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Home Office Ergonomics

Good posture and positioning can avert injury, especially if you're over 50.

You've finally set up a home office and can't wait to put it to use. You've got the right chair, the right computer, the right printer, even the right coffee mug. But the "right" home office doesn't mean a thing if you use it in the wrong way. Enter ergonomics.

Put simply, ergonomics for the home office is all about ensuring that the desk you tucked away in the spare bedroom isn't causing undue strain on your body. Is your chair at the wrong height? Are your wrists positioned incorrectly? Is the monitor too far away? Remember, if you're over 50, you're naturally more susceptible to stress-related injuries. (Mouse over the image below for more details.)

Photo: John Healey

"The nature of tissue changes as we get older," says Kevin J. Costello of U.S. Ergonomics, a Sea Cliff, N.Y., consulting firm. "We're more likely to have issues with spinal disks, knees, hips [and] muscle strength, so improper ergonomics can more quickly lead to injury."

Because of the health risks posed by poor posture and repetitive stress, proper ergonomics are too important to ignore. Whether you're gainfully self-employed or retired and loving it, here's how to stay healthy from head to toe when you're in your home office.

Eyes and neck: Incorrect monitor positioning can cause neck and eye strain, and can lead to poor seat positioning, which creates pressure on the back. Costello, the ergonomics consultant, says the top of your monitor should be positioned just above your eye level when you're seated. This is the best place for your "vision cone," your most immediate field of vision, which starts at the top at your eye level and descends at a 30-degree angle.

When monitors are too far away, people tend to lean forward to see better. This is increasingly true as people age, since vision almost inevitably declines over time. A rule of thumb: If you can extend your arm and just touch the screen with your fingertips, then you're in the right position.

Wrists and arms: To keep wrists and arms at an optimum position, reducing the risk of repetitive-motion injuries, your keyboard and mouse should be at the same level as your elbows when you're seated. Since most desks are too high for this position, a simple fix is an adjustable keyboard tray that attaches to the underside of your desk, says Cynthia M. Burt of the Environmental Health and Safety Department at UCLA.

Back and hips: Good news for aging disks: Sitting properly takes 20 percent to 30 percent of the pressure off your lower back. Your chair should be between 17 inches and 19 inches deep, and it should have good lower-back support. Your body should be positioned with your back against the chair and your hips open. If you find yourself leaning forward to see your monitor or reach the keyboard, move them toward you.

Legs and knees: Leg positioning contributes to your overall position in the chair, says Burt, so be sure your legs are bent at about 90-degree angles at the knees. This helps alleviate pressure on the back. Burt warns that movement is essential for circulation, however, so allow for subtle shifts in positioning and be sure to stand, stretch and walk a few steps at least once an hour. Move about more frequently if you have diagnosed circulation problems.

Feet: Feet should be firmly planted on the floor. If the chair positioning you require for proper wrist alignment results in your feet not reaching the floor, use a block, a few books or some other type of footrest to support your feet. However, make sure that the height of the support keeps your knees at a right angle, says Costello.

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