Man sitting at desk, stretching arms.

How-to: The Art of Achieving Proper Desk Posture

Date Published: 2023-08-24
Author: Team Sedera

Did you know that, on average, Americans spend approximately 7-8 hours per day sitting? According to a recent study in JAMA, increased sitting time is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. But here’s some good news. If you have to be at your desk for long hours there are postural improvements that can significantly impact your health and quality of life.

Achieving proper desk posture takes a day-to-day commitment to building better posture habits. This can be a challenge because it’s easy to slip back into old habits. Just remember that even small changes are worthwhile — for both physical and mental health.

Five simple steps to improve posture at your desk

Improving your posture might seem like a daunting task, however, it can be simplified to five key areas of improvement. Good posture is the foundation of a healthy lifestyle and only requires a little extra effort each day to maintain. 

1. Sit upright and avoid slouching

When focusing on posture, start by improving your back position. All other postural improvements will flow from there. Try to keep your back straight, resting against the seat back. Also, consider using a lumbar support to ensure proper alignment and support with the natural curve of your spine.

Along with the back position, try adjusting seat height to reduce pressure on the back of your knees. As you proceed through this list, make fine adjustments to seat height to better improve things like head and arm position.

2. Look up and align your head

Your overall health can be substantially impacted by added stress on your head and neck. This, in turn, can also negatively affect other areas of your life, such as:

  • Quality of sleep

  • Ability to focus

  • Energy and activity level

To reduce stress, ensure your monitor is directly in front of you, roughly arms-length away, and with the top of the monitor at or just below eye level.

3. Keep your wrists and feet flat

The position of your arms and legs is critical for maintaining good posture. Remember to keep your wrists, arms, and feet flat or straight.

While crossing your legs might feel comfortable in the moment, it can create poor circulation and added pressure on the lower body. Keeping your feet flat on the floor will help avoid unnecessary stress on the lower body — this includes your legs, muscles, pelvis, and hips.

When your wrists are bent in any direction, it causes added stress on the muscles and tendons in your wrists and forearms. To reduce wrist pain, focus on keeping your wrists straight. To achieve this, you might need to make modifications to your workspace to reposition your mouse, keyboard, and other desktop items.

This can be a great opportunity to consider replacing your desk mat or mouse pad to improve your posture while adding a little pizazz to your workspace!

Make sure to keep your wrists above the keyboard, and your arms parallel to the ground. Resting your arms on the desk is perfectly fine. When repositioning your keyboard and mouse, make sure they're close enough that you don't end up reaching for them such that you end up rounding your posture forward.

4. Stretch your shoulders backward

Over time, it’s not uncommon to find yourself leaning forwards toward the desk. Often, this means a lowered head, shoulders rolled forward, and added stress on the lower back. Remember to keep your shoulders rolled backward, back straight, and head upright.

According to the guide Posture Correction and Stretching by Myra Jones, PTA at UC Santa Barbara, your head and ears should be directly over your shoulders.

If necessary, periodic stretching can be a worthwhile tool to keep limber, alert, and help reset your shoulder and upper body posture.

5. Take regular breaks

Taking regular breaks can be a useful tool to help maintain energy and focus. Try taking a 10-minute break every hour. Moving around for a few minutes every hour can help stimulate the mind and help you refocus for the hours to come.

If you start to feel exhausted or have a reduced focus, remember to try some of these techniques:

  • Take a 10-minute break every hour.

  • Get up and move around.

  • Try simple stretches.

  • Take a bathroom break.

  • Get water or a snack.

Good desk posture

Woman sitting at desk with good posture, using footrest.

Good posture is the foundation for developing healthy habits in your workspace. Having an optimal posture will help ensure reduced stress on your body, as well as aiding you to maintain focus and energy on your work.

What is the correct posture for sitting at a desk?

Correct desk posture includes an upright back, feet flat on the floor, arms and thighs parallel to the ground, and head looking straight forward. In this position, there is reduced stress on your:

  • Lower back

  • Knees and feet

  • Neck and shoulders

  • Wrists and elbows

What does the correct wrist and arm posture look like?

Correct arm posture should include arms parallel to the ground. Resting forearms on the desk is perfectly fine and can help reduce fatigue. If you find yourself applying significant arm pressure to the desk, be aware this can be an indicator you’re starting to lean forward at the back a bit too much. Your elbows should be bent at roughly 90 degrees.

Correct wrist posture includes straight wrists that are not bent much in any direction. The more bend in the wrist, the more stress they are enduring. You might find the following techniques useful to achieve a straight wrist posture:

  • Adjust keyboard distance and height.

  • Use a keyboard and mouse wrist pad.

  • Try an ergonomic mouse that reduces wrist rotation.

According to the Environmental Health & Safety department at The University of New Mexico, your primary work devices, such as a keyboard and mouse, should be located within roughly 12 inches from your desk posture. Other frequently used items, such as a document holder or notepad, should be located within 18 inches from your posture. The more you have to reach for something, the more likely it is to begin affecting your posture.

Does a footrest help improve desk posture?

A footrest can help improve desk posture and can reduce unnecessary stress on your legs, knees, and lower back. If you are unable to change other elements of your desk setup, such as your chair, you might consider a footrest to help compensate.

The important factor to consider is whether your feet can rest flat, with your thighs relatively parallel to the ground. If you find that they aren’t and you’re experiencing added stress on your knees, try even a small footrest to see if the stress is reduced.

According to the Division of Occupational Health and Safety, at NIH, footrests can be a useful tool for individuals whose feet don’t quite reach the floor, or for dealing with chair constraints that prevent a more neutral leg position.

Can a posture ball help?

In some cases, a posture ball may be worth experimenting with to help improve posture and reduce stress on the body. An additional consideration is that, when using a posture ball, the body is constantly moving to maintain balance. If you’re looking to improve your activity at the desk, a posture ball can be a useful tool to keep you active.

Posture balls come in several forms and sizes. This also includes posture ball chairs which have a frame, sometimes feature a backrest, and may include other features wrapped around the ball.

One thing to keep in mind is that posture balls usually don’t offer lumbar support. Accordingly, they’re not a permanent replacement for an ergonomic chair. According to a Cornell University assessment of multiple ergonomic studies, posture balls should only be used for temporary sitting or core strengthening. For long-term sitting, an ergonomic chair may be ideal.

Bad desk posture

Man slouching over desk with poor posture.

A less-than-optimal posture can take its toll on the body as well as negatively affect the ability to focus and the quality of work. Recognizing the signs of detrimental posture is important to ensure it is caught early and can be corrected before long term side effects occur.

What does bad desk posture look like?

A posture that is less than ideal will typically involve a heavy lean forward. Often, you might notice you are beginning to apply significant pressure to the desk through your forearms. Ultimately, you might notice added strain on your:

  • Back and neck

  • Wrists and forearms

  • Shoulders and elbows

  • Knees and thighs

As the day progresses, it is not uncommon to find yourself slowly moving toward this sort of posture. This highlights the importance of taking periodic breaks for even just a few minutes every hour. Doing so can help reset posture to a more optimal state, minimizing strain.

Neck and shoulder pain from bad desk posture

A neutral upper body posture consists of your head, neck, and shoulders in alignment. When either of these body parts begins leaning or rolling out of this upright alignment, one or all three can be subjected to added stress.

Have you ever held a weight or dumbbell stationary with an outstretched arm? Even a light weight of only two pounds becomes extremely difficult to hold for a short period of time. Now consider this example in relation to your head and neck.

According to a study published in the National Library of Medicine, when the head is bent at a 15-degree angle, the weight on the cervical spine more than doubles! Increase this bend to 60 degrees and the weight on the cervical spine increases by nearly 400%.

Repetitive strain injuries caused by bad posture

Some of the most common postural injuries frequently involve the neck and wrists. These are delicate body parts that are sometimes subjected to significant stress relative to their size. In less-than-ideal postures, it is not uncommon for significant and repeated stress to be applied in these areas.

With wrists and arms in general, it is not uncommon to see conditions such as:

  • Tendonitis

  • Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

  • Tennis Elbow

To avoid head and neck injury, remember to keep your head upright, looking straight forward, head in line with your neck and shoulders.

To avoid wrist, arm, and elbow injuries, ensure your arms are parallel to the ground, lightly resting on your desk, and with your wrists relatively straight. Keep an eye out for added pressure on your arms or wrists. It could be a sign you are beginning to slump down or forward and need to reset your posture.

According to University Health Services at Princeton University, taking frequent breaks is always a good option to ensure postural issues do not persist for too long. When in doubt, take a break! This can help ensure postural problems don’t progress into more serious repetitive strain injuries.

Remember, even small postural improvements are valuable

For most people, spending up to 1/3 of the day sitting is the new normal. Remember, simple changes to your posture and workspace can substantially improve your health. Every little bit counts! Try taking a short break to stretch every hour.

When you have a few minutes, such as after lunch, dust off those shoes and go for a brief walk around your workplace. While you're at it, make some time to take a bathroom break, get a drink of water, and grab a snack.

Remember, postural improvements are a marathon and every little bit counts. Try a few of the ideas on this list and you might find just the thing you need to regain energy and focus so you can take on the rest of the workday!

SEDERA DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. The information contained herein is for informational and/or educational purposes only and is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.