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Posture and Study Habits Guide

Students spend long hours sitting while reading, studying, playing video games, laboring over assignments, working in labs, etc., oftentimes in prolonged, awkward, and static positions. Students often sit in poorly designed seats and at awkward desk arrangements. They frequently use computers for extended periods. Prolonged sitting during these activities may cause muscles and other soft tissues to become stretched or shortened compared to normal. Muscles may be overworked or become constantly contracted. Blood and lymph flow may be constricted. Soft tissues may become inflamed. Nerves may even get irritated.

The abnormal stresses placed on the student’s body may cause discomfort ranging from minor and transient, to pain or soreness which subsides overnight, to debilitating pain which hinders or prevents completion of necessary tasks. Pain from the poor or prolonged postures may present as headaches, neck and low back pain, pain in the shoulders, elbows, wrists, and hands. If pain is especially severe, it may even be felt radiating down a leg to the toes or down an arm to the fingers.

Many of these aches and pains can be avoided by following simple guidelines which will decrease these increased stresses placed on a student’s body. Changing one’s study habits, work style, and study or computer work area frequently are often sufficient to alleviate significantly or abolish completely the pain which may arise.

Developing good habits as a student is not only beneficial now, but it can certainly help prevent future problems. Many students will go on to careers involving hours sitting at a desk and then going home relaxing in a soft easy chair watching TV or using a computer.

Following are specific ergonomic guidelines to improve one’s posture, followed by guidelines and suggestions to improve study habits.

Poor posture happens easily if one is intensely concentrating on the work at hand. It is very difficult to consciously maintain proper posture. But, if the study space is arranged properly initially, one won’t have to think about constantly checking his or her posture.

A very common posture frequently seen around campus is a slouched position due to sitting in a chair with poor low back support. Instead of the low back maintaining its natural arch, the low back instead rounds out. The upper body and head drop forward, causing the upper neck to extend in order for the head to remain looking up. Instead of the spine bearing most of the weight, muscles, vertebral discs, and ligaments bear much of the upper body weight. Over time this slouched position may cause pain.

To avoid pain from occurring, the following ergonomic tips are offered. Some of these tips will be more difficult if one has a laptop computer.

The desk should:

The chair should:

The monitor should:



Document Holder

Other Tips

Just having a beautifully designed study or computer setup may not be enough. Other techniques can be helpful in preventing or alleviating the onset of pain. Some of these include:

Laptops are very popular with college students because of their great portability between dorm room or apartment and classroom. However, the portability benefit of the laptop does not come without cost. For example, since it is so portable, the student may use it in positions or locations that result in poor posture, such as on one’s lap, or in cramped spots on small tables or desks.

Additionally, from an ergonomic standpoint laptop computers are poorly designed since the keyboard and the monitor are attached. If the monitor is raised to the proper height, then the keyboard is too high and increased stress will be place on the shoulders.

If the keyboard is placed at the proper level so that the wrists are kept in a neutral position, then stress is placed on the neck and back muscles as the head and body are forced to lean forward too much. Besides this, laptop keyboards tend to be smaller, resulting in less space between keys and in smaller size of less frequently used keys.

This tends to cause increased stress to the wrist and promotes more slouching of the upper body. Finally, one must consider the weight of a notebook and its associated peripherals if it has to be carried a distance. This weight, if carried far enough or for a long enough time, can cause new pain or can exacerbate existing pain in the neck/upper back and shoulders.


Stretching Exercises
Below are some simple stretching and range of motion exercises useful during prolonged static seated positions:

Image of wrist extension stretch Image of wrist flexion stretch
Wrist extension stretch Wrist flexion stretch
Image of upper trapezius stretch Image of levator scapula stretch
Upper trapezius stretch Levator scapula stretch
Image of corner stretch Image of standing extension Image of chin tucks
Corner Stretch Standing Extension Chin tucks

The wrist, neck, and corner stretches can be done for 15 seconds, progressing to 30 seconds as tolerated, 1-3 repetitions. The standing extension and chin tucks can be performed 5-10 repetitions periodically.

If back and/or neck pain continues to be a problem, then it is recommended to see a McKinley provider for treatment or possible referral to the McKinley physical therapist or another health care provider.

Cornell University Ergonomics Web site at:
OSHA Web site at:
“Ergonomics for the ‘virtual office’,“ Managing Office Technology; Oct. 97, Vol. 42 Issue 10, pp 22-24
“Computer Related Symptoms,” American Fitness; Sept/Oct. 2007, Vol 25 Issue 5, pp 27-29
“Laptop Ergonomics,” Macworld; Jan 2006, Vol. 23 Issue 1, pp 85-86
“Effects of notebook computer configuration and task on user biomechanics, productivity, and comfort,” International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics 30 (2002) pp 7-31

If you are a registered University of Illinois student and you have questions or concerns,
or need to make an appointment, please call: Dial-A-Nurse at 333-2700


If you are concerned about any difference in your treatment plan and the information in this handout,

you are advised to contact your health care provider.


Visit the McKinley Health Center Web site at:

HEd. III-260

© The Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois, 2008.



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