The Physiotherapy Corner: You and Your Desk

Welcome to The Physiotherapy Corner! A blog brought to you by Holywood Pilates and Physiotherapy from our little corner of Holywood, Sullivan Place. I am Erin, a Chartered Physiotherapist and it is my hope that reading this blog will inspire and entertain you, give you something to think about, and provide you with some tips and tricks for your health and well-being.


You and Your Desk:

Whether you are in the office working at a desk, working from home, or studying for your exams, you will, without doubt, be spending the majority of your day been inactive, sitting, and doing so in prolonged postures. In addition to that, what most people do with their down time often involves sitting and prolonged postures; think reading, watching TV, and being on social media. Even hobbies such as painting, knitting, sewing, and crafting, can involve that head forward, rounded shoulders, slumped position. Doing this day in and day out has a cumulative effect on your muscular, skeletal, respiratory, and cardiovascular systems. According to a protocol for Cochrane Systematic reviews (Parry 2017), a whopping 92% of office workers reported musculoskeletal symptoms, and this is pre-pandemic!

At Holywood Pilates and Physiotherapy clinic the most common complaints from desk workers involve neck, shoulder, and lower back pain. In addition to aches and pains, prolonged postures can also lead to a whole host of problems such as weakening and shortening of muscles, poor abdominal and gluteal activation, skeletal changes, weight gain, and poor cardiovascular health.

So what can be done about this? The simple answer is to not spend hours sitting and to keep moving; however, I hear you shouting from the other side of the screen “Erin, I have to get my work done!”. I get it, but there are always small changes you can make to improve your situation that can have a big impact on your overall health and well-being, and we will explore some of those changes in today’s blog.

Desk Set-up:

Many people suddenly found themselves working from home, as their kitchen counters, dining tables, and sofas quickly became their make-shift desks. As lockdown dragged on these temporary set-ups became more permanent. Recently, there have been numerous studies completed on the impact of working from home on our physical and mental health, and these studies have highlighted both positives and negatives. From a Physiotherapy point of view, it has been clear that changes in activities and activity levels, poor desk set-ups, and increased stress rates have all had a major impact on our musculoskeletal systems, something that has always existed, but like so many other things, was highlighted by the pandemic and the extraordinary circumstances we found ourselves in.

Although your desk set-up is important, I want to say from the very start that there is no chair or desk set-up in the world, that I am currently aware of, that is going to prevent health or musculoskeletal issues if you sit in it for 6-8 hours straight, day in and day out. That is the bad news out of the way, but throughout this blog we will focus on what we can do about it, and the good news is your desk set-up definitely has a role to play in keeping you happy and pain free. The internet is a minefield of information about proper desk set-ups, specialised equipment to help you get the “perfect posture”, and chairs and cushions that will give the best support to your lumbar spine, and often these “studies” are paid for and conducted by the people who are trying to sell you the equipment! No chair is going to support your spine the way the muscles can if you keep them strong, moving and in good working order.

Here are some important factors to consider with your desk set-up:


Your chair should be height adjustable. The height should be adjusted so that your hips are very slightly higher than your knees. You should be able to lean comfortably against the back of your chair with your feet on the floor, so ideally the back support of the chair should also adjust.


Your forearms should approximately be horizontal to use your keyboard and mouse and place your mouse within easy reach of you. Your screen should be positioned in front of you so that your eyes are level with the top of the screen. You can get a screen riser on Amazon or there are some stylish options that suit your decor as well. If you are using a standing desk the same rules apply.


Put your call on speaker phone to avoid having to hold the phone between your neck and your ear, or you could just use your ear pods. Or if you want, a cool Britney Spears-type headset will do the trick, and you can even get them wireless now. Hit me baby one more time.

Desk Set-ups to Avoid:

  • Perching on a kitchen stool

  • Looking down at a lap top

  • Crossing your legs, or folding your legs up.

  • Looking up at a screen

  • Having your screen positioned to one side of your body

  • Lounging on a sofa.

  • Everything going on in the picture below!

Standing Desks:

In recent years standing desks have become popular in an attempt to combat the hazards of sitting. Standing is definitely better than sitting for your health and musculoskeletal system; however, if you can sit with poor posture and uneven weight distribution, you can certainly do the same while you are standing. If you are working from a standing desk, you need to move every 20 minutes to change your posture. I would suggest that you get an adjustable standing desk, one that allows you to sit and stand throughout the day. Standing desks are now widely available online and in stores, even Ikea and Wayfair have some options.

Desk Exercises:

Your physiotherapist can advise you on what exercises you should complete for your musculoskeletal problems; however, I have put together 3 exercises that anyone who is spending a lot of time at a desk can start using today for improvements and maintenance. These exercises are designed to get the blood moving in the lower legs, get you out of prolonged postures, and even build muscle. Plus you can do some of them in the middle of the office and no one will even know.

The Dumbwaiter:

Thoracic Spine Rotations:

Active Knee Extension:

Physiotherapists also recommend that you get up from your desk at least once every 20 minutes. Several studies have shown that getting up every half hour and moving around for a few minutes has a positive impact on your overall health. Even if all you do is literally stand up and sit back down again, at least those muscles have had a chance to stretch out and your body has changed positions.


Remember, it is impossible to sit with perfect posture 100% of the time, and in fact, if you did always sit with perfect posture, that too can lead to aches and pains. There are 3 main things that I want you to remember about posture;

  1. Correct your posture when you think about it, but don’t obsess.

  2. Spend your time outside of desk hours getting out of the posture that you spend your day in: walking, lying on your tummy, sitting on the floor, standing, moving!

  3. Strengthen the muscles that help with your postural stability (weight training, Pilates, Barre classes, dancing, exercises, etc).

Top Tips:

  • Avoid crossing legs

  • Set a stand/move alarm on watch or phone.

  • Walk and talk - whenever you take a phone call

  • Daily desk exercises

  • Take breaks and walk - see our blog about walking here.

  • Try an adjustable standing desk

  • Stand up every time you get a text message

  • Walk to colleague's desk/office - don’t email, chat or use the phone

  • Make sure you are meeting your basic physical activity guidelines

  • Stand up every 20 mins

  • Try a screen raise

  • Spend your down time wisely - exercises, moving, get out of that desk posture

  • Try a lunch-time or early morning Pilates class

  • Walking meetings - take those meetings outside

  • Park the car a little further away, or get off the bus a few stops early

  • Take the stairs

  • Zoom meeting? - stand up for it, turn off you camera and move around.

I would urge everyone who would consider themselves to be "desk bound" to calculate their sitting time. Simply count up the hours you spend in a day sitting, that includes driving, working, eating, watching TV etc. You may be horrified or pleasantly surprised by your results, but either way you will know where you stand....or don't stand!

I hope that you have found some of the above useful, and that you consider applying some of the tips into your daily life. Please take a moment and pass this on to anyone who you think this may be of interest to.


If being at your desk is causing you issues, consider attending Physiotherapy with us to see how we can help.

Disclaimer: Please note that the opinions expressed above are those of the author and always remember to seek medical advice before starting any new exercise programme.

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