Step away from the computer!

with advice from Darren Bayliss, PT, CEAS,
Michael Beauvais, PT,
and Presidio Sport and Medicine

Step away from the computer!

With the evolution of technology, people are spending more time at their desks and less time moving around at the workplace. The New York Times pointed out in 2011 that “jobs requiring moderate physical activity, which accounted for 50% of the labor market in 1960, have plummeted to just 20%.” And while the New York Times story emphasized how such changes in the workplace are a big factor contributing to the obesity issues plaguing Americans, there are many more reasons we should all try to step away from our desks now and then.

Staring at a computer screen for continuous hours throughout the day can wreak havoc with your eyes and lead to — or worsen — vision problems, according to Michael Beauvais, the clinical director and co-owner of East Metro Physical Therapy (a Physiquality network member in Clinton Township, Michigan). He points to advice from eye experts that recommend looking away from the computer (or written material) at least every 15 to 20 minutes, in order to allow our eyes to rest and reset. “This helps to reduce eye strain, sharpen acuity and slow fatigue,” says Michael.

Sitting for as little as 15 minutes contributes to sagging and compression in our backs, as our muscles relax and lose tone.Darren Bayliss, a physical therapist with Maximum Impact Physical Therapy — a Physiquality network clinic in Arizona — is concerned with the quantity of time many of us sit at our desks. He says that such behavior puts increased forces on our back, including the vertebrae, spine, nerves and blood vessels, which can increase symptoms for back pain and headaches. Michael also notes that sitting for as little as 15 minutes contributes to sagging and compression in our backs, as our muscles relax and lose tone.

This leads us to a downward path of overcompensation and pain: spinal muscles work overtime to reduce the sag and drifting forward of our head and shoulders; we tilt our heads back in order to read or see the screen better, leading to further compression of the cervical spine, tightening of muscles and overloading of joints. The end result, Michael says, can be “muscle spasms, bulging discs, pinched nerves and tension headaches.” If that weren’t enough to get you moving, Darren points out that sedentary days also negatively affect other parts of your body, including the brain, heart, lungs and bowels.

There are a few things you can do to help reduce these negative effects and improve your health at your desk. First and foremost, Michael notes that you should pay attention to your posture at your desk. He advises the following:

  • Arrange your workstation so that it allows for proper posture.Use a chair or seat with lumbar support built in, or make a lumbar roll out of an old bath towel, in order to prevent the low back from rounding backward toward the chair. This helps maintain the normal inward curve we all have in our lumbar spine, and it also allows us to position our head and shoulders over a stable base.

  • Be sure the seat height of the chair places your hips and knees at 90 degrees with the feet flat on the floor. This allows you to breathe more easily and reduces constriction of the blood vessels in our lower extremities.

In addition, Darren says you should pay attention to the layout of your desk, making sure everything is in easy reach. (For his full desk set-up, read his advice on workplace ergonomics in our post from last fall.)

It is also important to take mini-breaks throughout the day, both visually, as mentioned above, and physically. If you do a great deal of typing, microstretches like these recommended by Mitch Kaye, PT, PTPN’s Director of Quality Assurance, will help minimize finger and wrist strain. Michael notes that exercises called chin tucks (which we also mentioned in our post on posture a while back) can help decrease tension and pain. Simply tuck the chin in toward the throat, then return to your normal posture, and repeat 5-10 times. “This helps to extend or straighten the neck, stretching tight muscles and repositioning the head over the shoulders to reduce strain,” he says.

Even a simple standing stretch (stand, reach your arms above your head and stretch towards the ceiling for 5-10 seconds) will create blood flow and help you feel better.Back and shoulder stretches recommended by Presidio Sport and Medicine, a Physiquality network clinic in San Francisco, will help relax your muscles after remaining static for long periods of time. Even the simple standing stretch (stand, reach your arms above your head and stretch towards the ceiling for 5-10 seconds) will create blood flow and help you feel better. A quick lap around the office can also give you a boost of energy for that next project; Darren suggests setting a screen alert or reminder to get out of your chair and take a 30-second walk, perhaps to get a drink of water, a couple of times a day.

Lastly, Darren advises staying active when you’re not on the clock. If possible, he suggests going to the gym on your lunch break, or at least taking a 15-minute walk around the office complex. If that’s not an option, be sure to exercise before or after work a few times a week, to raise your heart rate and stretch out the muscles that have been compressing while at your desk. And see whether your company offers benefits to help you stay healthy; many offer reduced rates at the local gym, or sometimes even classes within your office or building.

Darren Bayliss, PT, CEAS Darren Bayliss, PT, CEAS, is a physical therapist with Maximum Impact Physical Therapy, a Physiquality network clinic with four locations in Arizona. A certified ergonomic assessment specialist, Darren is a lecturer and presenter on the topic and consults on workplace injury prevention and management.
Michael Beauvais, PT Michael Beauvais, PT, is a physical therapist and the clinical director and co-owner of East Metro Physical Therapy, a Physiquality network member in Clinton Township, Michigan. Michael’s interests include spine and extremity care, manual therapy, arthritis rehabilitation, strength and conditioning, and golf biomechanics, and he is also a member of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Manual Physical Therapists.

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For further information:

Heiting, Gary. Computer eye strain: 10 steps for relief., February 26, 2013.


Alderman, Lesley. Sit up straight. Your back thanks you. New York Times, June 24, 2011.

Parker-Pope, Tara. Less active at work, Americans have packed on the pounds. New York Times, May 25, 2011.

Green, Erin. Workplace ergonomics. Presidio Sport & Medicine.

Physical therapy corner: Office ergonomics — a guide to a healthier, more productive and happier work environment. Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma, March 8, 2007.

The material and information contained on this Web site is for information only and is not intended to serve as medical advice or consultation.

Consult your personal physician before beginning any exercise program or self-treatment.