Help me not become blind and decrepit in my own home
November 8, 2008 1:20 PM   Subscribe

I'm working from home full-time. Hooray! Except the corporate overlords aren't inclined to send an ergonomics expert around to the house to make sure I'm not slowly killing myself. I have a few specific questions about ergonomics and visual health in a home office.

Possibly relevant details: I'm 29, male, no health problems, average weight for my height. I am very nearsighted and cannot work at a computer without glasses. Between work and personal projects, I sit at the computer 60-70 hours per week. I exercise and do the basic smart-worker things, and I've read some good advice on ergonomics in general, but a few specific answers about preventative measures have proven elusive.

1) I have a cheap desk chair that is not particularly comfortable, but not so uncomfortable that I notice it when I'm working. I have sat in this chair for roughly 60 hours per week for months and have no complaints of back pain or other chair-related maladies. Am I risking permanent damage by using a cheap chair unless/until physical problems emerge? I've encountered a number of (inexpert) arguments recently that professional sitters should invest in quality chairs for the sake of long-term health.

2) I like my nerd cave. My preferred mode of working (day or night) is in the dark save for the cool, soothing light of my monitors, and I'm filled with glee at having escaped the fluorescent hell of the office. I've not (yet) encountered irritated eyes or other problems from working this way. Am I slowly damaging my eyesight by spending all day in this low-light environment? If I need to add more light, can I just put some kind of bias lighting behind the monitors, or should the whole room be moderately lit?

3) Same sort of question about keyboards: I do a lot of typing on a bog-standard desktop keyboard with a fairly light keypress. I have no specific complaints about it. But I've seen comments suggesting keyboards with a firmer keypress and/or an ergonomically split configuration for people with hand/wrist problems. Is it a good idea to switch before problems actually begin to occur?

I know it would be best to hire an ergonomics consultant, but work won't pay for it, so I decided to try the hive mind first. You are not my doctor or optometrist, but the benefit of your experience is appreciated. Thanks in advance!
posted by [user was fined for this post] to Health & Fitness (11 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Also: If I need a better chair, I would be grateful for suggestions that cost less than the Herman Miller type. Looks are not important, just comfort and good ergonomics. (This thread mostly talks about ball/kneeling/other backless chairs, which I'm willing to try, but I suspect I won't like them.)

Likewise, if a new keyboard is recommended, suggestions for a Mac-compatible keyboard with ergonomic characteristics would be super-awesome. Double points if it's less expensive than the Kinesis Advantage, which seems to be the gold standard here.
posted by [user was fined for this post] at 1:23 PM on November 8, 2008

Best answer: If your chair is uncomfortable that could be a problem eventually. I would replace it.

I tried out a lot of chairs before settling on the Nightingale CXO, which may be the most comfortable desk chair I've ever sat in. I got it from Office Depot using a 25% off coupon code from, and it ended up costing about half what an Aeron would, delivered. But this is a very individual matter—there's no chair that is best for everybody. I went to five different stores to try their offerings, and sat in more chairs than I can remember, before settling on the Nightingale.

Good office chairs seem expensive, but consider that they cost much less than the medical cost of recovering from a bad one. When you start spending hundreds of dollars on medical care you'll curse yourself for being so cheap earlier.

Don't worry about a new keyboard if your existing one works for you. Much more important is the angle of the keyboard and the setup of your desk and chair generally.

Also, install AntiRSI. Since you have no problems now, you can give yourself a lot of leeway—say 30-second breaks every 10 minutes and 5-minute breaks every hour. You really shouldn't be typing and mousing for more than an hour straight without a break. Avoiding that will avoid a lot of problems.
posted by grouse at 1:40 PM on November 8, 2008

Best answer: seconding trying before buying. some of the places that offer higher-end furniture do have a satisfaction guarantee as well - check that out too, because a really good chair typically costs a good bit too. also look at Steelcase and HumanScale as well as Herman Miller, though all three are fairly pricy. it's really important to try these things out - there are a few Steelcase designs that cost and have gotten good reviews and I find utterly horrible to sit in. if you find a good design from one of these three, you can shop around and see if you can find something similar from a cheaper manufacturer.

that said, spending $800 or so on a chair (for me) is more easily stomached by the fact that it will have warranty for a helluva long time - for example, Herman Miller chairs are backed with a 12-year warranty - and these things are designed to last you a really long time. (you can buy spare parts in a lot of cases.) (for more HM wankery, keep in mind that they make things besides the Aeron, and some of their other chairs come in a much cheaper Basic model - I've been eyeing a Mirra for a while, and you can find 'em for $600 if you're willing to forgo lumbar support and movable arms.)
posted by mrg at 2:15 PM on November 8, 2008

I work from home. I recently upgraded to a larger, better chair and wish I'd done it years ago. I also recently got a mesh, lumbar support thingy that I also swear by.

Re: keyboards - I use a split keyboard. It's MUCH easier on the hands, fingers and wrists. I highly recommend it.

Lighting... I have low ambient light at night and plenty of windows during the day. Occasional low light doesn't bother me, but I'd recommend some decent lighting nonetheless, just from what I've heard over the years.

Viva la home-worker.
posted by uncoolcentral at 2:21 PM on November 8, 2008

If you don't have any back problems or pain right now, your chair is fine, eg the stress placed on your lower back doesn't exceed your body's recovery capabilities.

Expensive also doesn't necessarily mean better for your back, use what's comfortable as you don't exactly see herman miller running clinical studies showing their chairs decrease back pain. Spinal researchers suggest that different sitting positions exert different levels of pressure on different parts of the spine, and people like Stuart McGill suggest adjusting the position you sit in during the day to avoid back pain. I personally like to switch between sitting and standing, so i put vika byske legs on the vika byske tabletop and sit on a drafting chair.

As someone with RSI like symptoms I would go back in time and buy a kinesis , if just for the key remapping and thumb keys. As someone who spends a third of their life on their keyboard, why not buy something comfortable and useful to enhancing your work?
posted by zentrification at 2:39 PM on November 8, 2008

Is it a good idea to switch before problems actually begin to occur?

HELL yes.
posted by egg drop at 10:06 PM on November 8, 2008

To elaborate: that's like asking if you want to have problems at any point. They don't always cure easy. And just imagine getting injured when you've got deadlines coming up...
posted by egg drop at 10:15 PM on November 8, 2008

Best answer: I have been told by my eye doc that working on a computer in a dark room is one of the worst things you can do for your eyes.. you are in a dark room starring at a bright light. I was suffering from pretty bad headaches and my nearsightedness got a lot worse.

The best way to work is to work in a well lit room.. I find that if the light is behind you it is even better. I was also given this bit if advice which has helped me tremendously.. once an hour, turn away from you monitor and take off you glasses.. look out the window at a distant object, but don't focus on anything.. just let your eyes relax for 5 minutes.

Since I turned on my light and do this relaxation exercise once an hour, I don't get headaches and my eyes have not worsened all that much.
posted by MattScully at 10:39 PM on November 8, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for the comments, everyone. I think I'll take the time to try out some good chairs, maybe even get up early on Black Friday if I can identify some local sales that day. I had not realized the better chairs came with such a good warranty; that certainly makes the expense easier to swallow. I would even be open to buying a used chair in good condition if the warranty is transferable.

AntiRSI is awesome. I've seen similar things before and they always seemed either too intrusive or too easy to ignore, but this one is really well balanced in terms of getting your attention while not cutting off your typing in the middle of a line. I also like the distinction between "micro pauses" and "work breaks." Thanks for that.

I'm still reeling from sticker shock at the Kinesis. I get that a keyboard is a vital tool for a knowledge worker, I really do...but $360 (I would want the ten-key pad, which is $60 extra) is a bit hard to justify for someone who used a Model M keyboard from a garage sale for about 10 years. I might feel differently about the Kinesis if the warranty period were five years instead of two.

Microsoft, perhaps surprisingly, has OS X drivers for at least one of their Natural Keyboards that will bind the keys to Mac users' expectations, so I'm more likely to get over my distaste for their appearance and try one of those.

I haven't yet decided what to do about ambient lighting, but I've been looking at this site which was FPP'd today, and some of the things people are doing with behind-monitor lighting seem tolerable. Since my desk is glass-topped, I'm also tempted to try something with under-lighting like this.

Thanks again everyone!
posted by [user was fined for this post] at 11:08 PM on November 8, 2008

Response by poster: And on failure to preview...

MattScully, I do fear my nearsightedness getting worse. I won't see my eye doc again for a few months, and I didn't ask about this on my last visit, so in the meantime I'll take your doctor's word for it.

Putting a light behind me doesn't work because I have a glossy-screened iMac and the reflections bug me. But I can open the blinds in the daytime and turn on a lamp behind the monitors at night.

I try to get up and wander around the house for a few minutes at least once each hour to stretch and rest my eyes, but I never thought of consciously defocusing my eyes on a regular basis. I'll give it a try. Thanks!
posted by [user was fined for this post] at 11:17 PM on November 8, 2008

My dad gave me a Back Vitalizer and I swear it's changed my life! It's a bizarre little back pad - you blow it about halfway full of air - but it works so well!
posted by radioamy at 10:41 AM on November 9, 2008

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