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The Ergonomics Equation: The Whole Picture

Having become more educated about the three parts of The Ergonomics Equation:

Neutral Positioning + Voluntary Movements + Rest & Restorative Periods

you know that by following these three steps you can achieve greater comfort, productivity and health when working with your computer. However, the largest challenge in incorporating this formula into your computing routine is that in order to put these recommendations into practice, a person must be a skilled observer of their own body placement, computing habits and time management. All of this must be accomplished on top of the work you are already doing at your computer. It takes time to develop this good habit  and become more aware of how we are observing and utilizing our bodies when interfacing with our workstations.

 

Ergonomic Equation Part One: Neutral Position

The first step in beginning to implement The Ergonomic Equation into your habitual computing movements at home, school and in the workplace is to fully understand how to rest your fingers, wrists, forearms, elbows, shoulders and head in a neutral position when working at a keyboard. Once you master neutral positioning, you are ready to advance to voluntary movements.

ergonomics sitting1

The Importance of Neutral Positioning

According to medical dictionaries, the neutral position of the arm is a body position that, when assumed, prevents the cumulative trauma to the arm by incorporating proper placement of the wrist, elbow and shoulder.

Of course, if you think about the way you might typically sit at your computer, you realize the position is anything but neutral. Most of us hunch forward, pounding away at the keyboard. Awkward positioning in this space can lead to increased pressure on the nerves through your arms and increased friction and strain on your tendons. In turn, these consequences can lead to chronic inflammation and pain. Your chances of developing serious health conditions such as tendonitis, carpal tunnel and arthritis also increase.

Taking measures to understand more neutral, ergonomic positions and working to implement them into your computing can help ease the strain on your body and improve your work, as well as your comfort.

Your Fingers

When in neutral positioning, your fingers should be relaxed and slightly curved, as if they were resting over a basketball. Too many people tend to hold their fingers too straight while typing, and this rigidity is very stressful to the small muscles in the hand.

ergonomics mouse hand

Common Causes of Awkward Finger Positioning

  • Finger nails that are too long. If your nails are too long you will be forced to hold your fingers in a straighter, less neutral position in order to hit the keys.
  • Pounding your keyboard. Tension of stress from your life trickles into the way that you type. If you experience high amounts of stress you are more likely to pound your keyboard, this action continually and forcibly stretch your fingers into straighter positions than are beneficial to your hand muscles.

The Wrist

Two of the most common conditions that result from poor wrist positioning are carpal tunnel syndrome and wrist tendinitis. Maintaining a neutral wrist position is not only crucial to avoiding the development of these conditions, but it also nurtures comfortable typing. To achieve this position your wrist should be kept flat – not bent forward or backward, and not angled from side to side. According to Ergonomicsnews, for every 15 degrees that the wrist is bent either forwards or backward undue pressure is placed on the median nerve that passes through the carpal tunnel. Continually applying pressure in this way results in the development of carpal tunnel condition.

ergonomics keyboard hands

Common Causes of Wrist Pain

  • Planting your wrist too firmly down on the desk or wrist rest in front of the keyboard will result in pain.
  • If your keyboard is too small, your fingers must turn at an angle to rest on the home keys, and this causes your wrist to bend at an unnatural angle.

The Forearm

The neutral position for the forearm is to hold the forearm half way between the palm-up and the palm-down position, with your thumbs facing up and your palms open to each other. To better visualize this position, drop your arms to your sides, then bend your elbow and lift your arms without rotating your forearm.

Common Cause of Forearm Pain

  • The largest problem with maintaining a neutral position for the forearm is that most computer stations position the forearm in the palm-down position.
  • To help mitigate forearm pain you may want to look into using a keyboard, mouse or keyboard tray that helps rotate your arm into a more neutral position.

The Elbows

If your elbow is bent more than 90 degrees, you will experience a great amount of strain on the Ulnar nerve in your arm. This is the “funny bone” area, and if continually stressed it can become extremely tender.

position zones

Most Common Cause of Elbow Strain

  • Inappropriately placed keyboards can cause you to experience elbow strain. Your keyboard height should allow your elbows to be open to a minimum of 90 degrees, and preferably a bit more. Keyboard and computer station products designed with this in mind offer you more comfort and support.

The Shoulders

The neutral position for your shoulders is a comfortably relaxed, lowered state. To gage your specific neutral position you can raise your shoulders up towards your ears and forcefully hold that position for five seconds. After the allotted time, take a deep breath, and as you release the breath let all your muscle tension go and allow your shoulders to relax back down.  The point where you feel all your muscle tension ease out is the point of neutrality for your shoulders.

Common Causes of Shoulder Tension

  • Stress is one of the most common causes of shoulder tension; many of us carry our stress in our shoulders, keeping them bunched up toward the ears.
  • Another common cause of elevated shoulders are chair armrests that are too high. If your chair armrests are too tall it causes your shoulders to bunch up and strain.

The Head

If you frequently work at a desk or computer, you will find your head falling forward more and more. This puts undue tension on your neck muscles, your shoulders and your arms. Neutral alignment for the head occurs when the head and the shoulders are stacked on top of one another.

Common Causes for Head Tension

While we often think of neutral positioning in relation to computer and work stations, it is applicable throughout all areas of our lives. By becoming familiar with the neutral positions of your fingers, wrists, forearms, elbows, shoulders and head you can begin to consciously practice relaxing your body in these positions. After mastering this first step in the Ergonomics Equation, you are ready to move on to step number two: Voluntary Motions.

Ergonomic Equation Part Three: Rest & Restorative Periods

Banner Ergonomics Rest

As discussed in Part Two of The Ergonomics Equation, our bodies are not intended for long periods of static or minimal movement. While positioning your body in neutral placements and utilizing voluntary movements helps combat the pitfalls of a sedentary lifestyle  and working method, it is crucial that you also provide your body with needed break time when working at the computer.

The Importance of Rest & Restorative Periods

To minimize the possibility of developing repetitive work injuries, muscle and eye strain it is important to take timely rests during extended periods of computer work. When these rest techniques become an established part of your work routine you will not only see an improvement in the levels of comfort you experience at your computer station, but you will also see an increase in productivity and personal health.

To effectively utilize resting periods while computing our bodies require:

  • Mini breaks of two or three minutes each for every half hour of work at the computer.
  • A 15 minute break for every two hours of work at the computer.

How should you spend these breaks? SpineUniverse.com specifies four break strategies:

Eye Breaks

Looking at a computer screen can be almost hypnotic. In fact, doing so for hours physically changes how the eyes work. In this situation, your eyes blink less often and widen, exposing more of your eye’s surface to open air. Every 15 minutes you should briefly look away from the screen for a minute or two and instead focus your eyes on something more distant, preferably 20 feet or more away. Doing this helps the muscles in your eyes to relax. You should also blink your eyes rapidly for a few seconds, refreshing your tear film and cleansing the dust from your eye’s surface.

Micro-Breaks

Think for a moment about the way you type. Most typing is done in micro-bursts of activity, rather than continuously. You pause when typing to read or consult other material, to answer the phone and for any other number of reasons. Between your typing bursts make a conscious effort to rest your hands in a neutral position, this helps avoid wrist injuries  and other negative impacts to the small muscles in the hands. If you can, during these micro breaks, lasting two or three minutes, you should stand, stretch and move around. Incorporating standing micro breaks into your work routine helps build a sit and stand work habit.

Rest Breaks

Every 30 to 60 minutes you should take a slightly longer micro-break. These breaks are ideal for standing up to get a drink of water or coffee, or use the restroom. By standing up and moving around you engage muscles different from those you have been using at your workstation. This allows your other muscles to rest and will make you feel less tired when returning to your computer.

Exercise Breaks

Every two hours you should take a 15 minute exercise break. During this time there are many simple stretches and gentle exercises you can do to help relieve built-up muscle tension and fatigue. You can read more about these exercises by visiting VersaTables’ other on-line resources: Simple WorkStation Stretches  and The Two Minute Stretch Program.

Other Simple Tips

There are some other simple steps you can take to promote rest and revitalization throughout your computing period. Such simple solutions do not take much time at all to implement, but will greatly improve your efficiency and comfort when working at your computer.

Set A Timer

It is easy to lose track of time when working at a computer, often you might not realize how long it has been since you took a micro break, looked away from the screen or did some gentle stretches. It is important to create a personal system to remind you about your required break intervals. This system might be as simple as setting a timer on your watch or blackberry; it can be more sophisticated with the use of computer software designed specifically to remind you of restive techniques and periods.

Stay Hydrated

Dehydration contributes to muscle fatigue and tension. Remember that most health professionals, including the Mayo Clinic, recommend all adults drink eight to nine cups of water a day.

Move When You Can

Work to find creative and innovative ways to incorporate more movement into your work routine. This should not be done at the cost of productivity or efficiency, but instead done to support these goals.

By effectively incorporating consistent and efficient rest periods into your computing habits you will be able to experience more comfort and satisfaction in your working period. Your levels of productivity will increase, while your chances of developing a repetitive use injury will decrease. However, the largest challenge to improving your computing time with The Ergonomics Equation comes in simply considering each part of this important formula as a whole and working to consciously retrain your body and mind to engage in these practices.

Ergonomic Equation Part Two: Voluntary Movements

As you begin to implement The Ergonomic Equation into your habitual computing movements at home, school and work it is important to arrange your computer station in a manner that supports your body’s neutral positioning. However, while neutral positioning is certainly a healthy placement for your fingers, wrist, arms, elbows, shoulders and head, it would be foolish to assume that remaining static in any of these positions for an extensive time is conducive to your health and comfort. This is where the Voluntary Movement portion of The Ergonomic Equation comes in.

The Importance of Voluntary Movements

Staying still in any position, neutral or not, for too long can lead to a build up of toxic waste within your muscles. Our bodies are designed and have evolved to move nearly continuously throughout the day. Because of this, it is physically counter-intuitive for us to sit still for long periods of time.

Voluntary Movements refer to movements of the body that occur unintentionally during your work period. While some might initially think these movements only contribute to a loss of efficiency or fidgetiness, the opposite is true. These movements play a crucial part in not only The Ergonomics Equation, but in maintaining top comfort, safety and productivity in your work.

Voluntary Movements relieve the toxic build up in static muscles and, consequently, also relieve stress and tension. These movements can be maximized when coupled with effective computer display products.

Lighting

One of the most common complaints from those who work extensively with computer screens is acute eye strain. However, by using products that support the voluntary movements of regularly adjusting and shifting your computer screen, you can change the way light reflects from the screen, minimizing viewing strain on your eyes.  Using a well-lit keyboard also helps to minimize eye strain.

Products that Support Lighting Voluntary Movement

Stand, Arm or Cart

To further facilitate your voluntary movements at your workstation, you should choose a computer mounting technique that offers adjustable screen height, tilt and pan. This will allow you to shift your working position throughout the day, while still maintaining neutral placement of your body parts. Special computer stands, arms or carts can also create a work station that is more conducive to sit and stand workflow—one of the most healthy and efficient working techniques.

Products that Support Stand, Arm or Cart Voluntary Movement

Keyboard and Mouse

Because nearly all computer users interact frequently with the mouse and keyboard, these items provide numerous opportunities for voluntary movements, and are an important part of the human and machine interfacing. To best support both neutral positioning and voluntary movements, the keyboard and mouse should be positioned at elbow height, with the back of the keyboard sloping away and down at a 5 degree angle.

Products that Support Keyboard & Mouse Voluntary Movement

Chair

If you have ever sat hunched over a computer station for hours, you are familiar with the stress and strain that can set in to your back and shoulder muscles. While learning to relax your body with neutral positioning, using a chair that offers adequate support is equally important. Your chair should provide both lumbar and arm support, meet minimum seat and depth guidelines and slope slightly forward to provide neutral knee positioning.  You should be able to easily voluntarily twist and lean in your chair.

Products that Support Chair Voluntary Movement

Foot Rest

Periodically moving your legs is also a good way to incorporate voluntary movements into your computing. This does not mean you should swing your legs at your desk or tap your feet, rather you should move your body in ways that promote good neutral positioning and posture. For example, if your feet do not touch the floor when you are sitting in your chair you should use a foot rest. If working while standing, using a rail or a foot rest helps you maintain good balance and promotes further voluntary motion.

Products that Support Foot Rest Voluntary Movement

Allowing your body to naturally and properly move throughout the day is an important part of The Ergonomics Equation. By taking measures to develop habits and use equipment that functionally allow for these movements, you do not lose any work productivity. It is crucial you take steps to provide your body with opportunities to rest from static positioning. The final component to The Ergonomics Equation is closely related to this concept, encouraging you to incorporate productive rest periods into your computing time as well.

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