Computer Science Professor Explains Healthy Computer Use

August 20, 2012


by Lauren Daley '05

So you think you know how to use a computer?

Think again.

You may assume that sitting at your computer is a no-brainer. You bring your laptop to a big comfy chair in the library, slouch down with a coffee and work for hours.

But Stonehill Computer Science Professor Robert Dugan learned the hard way about the importance of good ergonomics while typing:

This past June, Dugan had his first rib moved, muscles taken out of his neck, and other neck muscles cut into. It will take him a full year to recover from what he called "pretty serious surgery." He was diagnosed with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, a condition that involves pain in the neck and shoulder, numbness and tingling of the fingers, and a weak grip.

The cause? "Slouching, typing with my arms at the wrong angle, looking at the computer in a way that was giving me a stiff neck. I used to work for up to 18 hours at a time," he said.

With classes starting up soon, Dugan offers five tips to help students and professors avoid the mistakes he made.

One: Use an external mouse and keyboard for your laptop.

"The key to good use of self is getting your body into a biomechanically neutral position-you can't do that if you're using your laptop's keyboard," Dugan said. "You need the top of the monitor up at eye level and if you used the laptop keyboard there, your hands would be up at chin level. You want your arms and elbows at a 90 degree angle."

If you're bringing a laptop to campus for your main workstation, that's OK, as long as you also use the external mouse and keyboard, which cost about $30, Dugan said.

"Laptops were never designed to be the main computer, although that's what they've become," he said. "But without the external mouse and keyboard, you cannot get into a healthy position with them."

Two: Use a chair with adjustable seat and arms.

Slouching or sprawling out in a chair-or, admit it, your bed or a sofa- leads to everything from leg cramps to shoulder cramps to stiff neck to bad back pains, Dugan said.

"Your chair is critical to get your arms, back and neck into a bio-mechanically neutral position," Dugan said. "When your chair is adjusted properly, your head is balanced over your torso. Think of your head as a big bowling ball that you're trying to balance over the trunk of your body."

Make sure your chair has arm rests, too, Dugan advised.

"A good chair will keep your arms at a proper 90 degree angle while you're typing or resting. While the College provides dorm chairs, I would advise bringing your own-if you can afford it, it's worth the investment of a couple hundred bucks."

Three: Keep your monitor at eye level.

This is easy enough if you have a desktop computer. If you have a laptop, prop it up, Dugan said.

"Place books under your laptop to raise screen to eye level. You don't want to strain your neck to look up or down, and when the top of the monitor is at eye level, if you need to look at anything, you put your eyes down, not your head. You can look up left, right, and just use your eyes, not your head."

Four: Be mindful of your body.

Freeze. How are you sitting right now, reading this on your screen?

"Sit up straight," Dugan said. "Keep your feet flat on the ground. Keep your head over your torso. Rest your arms on your armrests. Keep your upper and lower arms at a 90-degree angle."

Ok. Check in with your body frequently.

Five: Work on a computer less than four hours total per day, with breaks every 20 minutes.

First, while you're working, get up and stretch every 20 minutes, Dugan advised.

"I recommend downloading software for your Mac or PC to remind you. Stretch Break is a good one, and there's also RSI (Reptetitive Stress Injury) Guard," said Dugan, who worked with a Stonehill student, Doug Bodkin '13 this summer to create a "Stretchbreak for Kids" iPad and iPhone app.

Secondly-and this sounds much more difficult- limit your total time working, socializing, and recreating on your computer to less than four hours a day, Dugan said.

"Research shows that there is a correlation between working at a computer for more than four hours a day, and repetitive stress injuries," he said.

For many people in the working world, Dugan admits, limiting computer work to four hours a day may be impossible. But one way to reduce the risk of RSI is to break up the work day with non-computing tasks and to take regular breaks.

But, still, for students, it's quite possible that if they're mindful of work planning, they can limit their computer time to four hours daily pretty easily, he said.

"You can limit your time at your computer by managing your weekly workload," Dugan said. "There are students-and I used to be one of them-who are guilty of binge computing. If students procrastinate, they may end up on their computer for 10 hours or more at the end of the week trying to finish every assignment," he said.

Lauren Daley '05 is a freelance writer. Contact her at ldaley33@gmail.com.

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