Any kind of deskwork inevitably takes its toll on the body and completing a PhD definitely isn’t a a very posture-friendly activity. With the idea ‘happy body, happy mind’, Sophie Shorland takes us through the impact of PhD on posture, and simple solutions to try in order to get your body to a happier place…
I recently experienced a revelation. I learned about the anchor of fat. For those of you who have never heard of it, here’s a brief precis: when we stoop, looking down at our laptop/phone/notes/petrie dishes, the muscles in the front of the body aren’t working, while the ones at the back of the neck are being overworked. Because they’re overworking, our amazingly adaptive bodies correct for this, supporting the spine with an anchor of fat. Hence the slightly hunched look many office workers develop, even if they’re perfectly healthy in most other respects (this is different from a Dowager’s hump, usually brought on by osteoporosis, which is a curvature in the actual bone). Getting rid of the anchor of fat is apparently one of the fastest growing cosmetic surgery procedures around.
Long story short, learning about the anchor of fat was the (terrifying) motivation I needed to actually do something about my posture. Doing a PhD is often not the most posture-friendly of activities. For many of us, it requires long days of reading and writing, while for some science-based PhDs it requires a lot of repetitive motion. To save you time, here are some of the solutions I tried, rated out of five for effectiveness, five being the most effective.
Standing Desk – 4*
All the rage when I left my corporate job two years ago, standing desks also have an impressive pedigree: Virginia Woolf used to stand at one to write. You can pay around £100 for a standing desk, or just make your own out of a table stacked with an upturned box, pile of books, bongo drums; whatever you have to hand (I’ve tried all three, and the bongo drums worked surprisingly well). It stops you sitting all day, meaning you burn about 54 extra calories a day. However, there is some dispute on their efficacy, with claims that staying in one position all day is hard on the body regardless of whether you’re sitting or standing. Switching between sitting, standing and perhaps even kneeling seems to have a positive effect on posture.
Sitting/Standing ‘Ergonomically’ – 2*
This technique is perhaps the most common-sense approach to posture. Following NHS guidelines (or these if you’re a wheelchair user), I tried sitting correctly. The problem with this is best summarised by that old proverb the road to hell is paved with good intentions. It’s very easy to get absorbed in work and, three hours later, find that slouching has set in. Many of the tips the NHS gives also assume that you have some control over your environment. Adjusting your chair or using a footrest is problematic if, like me, you spend all day every day in a library. Similarly, tips on standing properly are easy to forget. If you’re doing repetitive tasks like typing or looking down at a bench to measure something, keeping your head straight and level is problematic.
Laptop Stand – 5*
I wish I’d invented this device, because it’s honestly the greatest thing I have ever bought from Amazon. The device itself is a lightweight plastic that I can easily fit in a backpack/tote bag, and whip out at the library. It raises my laptop (see picture) so that the screen is at eyelevel. Depending on the height of the desk, I sometimes have to look up, and this feels fantastic at the end of the day. No more hunching and neck pain! The anchor of fat is banished (hopefully). The only downside is that it’s a little antisocial to use if you prefer café-based working, as you can’t see over the top of your laptop.
Would any of these solutions work in your circumstances? Have you found your posture affected by the PhD? Are there any other fixes you’ve tried out? Perhaps you’ve tried more extreme measures, like this posture-enhancing sports bra, or perhaps this ‘wearable posture coach’ that buzzes whenever you slouch. Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at email@example.com, or leave a comment below.
Sophie is a PhD candidate working on Early Modern Literature at the University of Warwick. She’s interested in Shakespeare, celebrity culture and early modern women’s writing. You can find her on twitter @sophie_shorland.
Image 1: Author’s own