The Differences Between Ergonomics and Ergodynamics
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Just What Is ‘Office Ergonomics’?
Ergonomics is fundamentally about making everyday objects adjustable to fit the various anthropometries of individual users. Some ergonomists work on designing car seats, steering wheels, and every button or knob in a car to be easily reachable for the driver. Others work on cutlery and cookware grips, aircraft cockpits, and so on. Of greatest interest to us today is office workstations, which begat the subspecialty of ‘office ergonomics.’
Basically, anywhere that people need to interact with their environment to perform their jobs, ergonomics plays a part in making it a comfortable, productive and injury-free place to do so. At the end of the day, having a good ergonomic workstation is vital to optimizing human performance.
For this reason, the tech industry tends to spend more on their employees’ workstations than almost any other industry. These people not only tend to be working at their computers 100% of the time that they’re at their desks, but they are also highly paid individuals. In other words, employers tend not to question the return-on-investment in good workstations when it comes to keeping their top performers at their desks longer and visiting doctors less.
When It All Began
As soon as people starting using a computer to perform the bulk of their daily work (and even before that, secretaries who were enslaved to a typewriter), ergonomic maladies followed. The field of office ergonomics was thus created in order to address sore necks, sore backs and other signs of working for too many hours in too awkward a position.
While the field of ergonomics initially drew from medical knowledge, mechanical engineering and other disciplines, it relied heavily on trial and error, followed by statistical gathering, to learn whether ergonomic solutions actually worked as promised. Most of what has been established as the core principles of office ergonomics were developed three or four decades ago, based entirely on the research of seated users working at a fixed-height desk. Regardless, let’s dive into the basics of ergonomics here before launching off into the next section on ergodynamics.
The basic idea here is to find a chair that supports your spinal curves. Adjust the height of your chair so that your feet rest flat on the floor or on a footrest and your thighs are parallel to the floor. Adjust armrests so your arms gently rest on them with your shoulders relaxed.
While we’ve seen some ergonomic chairs with 17 levers, the sad fact is that most workers don’t even bother to optimize every ergonomic adjustment on these chairs unless there’s a staff ergonomist available to assist them—the prospect of figuring out all those levers is simply too daunting for the average human. Most people are usually better off with a well-designed chair with fewer than six fundamental adjustments. As long as they actually learn how to adjust them properly.
Ergonomic keyboards have come along way, with some of the most popular models out there, like Microsoft’s Natural and Sculpt, the Kinesis Freestyle, and the Logitech Ergonomic Keyboard having a raised, padded front edge and a splayed-out keycap layout to reduce strain on the wrists from ulnar deviation and wrist extension. This just means these keyboards are designed to keep your hands perfectly in line with your forearms, with no bending in the wrists to put the squeeze on nerves and blood vessels passing through the carpal bones. (The worst offenders are tiny keyboards, like those in laptops, that exacerbate ulnar deviation, potentially leading to carpal tunnel syndrome.)
While ergonomic keyboards provide some negative tilt, it is usually in the range of only 5° to 7.5°. To achieve more neutral typing postures, and for several other reasons, adjustable keyboard trays (AKTs) are essential. So much so that an AKT is an ergonomist’s first go-to prescription for practically every user. To learn more about negative tilt and other features of AKTs check out our Complete Guide to Ergonomic Keyboard Trays.
When using your mouse you want to keep your wrists straight, your upper arms close to your body (i.e. as vertical as possible), and your hands slightly below the level of your elbows. Use keyboard shortcuts to reduce extended mouse use. Ambidexterity is your friend here if you can split your mousing time between your left and right hands.
Remember the ‘before times’ when you used to cradle your phone between your head and neck? Thanks to the pandemic and the democratization of videoconferencing calls, practically everyone owns a headset now. Necks everywhere are thankful for it.
Particular for short-legged individuals, if the cylinder of your chair doesn’t go low enough for you to rest your feet flat on the floor—or the height of your desk requires you to raise the height of your chair—the simple solution is to use a footrest. Some footrests are rigid, while others have a rocking motion to them that allows you to mildly stretch your calf and other leg and foot muscles gently while working away. (Check out our Top Footrest Reviews.)
Place the monitor directly in front of you, about an arm’s length away. The top of the screen should be at or slightly below eye level. The monitor should be directly behind your keyboard. If you wear bifocals, lower the monitor an additional 1 to 2 inches for more comfortable viewing. Place your monitor so that the brightest light source (like a window) is to the side, not behind the monitor or behind your head. (Check out our Monitor Arm Reviews.)
Under the desk, make sure there’s clearance for your knees, thighs and feet. If the desk is too low, and can’t be adjusted, place sturdy boards or blocks under the desk legs to raise it. If the desk is too high and can’t be adjusted, raise your chair. Use a footrest to support your feet as needed. If your desk has a hard edge, pad the edge or use a wrist rest.
OK, So What’s ‘Ergodynamics’ All About, Then?
By the 2020’s millions of office workers have already left the conventional world of fixed-height desks behind and moved on to an active workstation, such as a standing desk or treadmill desk.
Unfortunately, most ergonomists received their training certificates in a time predating the advent of active office furniture, and in truth, only a scant few have any actual training in ergodynamics. Worse yet, 99% of the information you’ll find on ergonomics on the internet is antiquated; effectively obsolete in terms of what’s really good and proper for an active workstation user.
Ergodynamics takes into account that everything about standing or walking while typing is different than when users were seated at a desk. Since there are no chair arms to support our forearms, even the very concept of a “neutral” typing position can be radically different.
What Does It Mean To Be In A Neutral Position?
The most neutral position occurs when all muscles are at rest, such as when lying in bed. For another visualization, picture an astronaut asleep in weightlessness. While this obviously can’t be achieved when working in front of a computer the solution is to create a position where:
- The largest and strongest muscles do the most work
- Muscles are not doing unnecessary work just to maintain the position
- Muscles are doing work in their optimal strength range (to prevent muscle and tendon strain)
Why Is It Important To Work In a Neutral Position?
One common misconception about working at a desk is that we should work in a completely relaxed position. This is wrong.
A relaxed position means muscles aren’t active. If muscles are relaxed and you’re not lying flat, there is something else holding you up. If it’s not muscles, then it must be ligaments and bones hanging off of each other.
A ligament’s job is to hold bones together and keep your skeleton in place, but they are not designed to do the job on their own indefinitely. Chronic stress or tension on a ligament, like any soft tissue in the body, will cause it to lengthen over the course of months and years.
When they lengthen, they fail to fully support the bones and put even more stress on surrounding ligaments and tissues. This causes the body to compensate in ways that usually cause pain. Ligaments also take a long time to heal because they have a very low blood supply.
How Do You Achieve a Neutral Working Position?
The main goal is to take stress and tension off the ligaments. This can be done in a number of ways, but the most obvious is to change positions. When you change positions often, the ligaments’ natural elasticity will pull them back to where they should be and avoid damage. Changing positions often helps your body in other ways too, including improving brain function, increasing blood flow, and staying alert.
The key is to change positions, from sitting to standing, and ideally to walking, every 30 to 90 minutes. This is why so many standing desk users eventually graduate to a treadmill desk, to introduce that third modality. Walking helps pump the blood that has pooled in the feet and calves back up against the pull of gravity, while also boosting oxygen flow to the brain and productivity in general. It also helps to stave off varicose veins.
Another effective way to take stress off the ligaments is to use your stronger and more capable muscles. Muscles are perfect for taking some of the load off of ligaments for a number of reasons:
- They can stretch and shorten on command to be the perfect length and tension for any job
- They can’t be overstretched like ligaments, because they contract
- If there were to be a muscle injury, muscles have a very high blood flow so they can heal very quickly (think of how long a pulled muscle takes to heal compared to a sprained joint)
While using muscles is important, it’s also important to use the right muscles in the right ways. Core muscles like abdominals, hip flexors/extensors, and pectorals are much larger and stronger muscles than the multifidus in the back or the scalenes in the neck. The stronger muscles are better suited to keep the body in the correct position and maintain posture.
By working in a neutral position, the body isn’t relying on ligaments or the weaker muscles to maintain its position. Instead, it is using the strong muscles and natural gravitational pull to let bones rest on top of one another as they should.
What Does a Neutral Position Look Like in Reality?
We’ve established what a neutral position is, why it’s important, and even how to achieve it in theory. How do you achieve it in reality? If a neutral position is the apex of a pyramid, things like keyboard trays, monitor arms, standing desks and standing mats are the blocks underneath. Not only do the blocks need to be present, they must be used correctly for the pyramid to stand.
Keyboard Tray Ergodynamics
Just as our vocal intensity increases 20% when we stand, we tend to put more force into our typing strokes as well. And if we’re walking on an office treadmill those forces are not only significantly greater, they come with variable vectors depending on where we are in our strides at the time of each particular keystroke.
As a consequence, the flimsy keyboard trays that were passable for sitting desks aren’t going to cut the mustard as well on active workstations. Using these old-school keyboard trays can result in excessive typos as well as increased strain on the hands, wrists, forearms, elbows and all the way up into the shoulder and neck muscles.
Keyboard trays are also vital for wrist health. The wrist is one of the most commonly stressed joints in office workers, often manifesting as carpal tunnel syndrome. All of the tendons that move the fingers run through the carpal tunnel, which is covered with the transverse carpal ligament.
When the wrist is straight with the forearm, these tendons run smoothly through the tunnel and function perfectly. However, if the wrist is put in an angled position to the forearm (too much flexion, extension or deviation) these tendons are stressed and can push up against the median nerve, causing pain and discomfort.
The traditional keyboard tray’s limitation of -15° (or at most -20°) of tilt is suboptimal for standing users, and severely so for treadmill desk users. Typing angles of -30° to -45° are far more neutral from a musculoskeletal standpoint, and not problematic since the tray cannot run into the user’s lap when they aren’t sitting in a chair.
Be sure to check out our special guides to how to install a keyboard tray on a standing desk or on a treadmill desk. Look for keyboard trays that have SteadyType (e.g. the iMovR SteadyType Exo) for ideal ergodynamics. For the best ergonomic keyboard trays, read our roundup with in-depth reviews and comparisons.
Monitor Arm Ergodynamics
Perhaps the most noticeable difference for most users, when they stand, is that their pelvises go from forward-facing when seated to downward-facing when standing, effectively stretching out their spines. And that means that the height of the monitor relative to the height of the keyboard can be several inches greater when standing versus sitting.
Many conventional monitor mount designs never anticipated their use on a standing desk or treadmill desk, where a higher top-end height adjustment range is needed to compensate for the fact that our spines stretch out a few inches when we stand. That means that the distance between where the user needs to have their monitor(s) relative to their keyboard height can increase by several inches when they stand, and many ‘ergonomic monitor arms’ simply don’t go high enough, resulting in neck-craning (despite their ‘ergonomic’ branding).
Two-legged standing desks also are inherently less stable than four-legged sitting desks, and at higher heights (i.e. a common issue for taller users) they can shake quite a bit when users pound away on their keyboards. We have more upper body muscle engagement when we stand or walk than we do when we sit at a desk, inducing more forces on the keyboard, which can then get amplified by a monitor arm that has too much flex to it.
Monitor arms that work best for active workstations are those with tighter joints, stronger metal components and smaller manufacturing tolerances, that will not amplify these oscillations into a shaky screen experience. Check out our Complete Guide to Monitor Arms for Standing Desks for more details.
Standing Mat Ergodynamics
Fun fact: thanks to our friend gravity, while most of us experience a full inch of spinal compression from the time we wake up every day until we go to bed, people who stand all day at work experience an average of 1.8” of compression.
One of the best ways to offer some needed protection to your spine while working at a stand-up desk is to use a proper anti-fatigue mat. Not just any cheap mat like you might have in front of the kitchen sink, but one specially formulating for standing for hours at a time, in shoes.
A study of anti-fatigue mat performance by Texas A&M found that standing on a quality anti-fatigue mat leads to significantly less spinal compression and significantly reduced loss of sit-reach flexibility than using no mat or a substandard mat, among other benefits.
Generally, these are mats made using 100% polyurethane and molded in a ‘unibody construction’, with very specific buoyancy, surface tension and other vital technical attributes. (These are more commonly found in American-made standing desk mats, not the cheap ones made in China that you’ll find on Amazon.)
Spending hours each day on a proper anti-fatigue mat designed for use with a standing desk can even lead to improved balance, by providing more proprioceptor stimulation to the bone joints in the feet, as compared to the minimal stimulation we get from standing or walking on perfectly flat floors all day. Learn more about the differences between ordinary comfort mats and real standing desk mats.
An anti-fatigue mat also helps reduce ergonomic issues associated with prolonged standing, which can be just as onerous as those associated with sitting disease. Pharmacists, security guards, manufacturing line workers, grocery cashiers, window tellers, morticians, DJs and other people who have to stand for many hours at a time can suffer mightily from foot pain, low back pain, varicose veins and other maladies.
Because anti-fatigue mats can literally triple the amount of time you can work in comfort without sitting down and they’re less expensive than a good keyboard tray or monitor arm, they should be every active workstation users’ first ergodynamic accessory purchase. Check out our Complete Guide to Anti-Fatigue Mats for Standing Desks for lab-tested ratings on the best ones.
One of the most common issues associated with workstations is lower back pain from sitting with poor posture for prolonged periods. So let’s talk a little about how our spines are mechanically constructed.
The spine is one of the most important parts of the body to keep in a neutral position. It includes 33 different bones that all have to work in unison for any motion anywhere in the body. As you sit in your relaxed position, putting your weight on your ligaments, your spine is curved so your tail bone is beneath you.
When you slouch, your spine flexes as your lower back falls downward and backward into the seat rest. This stretches the posterior ligaments on your spine and compresses the anterior ligaments.
Over time, without proper muscle help and posture, this will weaken these ligaments and push the intervertebral disc backward as it is wedged out of the spine. As the disc pushes backward, it can start pressing on the spinal cord, resulting in a herniated disc or a bulging disc. This causes low back pain and also causes pain to shoot down the legs into the feet as it becomes more severe. By standing, this posterior aspect of the spine and compression of the anterior disk is relieved.
So chairs are the enemy, and you probably know that already or you wouldn’t be reading this article.
When it comes to the standing desk itself there are a few things we like to point out that can make the difference between a nominally functional desk and a great one to spend hours on end working in front of:
- Stability is king. While all 2-legged desks are going to have some wobble to them when raised to their highest heights, cheaply-made imports will generally wobble more and wear down faster than the more precisely-tuned, robotically-manufactured domestic brands. Learn more by reading our primer on Why Some Standing Desks Shake More Than Others and explore the many differences between imported and domestic desks with our round-up of The Best Made-in-USA Standing Desks.
- Height adjustment range is vital for both the vertically endowed and vertically challenged among us. Where many standing desks have a narrow 20″ range of adjustment (‘stroke’), taller and shorter individuals will want to make sure to buy a desk that’s ideally suited to their own height. ANSI/BIFMA certified desks are supposed to be ideal for 95% of the population, but they leave a lot wanting on the top end for very tall users, or even shorter and medium-statured users if planning to use an office treadmill. For the vertically endowed be sure to check out our article on Tips for Taller Stand Up Desk and Treadmill Desk Users, and in particular, consider standing desks that offer leg extensions that can raise the top end to at least 55″.
- Ergo-contouring is a feature found mostly on premium, American-made standing desks. Whereas most imports come with sharp-edged, six-sided rectangular desktops that will leave lines on your wrists and forearms if you lean against them, ergo-contoured tops have a smooth radius all the way around. This is not only easier on your body, the tops tend to get a lot less dinged up by chair backs banging into them.
Check out our roundup of the best standing desks for in-depth reviews and comparisons.