How to sit properly in a chair

 Two men sitting at desk.
Two men sitting at desk.

If you spend hours at your desk on a regular basis, the importance of sitting properly cannot be overstated. Without wishing to sound overdramatic, failure to pay attention to this will come back to haunt you in later life, in the form of niggles and pain.

Yes, buying the best office chair for pack pain can help enormously (even a basic budget ergonomic chair is better than that kitchen chair you've been using!) But it won't correct poor posture by itself. And the older you get, the more poor posture can lead to a myriad of issues, including back pain, muscle strain, and decreased focus. Trust me, I know.

Having been in desk-based jobs for three decades, I spent about three months a few years ago in total agony. Cue the need for powerful painkillers, expensive osteopathic treatment and a strict regimin of Pilates and other exercises to get my life back. What I wouldn't give to go back in time and do things differently.

Indeed, with a few adjustments and mindful practices, you can transform your sitting habits and reap the benefits of long-term well-being. In this article, I'll lay out the basics. And really, they couldn't be simpler.

01. Set up your workspace

Creating an ergonomic workstation is the first step towards proper sitting. Start by adjusting your chair's height so that your feet rest flat on the floor, with your feet and knees roughly hip-width apart. Your thighs should be pointing down at a slight angle (around 20 to 30 degrees), promoting blood circulation and reducing pressure on your lower back.

Man sitting at desk
Man sitting at desk

If your seat isn't high enough for this position, then ultimately you're going to need a new chair. But in the meantime, you'll want to improvise by adding a cushion to raise the height of your seat.

Next, position your chair close enough to your desk to maintain a relaxed posture while allowing your arms to rest comfortably. Ensure your monitor is at eye level and about an arm's length away to prevent neck strain and eye fatigue. If there's no easy way of raising your monitor to the correct height, then experiment with placing it on books, bricks or whatever comes to hand.

02. Work on your posture

Achieving proper sitting posture involves aligning your body in a way that maintains the natural curve of your spine while distributing your weight evenly. Follow these guidelines to optimise your sitting position.

1. Position your buttocks all the way back in the chair, ensuring that your back is supported by the chair's lumbar curve or a separate lumbar support cushion. This promotes the natural inward curve of your lower back and helps alleviate pressure on the spinal discs.

2. Keep your spine in a neutral position by aligning your ears, shoulders and hips in a straight line. Avoid either slouching back or leaning too far forward, as this can strain your back muscles and compress your spinal discs. To find a happy medium in between, imagine a piece of string is pulling your chest upwards towards the ceiling. If this feels unnatural at first, engage your core muscles slightly, to support your spine without tensing up excessively.

This might seem counterintuitive, because when we're tired we all feel like reclining in our chairs. However, this actually puts too much pressure on the neck, shoulders and arms, so a neutral spinal position is much better.

3. Let your shoulders rest naturally, without hunching or shrugging. Avoid tensing your shoulders or raising them towards your ears, as this can lead to neck and shoulder stiffness. If necessary, adjust the armrests of your chair to support your arms and shoulders in a relaxed position.

Man sitting in office using computer
Man sitting in office using computer

4. Position your elbows at approximately a 90-degree angle, allowing your forearms to rest comfortably on your desk or armrests. Avoid reaching too far forward or extending your arms too high, as this can strain your shoulder muscles and joints.

5. Ensure your feet are supported either by the floor or a footrest to maintain stability and reduce pressure on your legs and lower back. Avoid crossing or dangling your legs, as this impairs circulation and contributes to discomfort.

At first, none of this will come naturally. In practice, it's easy to get mentally sucked into your work and forget what your body is doing, leaving it to slump back into bad habits. So in the early days at least, you have to make an effort to keep stopping and paying attention to your posture, then adjusting accordingly.

03. Practise mindful sitting

Proper sitting posture is essential. But if ALL you do is sit, you'll still end up in trouble. So it's equally important to incorporate movement and breaks into your routine to prevent stiffness and fatigue.

1. Set reminders to stand up, stretch and move around every 30 to 60 minutes. Use breaks as an opportunity to walk, stretch your muscles, or perform simple exercises to counteract the effects of prolonged sitting.

If you're a workaholic like me, you'll naturally resist taking breaks, because of a gut feeling they make you less productive. However, that gut feeling is wrong. Breaks help refresh your body and mind, and you'll end up being more creative and achieving more overall. So don't listen to that voice in your head!

2. Implement work techniques such as the 20-20-20 rule, which involves looking away from your screen every 20 minutes and focusing on an object 20 feet away for 20 seconds. This reduces eye strain and helps your eye muscles relax.

Woman using laptop on standing desk
Woman using laptop on standing desk

3. Pay attention to signs of discomfort or fatigue and adjust your sitting position accordingly. These aches and pains are warnings your body is giving you, so don't just "power through" like you would if you were running a marathon. Listen to what your body is telling you.

4. Experiment. Everyone is different. Many of us are born with, or develop, medical anomalies that don't show up on a scan until it's too late. So along with following the general principles of siting properly, experiment with different chair adjustments, cushions or supportive accessories to find what works best for your body. Consider using a standing desk so you switch between sitting and standing.

04. Stay the course

Ultimately, mastering the art of sitting on an office chair is a journey that requires mindfulness, patience and commitment. By implementing ergonomic principles and practising mindful sitting habits, you can create a workspace that promotes comfort, productivity and long-term well-being.

Beyond that, making small adjustments, day after day, can make a significant difference in how you feel. So invest in your health by prioritising proper sitting posture. Your body will thank you for it.