When I wrote recently about my treadmill desk, most of the feedback was positive. Sure I got a few hamster-slave comments, but really? Anyway, the second leg in my tripod of healthy backdom, a more ergonomic sitting workspace, is no less important. It is however perhaps a bit less sexy. So I expect some laughs but don’t really care: ergonomics needs to happen. Ladies and gentleman, let me push the envelope of coolness.
As a grad student, I worked more from home than I do now, so my home workspace is more developed than my office workspace. The eventual goal is to have an office workspace that’s as just as ergonomic. But in the meantime, and frankly until I get another cat to keep Billie Jean company while I’m gone at work a lot, I’m focusing on the home side of things.
Without further ado then, let me show you what my home setup looks like. The crucial points are the split keyboard, the vertical mouse, the wrist rest, the computer stand, the book stand, and the pièce de résistance, my super-ergonomic chair (scroll down, dear reader). The MacBook Air was also an explicit ergonomic choice — its light weight makes it great for carrying around in a backpack — but that’s really all there is to say about that. I hasten to add that I’m not pushing specific products in any way; they’re just good solutions I’ve found and want to share them. I’m interested in hearing what works for others.
1. Split keyboard
Perhaps what jumps out at you first in looking at my home workspace is the split keyboard. I tell people I have a split keyboard and they’re like, “Oh me too” and then they’re inevitably talking about a pseudo-split like this:
In terms of benefit, I’d say the pseudo-split gives you about a 10 – 20 % improvement tops over a traditional keyboard. I initially thought about getting such a keyboard, but I never actually felt an improvement when using it. When you use my split keyboard, you actually feel instantaneous relief in your upper back, most notably in your rhomboid muscles. Your what? These things:
As you can imagine with the constantly winged position that a regular keyboard requires, the rhomboids are always stretched to the limit, while your pecs are all crunched up all the time. The keyboard I have, the Kinesis Freestyle Solo Keyboard for Macs, has 8 inches of split. This means that in the typing position, your arms extend naturally, without any winging of the shoulder blades that is a major occupational hazard of the desk job. As soon as people try my splittie, they feel a difference. The refamiliarization necessary with this keyboard is minimal.
Another keyboard I considered was the Kinesis Advantage, the Cadillac of keyboards:
The Advantage still has the essential split, but, true to its name, it has four more advantages:
- It incorporates an angle so that your thumbs are slightly higher than your pinky fingers. I’ll talk about this more when I get to my vertical mouse.
- The keys are closer together, so your fingers don’t have to travel as far when leaving the home keys. I don’t have big hands or long fingers, so fat-fingering would not be a problem for me. However, I’ve been told by those who do that because of the curve to the keyboard, they don’t fat-finger either.
- It ACTUALLY MAKES USE OF YOUR THUMBS. Why do no other keyboards appropriately exploit thumbs? All I EVER push with my thumbs is this big-ass space bar. WHICH DOES NOT NEED TO BE SO BIG! Do you see all these CAPS? That means I am YELLING, I THINK IT’S SO STUPID! Gah.
- It comes in a Dvorak version. I’m working up to using the Dvorak keyboard (see below).
With all these advantages then, why did I not get The Advantage? For the one drawback: the price. It costs around $300, while my trusty Freestyle was $100. Now that I’m no longer a grad student, I can afford The Advantage, although there are a million other things I also have to get, like a new laptop to use on my treadmill desk…
Note that Kinesis also has some other less expensive models, the most intriguing to me being, naturally, the Ascent:
It’s crazy! But totally logical, as we’ll soon see with my vertical mouse. Although I do worry that you would need arm support as you type. You can’t just extend them for hours on end without any support!
2. Vertical mouse
You might not have noticed this in looking at my workstation, but my mouse is actually an Evoluent vertical mouse, the closest a mouse can come to being a hand massage.
Why is a vertical mouse important, you ask? So you don’t have an unnaturally twisted arm like the one shown below:
With the vertical mouse, you’re basically making the same natural motion that you would make when extending your arm for a handshake. To be honest, I don’t do a lot of mousework, so this was kind of a splurge. But not like a chocolate-cake kind of splurge, a healthy splurge. It’s the same logic behind the tilt in any ergonomic keyboard, particularly the Ascent but also the Advantage.
3. Wrist rest
The newest addition to my workspace is my wrist rest. Without it, I was definitely feeling pressure on my wrists as my arms fell off the desk. It wasn’t painful, just not comfortable. But long-term problems can result from many hours per day of pressure on a particular area, particularly one like the wrists where nerves are so close to the point of pressure. Basically, what happens is that over time your nerve, experiencing constant pressure on it, just decides it’s fed up and goes numb. Not fun.
4. Computer stand
Lots of people have a computer stand and external keyboard these days. Good. The idea is to benefit your neck: instead of always looking down, and without the unfortunate turtle-asana position of sticking out your neck that I see way too often, you have a relaxed gaze at the screen as your neck stays in a neutral position.
Where, you ask, is this sweet spot of natural gaze? Well, a neutral position for your neck is like how it is when you’re standing. Then look straight ahead, parallel to the floor. The top of your computer should meet up with this imaginary line. Mine doesn’t quite, which means my own computer stand should probably be a tad higher. My laptop stand does have settings that go to a 40° incline; currently it’s at 30°. But alas, the MacBook Air, and most Macs in general — perhaps PCs as well — don’t have such a wide angle of aperture. When I put it at the 40° setting, this means the screen is slightly angled downward. Not fun. But I still think the Air is the way to go though for its lightness. Anyway, you get the picture: align your straight gaze with the top of the computer, and the rest will fall into place.
For a laptop stand, I have the Logitech Notebook Riser. It works great, has three very different angle settings, and was designed with Mac laptops in mind (the one I have in particular for the 15″ laptop, which I currently use on my treadmill desk). Furthermore, I got it for like $25, although it looks like from the lack of online availability that Logitech is moving on to newer models. It is, however, worth noting that my computer stand is not as pretty as some.
I feel this laptop stand, the Rain Design mStand, succeeds in making ergonomics look seksay (take note, Apple. I would love it if your designs were more ergonomic). But again, for me as a grad student, it was difficult to justify the price of $50, when the cheaper Logitech model also has the benefit of adjustable angles so you know it’ll work for you. Because of the lack of adjustable angles, I advise trying out the mStand before actually buying one yourself.
5. Book stand
In the photo above, the U of A library copy of Vocabulary Development: A Morphological Analysis, part of my current reading docket, is sitting on my kickass Jasmine Book Stand off to the right. When I was in high school, my mom noticed that my neck was always strained as I looked down at books on my desk. So she bought me the entry-level book stand, the Fellowes wire book stand. Here it is in all its $5 glory:
Now, this wire stand is great for books, but I read a lot of flimsier print content: mostly academic papers, which, until screens get a whole lot more eye-friendly, I refuse to read on a computer. I’ve tried the metal stand with a big, heavy, supportive book behind it, and that sort of works, but let’s be honest, it’s a clumsy hack. The Jasmine on the other hand — just whisper that to yourself too — The Jasmine — is great for any print content. The Jasmine also features an adjustable angle, a key element of any ergonomic equipment. Of course the drawback is its size compared to the wire stand, but for your home or office, i.e. not when traveling, it’s by far the better choice.
6. Wait for it… my Leap Chair
The single most important ergonomic investment I have made, other than perhaps the treadmill for the treadmill desk, has been my desk chair for home. As a grad student, when I had severe back pain, I made an appointment with the ergonomic specialists at the University of Minnesota. The what, you ask? Yes, the University of Minnesota has a whole office devoted to ergonomics, but I had no clue about it. Nor did anyone else I talked to, actually. These types of employee services really should be broadcast to the university community at large. How the hell did I find out the ergonomics center at the U of M then? My department administrator, when I was mentioning that I wanted to buy a new ergonomic chair, mentioned that I could have a university discount, and said I should look into it. Mind you, not a word was said about the ergonomics center per se, it just turned out that those were the people I needed to call to get the discount.
Upon looking at their website, I saw that the ergonomics peeps had a showroom of chairs and workstations and made an appointment to check them out. Neil Carlson, a very knowledgeable staff member, met me there; since he was the first ergonomics expert I’d ever met, I promptly subjected him to a long list of questions that I won’t detail here. Probably because I was a grad student, he showed me a couple of low- and mid-level range chairs, you know, that felt better than a normal chair, and were a little more expensive than your typical office chair. On none of them, however, was I like WOW, which frankly was the response I wanted. A lot of those chairs claimed to be ergonomic, but they were really just ergonomic for dudes who are 5’10″. I’m 5’2″ and weigh 110 lbs. Those chairs were not going to cut it. So I said, “What do you think the best chair would be for a petite woman?” Neil then walked over to a banal-looking midsize model and said, “This one. It’s the Leap Chair. It’s a little pricier, but it’s top of the line.” I sat in it, and he adjusted it. One of the most amazing features about the Leap Chair is that everything is adjustable. For example, you can adjust not only the height of the armrests, but also their width. I totally had my WOW moment.
Unfortunately, I also had an opposite wow moment when I saw the price tag — $625. And, I was informed, that was after the special discount people affiliated with the U of M got. However, Neil told me, there was an additional 25% off if the university itself would pay for it. Of course then I tried to have my department pay for it, with me buying it from them after I graduated. This strategy would’ve worked out okay, I think, except for the fact that the main department administrator, the only one with The Knowledge, was actually right then getting transferred to another department. I sent her many emails about this, as before she left she said it would be possible. But alas, she was just so busy having just changed departments and all. I was a little frustrated as I felt like a graduate student shouldn’t have to pay $625, actually more like $700 with taxes and all, to have a decent chair. But I decided that it was enough of a priority for me that I would suck it up.
Fortunately, my mom, a nurse practitioner, has always been supportive of my health. She offered to quasi-price match, which brought my share down significantly. I still tried to haggle with the Leap Chair vendor, but to no success. Finally I acquiesced and bought my Leap Chair, on which I’m sitting as I write this. Over a year later, the Leap Chair is still amazing.
Ergonomicizing my home workspace is an ongoing, piecemeal process; there are still plenty of things I’d like to get, and once I do, I have to confront the office situation. And it’s not cheap. If you work at a university, chances are you’ll get something of a discount from your work. Maybe if you work at a company with good employee benefits, you’ll get some of these things for free. But for most people, ergonomicizing your workspace to the degree your body deserves will probably cost you. I would say then to start by doing a cost-benefit analysis, and focus on the areas that cause you the most discomfort. The chair I feel is huge, but if you can’t afford it, start with a book stand, then maybe a laptop stand and external keyboard. All that musculoskeletal stuff is connected via the kinetic chain anyway and any improvement anywhere will likely do you some good.
As a society, we’re just not at the point yet where it is an imperative to provide people with healthy workspaces. I believe this will change though, because some of these modifications are so simple, and because we need them. The only guiding principle with all this ergonomics stuff is, “Person first, machine second”.
One of my favorite books ever, Diffusion of Innovations, actually has a little vignette about the Dvorak keyboard, the keyboard layout that minimizes hand movement and maximizes efficiency. The Dvorak was mentioned to address the question of why an innovation that is objectively superior to its predecessor by any conceived measure wouldn’t catch on. The brief response touched upon the fact that vested interests from manufacturers and even typists made sure that the way they were familiar with doing things is the way shit gets done. Oftentimes though, it’s just through inertia. I myself do not yet use the Dvorak keyboard layout, but it’s a goal of mine in the near future to make the switch. I was able to switch to the AZERTY layout just fine while living in France. Now I just need internal motivation: it suffices to visualize my fingers 40 or 50 years from now, with all the writing, emailing, texting and increasing amount of gchatting I do.