There’s no doubt that increasingly tech savvy older adults are spending more time in front of their computers. And this has its fair share of benefits: it allows your loved one greater access to information, online socialization, and medical resources. Yet sitting at the computer for too long can also cause unwanted health problems if they’re not careful.
Some of the health issues that your loved one might encounter from prolonged sitting and poor posture include injuries, joint pain, and even an increased risk of serious diseases. Any one of these can not only cause an aging adult physical pain, but emotional suffering as well. Encouraging them to engage in mindful practices at their desk—like exercises and stretches—can greatly reduce these health risks, and allow your loved one to make the most of their computer time, without unnecessary consequences.
The Risks of Sitting Too Long at a Desk
There are a variety of potential health problems that your loved one might face if they sit too long at their desk, or have poor posture while at their computer. From minor joint pain to heart disease, these issues can be the result of poor desk-related habits:
- Increased risk of serious diseases: Sitting too long has been proven to increase older adults’ risk of many serious illnesses, including diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
- Shortened lifespan: Sitting for prolonged periods of time has also been proven to play a role in shortening the lifespan of older adults.
- Reduced eyesight: Staring too long at a computer screen can cause eye strain and problems with your loved one’s eye health.
- Postural pain syndrome: Overall stiffness, aches, and pains can be the result of bad posture when at the computer.
- Injuries and joint pain: Sitting in one place without moving for an extended amount of time can cause muscles to shorten, increasing risk of injury if that muscle is not properly stretched before being used again.
- Reduced mobility: Stillness when sitting at the computer can lower motivation to get up and exercise,leading to a sedentary lifestyle.
Avoiding Desk-Related Health Problems in Older Adults
In addition to getting an ergonomic desk setup, your aging loved one can reduce the potential health risks of sitting at their desk by doing a few well-chosen exercises and stretches. Part of the benefit these exercises provide is they encourage your loved one to take regular breaks from sitting. These simple practices will help them stay agile while at their computer.
Walk Around Often
Taking a gentle stroll around their room gets their circulation going again, stretches stiff muscles, and loosens any kinks.
- Set an alarm: Having an alarm set for every 45 minutes can help remind your loved to take their walking break regularly.
- Keep it short: Walking for just two to three minutes can give your loved one enough of a break from sitting to benefit their body.
- Get a drink of water: Your loved one can use this time to get a drink of water to ensure they stay hydrated.
- Notice their body: During their walk, encourage your loved one to notice how their body is feeling, and whether they’re experiencing any strange pains.
Practice Good Posture
Having good posture can alleviate much of the damage, including postural pain syndrome, that sitting can otherwise cause older adults.
- Stay mindful: Encourage them to continuously evaluate their posture as they sit.
- Sit up tall: Have your loved one sit up straight — as if someone is pulling an invisible cord through the top of their head — to prevent a curved back.
- Shoulders up and back: Your loved one should raise their shoulders up, then down and back, to avoid slouching.
- Chin tucked: Have your loved one stick their chin forward, then back and in so their head isn’t resting too far forward.
- Add pillows or a supportive chair: Your loved one’s posture might really benefit from adding a pillow for lower lumbar support, or other strategically-placed cushions. You might also consider getting them a chair with built-in back or neck support.
Do Seated Exercises
Your loved one can practice these exercises while at their desk, about once every hour, to improve circulation and avoid stiffness.
- Shoulder circles: Rotate shoulders forward in a circular motion 10 times, then backward to help loosen them up, as well as the spine.
- Shoulder squeezes: Squeeze shoulder blades back toward each other (expanding the chest) and then release to strengthen muscles and improve posture.
- Knee lifts: While seated, raise one knee up slightly and back down again, then repeat on the other leg to loosen the hips.
- Leg extensions: Extend one leg out so it’s straight in front (heel on the floor) and return back to a 90-degree angle. Repeat on alternate legs to stretch the hamstrings and activate the hips.
Stretch at Your Desk
Stretching helps to elongate the muscles which can become shortened and make them more prone to injury if left inactive for long periods of time.
- Chest expansion: Spread arms away from chest and back, palms facing outward, to stretch out chest muscles and arms.
- Arm raises: With arms hanging down at their side and palms facing outward (away from the torso), slowly raise arms up until palms meet above the head. This stretches your loved one’s arms, back, and sides of their torso.
- Neck tilts: Turn head slowly from right to left side, never going past the shoulder or point of comfort. Another variation is to tilt the head from side to side, slowly lowering the ear towards the shoulder, aiming to feel a stretch down each side.
- Ankle stretches: With either leg outstretched in front, flex the foot back toward you. This should give your loved one’s hamstring, calf, and Achilles tendon a good stretch.
Encouraging your aging loved one to practice these simple habits while at their computer desk can make a big difference in helping prevent potential injuries and illnesses. Along with other healthy strategies, like drinking enough water and a healthy diet, these desk exercises can ensure your loved one is able to continue enjoying their computer time. And becoming more mindful of aches or pains can also help them become better attuned to their body’s needs.
Learning how to keep the body active even while seated can also have positive effects on other areas of their life: you might find your loved one starts doing their stretches while watching TV and takes more walking breaks during their game of Solitaire. But don’t wait until your aging loved one develops a health issue to urge them to take these practices seriously—prevention is all about starting before the problem even begins. Part of being a tech-savvy older adult is learning how to mitigate potential harm by putting in place good practices at the computer.
If you’re unsure how to best support your aging loved one, Institute on Aging offers an array of useful programs, services, and online resources to help. Get in touch today to learn more.