Modern Life

6 ways to keep your body healthy at work

Whether you're back at the office full-time or one or two days a week, the experts’ best tip is to keep it moving.

By Tim Barribeau — October 26, 2023

Returning to the office not only means abandoning those stretchy pants and packing lunches again, it also might mean switching locations from your home office, the couch, or dining table some days to hot-desking or sitting in meetings in conference rooms on others. Queue the scrunched-up shoulders, sore wrists, stiff necks, and bad posture habits.

In an ideal world, we’d be able to transpose our ideal ergonomic setup from place to place. But what if you’re being asked to work in communal spaces like meeting rooms or you’re bouncing from desk to desk? It’s always a good idea to focus on your body’s well-being at work, but in these cases, doubly so. 

So, how do you take the lessons we learned from building a home office-haven over the last few years into workspaces over which there is much less control? 

By taking care of our bodies as much as possible to, from, and at work, say Dr. Ben Fung, a spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association, and Julie Shiller, a social worker-turned-personal trainer who runs The Other 23 Hours coaching focusing on physical health outside going to the gym.


RELATED: Create the perfect home office, in a tight corner or an entire room


Here are some practical tips, strategies, and products to help keep the wear and tear of deskwork from showing on your body. 

Consider your commute

Heading into an office or to see customers, your commute can mean a crowded subway or rush-hour traffic. And chances are, you’ll be hauling a laptop, a few layers to take on or off, and lunch. Both Shiller and Fung recommend staying away from messenger bags, purses, and sling bags, since these put weight on one side of the body (throw a water bottle into the mix, and that’s a couple of extra pounds). Look for a backpack that’s well padded and can be adjusted to match your body’s needs. Fung recommends carrying the weight as close to and as high up the back as possible. 

If you’re taking public transit, try noise-canceling earbuds that do double-duty for work and entertainment while you’re en route, but can block out external sounds if you need to take a call.

Fung recommends countering a long car commute by stretching afterwards, maybe even arriving a few minutes early “to decompress, do some stretches, load your body in the opposite direction of which you might've been cramped into for your vehicle.”

Beth Walrond

See how your employer can help

If you have a permanent desk space, the first step should be requesting assistance from your employer in getting the office furniture and accessories you need to best support your body. “Make sure that the environment is set up in a way where flexibility is encouraged,” suggests Dr. Fung.  

HP has an internal site for employees with training courses that include tips for how to set up your office space, as well as guides for good ergonomic practices when using a mobile phone, dual-monitor setups, and touchscreen devices.  It enables employees to request changes or order office equipment (chairs, desks, monitor arm, keyboard tray, and other accessories) to make their workspace safe and comfortable.

Backs, shoulders, wrists, and hands bear the most common complaints of physical discomfort from desk work, says Stephanie Brunson, an ergonomics consultant who provides services to a number of technology companies including HP. 

Brunson’s job involves not only helping employees adjust and use their work equipment properly, and if they need it, set up accommodations for existing injuries or physical limitations.

Body basics for sitting, standing, and everything in between

Run through an ergonomic checklist like this one from the Mayo Clinic, wherever you sit. Adjust whatever you can to get your body into its best possible position of looking straight ahead, forearms at 90 degrees to your body, wrists in neutral, and feet flat (at least to start). It’s easier to think about adjusting your body in relation to points of contact. When it comes to adjusting your monitor or screen, for example, scan your head, neck, and torso for comfort and alignment. For typing, scan your hands, fingers, and wrists. For sitting or standing at a desk, let the comfort of your feet, legs, back, and shoulders be your guide. 

Some basic items to improve workplace ergonomics can make a huge difference. A height adjustable standing desk will allow you to move between standing and sitting, for the best positioning possible. And as Fung points out, more than just finding a single, ideal workplace height, it’s about varying how you work frequently, so that you’re not stuck in one position for too long. 

If you’re not able to get a standing desk, look into other ways of making sure you’re not hunched over your laptop — a monitor, keyboard, and mouse setup should be the bare minimum, and try and raise the monitor’s height until it’s directly at eye level so you’re not staring down. Boxes, old manuals, or just about anything else can help with this. When you’re standing, look at a standing desk mat for foot and calf comfort.

A good, adjustable office chair for when you’re sitting is a must. On the high end, the Herman Miller Sayl chair not only helps keep your body in good ergonomic alignment but also looks fantastic (and helps keep your back cool, if you’re prone to sweating). 

And ditch the yoga ball, HP’s Brunson says. Rumored to help work your core muscles while seated, they cause more problems than they solve, she says. Not only do they deflate frequently, they also encourage that “C-shaped” position that causes our bodies so many issues. “We are trying our best to avoid that posture,” she says. “They are great for your workout when you are really focused on your form, but not for sitting on for a long period of time.”

A portable footrest will also give you some control over the position of your feet under the desk, to rock your feet back and forth to keep your ankles moving, or hold them flat but raised. Putting your feet on and off the footrest gives your legs some minor movement so they don’t remain entirely stationary. 

Beth Walrond

Mind your eyes and ears

If you’re frequently in online meetings, a webcam will help you maintain so that you’re not looking at the laptop while talking to people — and good headphones serve triple duty of improving how you sound to others, making it easier to hear them, and giving you auditory isolation if you’re not used to being in a space filled with chattering co-workers. Use apps that keep wellness at the forefront and remind you to take frequent eye rest breaks, experts recommend the 20-20-20 rule to reduce eyestrain: Every 20 minutes take a 20-second break and look at something at least 20 feet away. And blue light reducing monitors and laptops may help you fight eye strain over extended periods. 

Make a move with microbreaks

Changing positions doesn’t only mean shifting from sitting to standing, it can also mean getting in any kind of movement around the office. The biggest takeaway that everyone can start doing today, Brunson explains, is to keep moving and avoid staying in one position for too long, adding movement into your day wherever possible to avoid overuse injuries.

“The catchphrase that we like to use is, ‘Your next posture is your best posture,’” Brunson says. “That means we don’t want to see anyone sitting or staying in one position for too long.”

Try shifting from a desk to a break room to a couch to an empty meeting room. Every repositioning gives your body a chance to reconfigure and feel better. Or if you have time, you can take a break to shake your arms and legs or do a couple of stretches. In particular chin tucks and cervical extensions for your neck, and scapular retraction exercises for your arms.

“The key is to focus on the micro breaks,” says Shiller. “There's this idea that you have to get in an hour workout or an hour walk… but if we focus on taking small five- to 10-minute breaks throughout the day just to get in movement, stretch, a little bit of deep breathing — even just to drink a little bit of water, maybe get in a high-protein snack, that is gonna be the thing that really helps.”

Build new habits with reminders

Fung suggests doing stretches after every meeting or long period of sitting, such as back bends, hip flexor movements for your legs, and for anywhere else that feels tight or stiff. Shiller is a big fan of working on functional fitness when you’re outside of the workplace to strengthen your body as much as possible. Exercises like one sided farmer carries can help counter the strain of carrying an unbalanced messenger bag or purse. 

It can be difficult to remember to take time for these movements, so setting up ways of reminders can be helpful. For some people that might be a low tech option like a sticky note on their laptop, or others setting alarms on their phone. Other options include apps like Done, HabitNow, or if you prefer a gamified version, Habitica.

One low-tech way is to simply scan your body in that time when everyone is waiting for a meeting to start, and then again right after you leave the room or the call, HP’s Brunson says. The biggest thing, she explains, is figuring out how to adopt better habits that will serve you wherever you are working.

 “A large component of good ergonomics is behavior change and habit-building,” she says. “That’s a lot harder than just fixing someone’s chair.”


Learn 5 ways the right digital tools can keep your hybrid team humming