Slouch coaching

Time spent marking and reading can damage your spine if you are not sitting comfortably. It's not just office workers who suffer with bad backs. Biddy Passmore reports

When you work at a computer, think about your spine. The main mistake people make, says Gillian Pink, a physiotherapist, is to get their posture wrong. They either sit up too straight, or slouch, or lean forward. "Good posture should follow the natural curves of the spine," says the ergonomics expert.

Teachers are not, of course, in the parlous position of many office workers, who spend all day glued to a screen and suffer the consequences, from aching backs to stiff necks and strained forearms. They are constantly on the move. But they too are spending more and more time working at a computer these days and usually spend some time each day sitting at a desk, reading or marking.

Teachers may not spend hours in the same position: they may simply seize the occasional chance to spend an hour at a shared desktop in the departmental workroom or set up a laptop at the kitchen table at home. But it is still worth reducing the strain on your spine by getting the basics right. Gillian has the following tips to promote good posture at work and keep your spine happy throughout the day:

* Sit well back in your chair, adjusting the back rest to support the curves.

The seat should support about three-quarters of the thigh.

* Don't sit too low. You should sit directly facing the screen and, when using the keyboard, your forearms should be parallel with the floor. Elbows should bend no more than 90 degrees.

* Keep the keyboard close enough to the desk edge to enable you to sit up.

Remove or adjust the arms of your chair if they stop you getting close to the desk. And keep the mouse close by.

What about teachers who are alternating between using the computer and writing by hand?

"When you are writing, your arm goes further out to the side and you should sit a little bit lower," she says. "Obviously, if it's for very short periods you can't go up and down like a yo-yo but if, say, you were going to turn to marking for an hour or so, you could drop the chair down a little bit."

A chair where both the height of the seat and the angle of the backrest can be adjusted is an essential, and a chair that swivels will prevent harmful twisting to reach things. Good, second-hand office chairs are easy to find.

Gillian also recommends sorting out your workstation so that frequently used books and equipment are within arm's length. "And clear the clutter from underneath the desk," she adds. "You need to be able to turn freely."

As for reading at a desk, she suggests that teachers with neck problems prop up the book or document using a small lectern.

What about using a laptop, the preferred option of many teachers because of its flexibility? "It's better to use one in conjunction with a separate mouse and keyboard," says Gillian. "Otherwise everything's just a bit too cramped and a bit too low.

"Teachers should consider having a docking station. You can get a keyboard and a mouse cheaply and plug them into the laptop. The overriding thing,"

she adds, "is to avoid any constant postures, because the spine likes movement. So vary your position pretty regularly."

Gillian Pink is a member of the Manipulation Association of Chartered Physiotherapists (MACP) and a part-time lecturer at Brunel University


If you want some little exercises to do while at your desk, Gillian recommends these, at regular intervals: Rotate your shoulders up, back and down.

Stretch your arms behind the chair as if they were trying to reach each other.

With your elbows by your side or your hands on the desk, rotate your wrists so that the palms are upwards.

And don't forget your eyes. Rest them by looking away from the screen regularly and focusing on objects at various distances.

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