency.

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