Office Ergonomics: A Fresh Perspective looking at Respiration

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Have you ever considered how you sit at work affects how you breathe?  Or how you breathe affects your ability to calm down your nervous system or turn off tense muscles?

When we breathe in, our diaphragm (the dome shaped muscle under the ribcage) flattens and our ribcage expands to allow air to enter our lungs. When we breathe out, our ribs descend as the diaphragm returns to its domed shape. This rib movement allows for efficient respiration, promotes parasympathetic nervous system activity (the “rest and digest” or healing mode), and prevents overuse of neck and back muscles.

When we are sitting at a desk leaning forward to a computer, we are likely bent at the hips, tipped forward at the pelvis, compressed through the low back and forward at the head. This posture leads to elevation of ribs in the front of your body and compression of ribs in the back of your body. If your ribs end up stuck in this elevated position in front, they are no longer able to do their job of expanding the ribcage (because there is no more room to lift up), and the diaphragm is left in a more flattened state. That means other “accessory” muscles have to take over for the lungs to expand and then neck, back, jaw tension, and headaches can result.

Here are some tips to consider in regard to your body position to improve breathing patterns, calm your nervous system, and relieve muscle tension:

When sitting:

  • Make sure heels can sense the floor
  • Position knees at level of hips and facing forward (don’t let your knees turn outward, squeeze a ball or yoga block between them if needed)
  • Provide support/seat contact for your mid-back (just below shoulder blades)
  • When reaching forward across desk, try to maintain contact of mid-back support on chair

When standing:

  • Make sure heels can sense the floor by shifting weight back into them
  • Keep knees unlocked with a small bend in them
  • When reaching forward to surface, keep weight in heels and think about your mid-back staying back (like it was pushing into an imaginary wall)

Breathing Activity for either position:

  • Take an inhale through your nose and feel your ribs expand up and outward
  • Begin to exhale out your mouth as you draw your lower abdominal muscles in (belly button up and in) and continue to exhale until you feel the ribs in the front of your body start to move down toward your belly button
  • Continue this sequence for 4 breaths keeping your mid back (below shoulder blades) pressing into the chair behind you (imaginary if standing) more and more with each exhale.
  • Avoid lifting up through your shoulders and head/neck to breathe in, rather allow the air to expand into mid back

Also, try to get up and move around in any way you can every 30 minutes at minimum.

If you are following these tips and not getting relief of your muscle tension, please contact us at Roper Physical Therapy. We are offering evaluations both in clinic and via telehealth. If you are interested in a specific Postural Restoration based evaluation (emphasizing ribcage mechanics), please schedule an appointment with Beth Quinn, PT, DPT.


Contact us at Roper Physical Therapy:
Jane App