Writers spend a lot of time sitting in chairs; it is a hazard of our occupation. We all know that sitting is not healthy but it is hard to write while moving. I know because I’ve tried. I don’t wish to go off on a diatribe about fitness. All the writers I know do exercise, and build breaks into the day to go walking or to the gym. Breaks are important for both physical and mental health reasons, but when you must stay in your chair and have a deadline to meet; having a comfortable office chair makes a big difference.
So what makes a good chair? In my past life as an occupational therapist I did a lot of research on ergonomics. The consensus is that the most important chair-selection factor is height. Although it seems counter-intuitive, the first consideration is being able to adjust the seat height of the chair to achieve the perfect set-up for typing. In a previous post we discussed the ideal keyboard height. When you are setting up your work station the best strategy is to organize the relationship to the keyboard first and then adjust everything else. If, when you have the perfect set-up for your arms your feet are dangling in the air (inevitable it seems), the solution is to make or purchase a footrest to support them. You can buy inexpensive angled foot rests at any office supply store. Large books will also suffice, although it seems sacrilegious, and telephone books work well if you still get them.
Once you have found an adjustable height chair the next factor to look at is how deep the seat is. When your low back is firmly against the backrest you should be able to insert three fingers between the back of your calf (with your knee bent to 90 degrees) and the edge of the seat. If the chair seat is too long for you your lower back will be forced into a flattened position. When it comes to spine health, maintaining a normal curvature in the lumbar (low waist) part of the spine is important, as the lumbar curve sets the foundation for everything above it. Some chairs allow adjustment in the seat depth, but if you are unable to find one to fit you can artificially shorten the seat depth by adding a contoured back support. If you are very tall you may have to order a customized chair to fit you. Office furniture stores can order these, but don’t often keep them in stock.
The back of your office chair should come to the middle of your shoulder blades or higher. How much the back of the chair should angle is a hotly debated topic. Most good office chairs will allow you to change the angle of recline. Reclining allows you to shift some of the weight of your torso from the low back to the upper back. The down side of reclining is that once you lean back, you are also tempted to slide down, which flattens out the lumbar curve. When you recline you also tend to poke forward with your chin so that you can see better, which sets you up for the “hunchback” posture we are all hoping to avoid.
The width of office chairs is generally standard and the main guideline is simply comfort. Armrests are beneficial because they provide support to the shoulders and upper body when you are reading. Most people do not type with their arms on the armrests, so you should have enough clearance that when you type the armrests are not digging into your elbows or otherwise constricting your movement. Adjustable armrests are best, so that you can move them out of the way if you aren’t using them, and they actually support your arms when you do need them. Adjust-ability is particularly important if you have an unusually long or unusually short torso.
Writers who have low back pain should also consider trying out a kneeling chair or a standing desk. Both of these options have pros and cons. Kneeling chairs create an excellent position for the lumbar spine but can cause some pressure on the knees and upper back. Standing desks can also work well, but standing in one place for prolonged periods can cause other types of discomfort.
As always, the most easiest way to prevent back pain is to get up frequently and move around. Most of us tend to do this anyway (just one more cup of tea…and then one more trip to the bathroom). Nevertheless, investing in a comfortable writing chair is a worthwhile endeavour, and if you are short on cash you can often find them reasonably priced at used office furniture outlets or auction sales.
I hope this is helpful information. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them in the comments box below.
Wishing you comfortable and happy writing,
Our next writing retreat will take place on Sunday, June 22, 2014. We hope you can join us.
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“Comfy chair” drawing by Janis McCallen
Teacup photo by Janis McCallen.