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How to: Stop your laptop being an ergonomic disaster

If laptops were a disease, the World Health Organization would be declaring an epidemic. You’re now more likely to see a laptop than a traditional PC on an office desk, while you can’t go to any “third spaces” such as coffee shops and commuter trains without seeing laptops erupting from every surface.

What isn’t so easily visible, though, is the damage these laptops are doing to our muscles and skeletons. As much as they’ve added to our lives – freeing us from desks, allowing us to play Candy Crush on the sofa – they’ve been an unmitigated ergonomic disaster.

You might be thinking that I couldn’t prise your laptop out of your cold, dead hands, but I want to at least ensure that your cold, dead hands are not riddled with RSI. Happily, changing only a few habits and buying a little extra kit – or just jury-rigging a solution with junk from around your office or home – can make a huge difference.

Here, then, is our guide to making your laptop love your body as much as you love your laptop.

The ergonomics basics
You probably already know this stuff, but let’s recap. Ideally, at your desk, your knees should be at no less than 90 degrees – that is, your shins shouldn’t be tucked below your seat; your feet flat on the floor or on a foot rest; your elbows at 90 degrees – not raised or lowered to reach your keyboard, which can put particular strain on your shoulders; your bum tucked right back in your seat so your thighs are supported; and your back straight and supported.

 

Avoid using your laptop on your lap
And yes, you should be using your laptop on a desk. There’s no real harm in occasionally tapping out a few emails on your lap in an airport lounge, or catching up on Facebook while you’re slumped on a Starbucks sofa, but it’s a bad idea to make a habit out of it.

Not only might it be hot – which can be bad news for sperm – but you’ll also be putting tremendous strain on your neck as you gaze down at the screen. And that’s not to mention it’s likely that you’re getting all the ergonomics basics wrong too.

Raise your laptop
Ideally, so your neck isn’t having to work too hard supporting that big cranium of yours, the top edge of your screen should be no lower than eye level. That means you should raise your laptop when it’s on a desk, then connect a keyboard and mouse to avoid your forearms doing a dinosaur impression.

There are plenty of dedicated stands and docks, but a pile of books or the like can do the job just as well.

Don’t type on a tilted laptop
Some laptop docks work by raising the back edge of the laptop up, opening the hinge wide and keeping the front on the desk surface. End result: the keyboard is right in front of you, angled upwards, and as it’s right there you might be tempted to type on it rather than fuss about with an external keyboard.

Don’t do it! Typing on an inclined surface like this at best forces you to constantly raise and lower your forearms, and at worst causes you to flex your wrists upwards, which can cause significant health problems.

Right-handed? Get a keyboard without a number pad

If you use your mouse or trackpad with your right hand and also use a keyboard with a number pad (which is usually bolted onto the right-hand side of the keyboard), then you’ll be stretching out your arm a long way to the right to accommodate those extra numbers.

Switch to a compact keyboard without a number pad for some ergonomic benefit; you can always use a standalone number pad if you regularly need to input lots of figures.

Use an external display
Most of us want compact and lightweight laptops so that they’re easy to carry around, but by definition that means the display will be small. If you put your laptop on a stand and use an external keyboard and mouse, then you’ll usually be moving the screen further away, making it even smaller. This might mean you find it hard to read, and are more likely to commit ergonomic sins such as craning forward to make out fine detail.

You can solve this by plugging in a large external display, which will have the twin benefits of making you more productive and making it easier to raise the screen to the correct height. As an added bonus, you could mount the external screen on a floating arm, which lets you adjust and position it to make it more comfortable for you throughout the day.

Try a standing desk
The science isn’t yet conclusive, but it seems highly likely that sitting for extended periods can have detrimental long-term health effects. One solution to this is a desk that’s much taller than a standard one, at which you stand rather than sit to work. You can go hardcore and, instead of standing on the floor, stand on a treadmill so that you’re walking as you work too – although tales of people falling off while they type does counteract the health benefits.

Committing to a standing desk might be a bit of a scary thought, but happily more adaptable sit/stand desks are starting to appear. Even Ikea makes one. Such a desk gives you the flexibility to sit and stand as comfort and task dictate.

If you’re following this advice at home, then of course you’re responsible for the costs. Be aware, though, that your employer is likely to be keen to ensure your desk at work is ergonomically sound, not least because you’re then less likely to try to sue them for RSI or related injuries in the years ahead.

In fact, employers are required to protect the health and safety of their staff, and that doesn’t apply just to people dangling from power cables or handling high explosives. Talk to your IT or HR departments to arrange a workspace assessment, and it’s possible they’ll buy extra equipment to solve any problems that arise.

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