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What not to do when using your tablet as a desktop computer. (Photo via Shutterstock).

Editor’s Note: This guest post was adapted exclusively for GeekWire from “Scared Sitless: The Office Fitness Book,” a new book by Seattle-based massage therapist and personal trainer Larry Swanson.

scaredsitlessIt’s not news to GeekWire readers that laptops have overtaken desktops as the mainstays of office computing. More dramatically, over just the past few years, tablets and smart phones have changed the computing game even more, becoming widely adopted much more quickly than prior technologies.

The compactness and portability of these gadgets has made our lives better in countless ways. But we are paying a steep health price for this convenience. In addition to old-fashioned computing ailments like repetitive strain injuries and computer vision syndrome, we face new posture and ergonomic challenges as we migrate from the age of “point and click” to the new era of “swipe and flick.”

Ergonomics lore has been slow to catch up to these trends, which is not surprising, given the rapidity of the change and the ergonomic profession’s reliance on painstakingly researched recommendations.

While we wait for scientifically vetted advice from the ergonomics pros, I recommend three strategies to cope in the meantime. These strategies are based on the principles at the foundation of the field of ergonomics, so I’m confident they’ll line up well with the ergo industry’s ultimate recommendations.

The main ergonomic challenge with laptops, tablets, phablets, smartphones, and other portable computers is the fixed relationship between the input interface and the display screen. If your hands are positioned comfortably on the keyboard or touch screen, then you have to crane your neck to see the screen. If you position the screen as you would a desktop monitor, then you have to reach awkwardly to use the keyboard or to swipe the screen.

Three ergonomic strategies can help you cope with this situation.

Strategy 1: Use Your Portable Like a Desktop

If you use your portable as your main computer for much of the day, think of it as the CPU tower that came with that desktop computer you used 10 years ago. Then attach a monitor, keyboard, and pointing device just as you did to your old-school desktop.

This is simple to do with a laptop, using either a manufactured docking station or rigging up your own by attaching an external keyboard and mouse, touch pad, or other pointing device. Depending on your set-up you can view your work using either your laptop’s screen (elevated to bring it up to eye level) or an external monitor.

Similarly, if you are among the growing number of techies who use a tablet for much of the day, you can buy or make a docking station that lets you use it like a desktop. Commercial docking stations that include a monitor, keyboard, and mouse are available for Windows tablets. For Android users, it’s easy to buy commercially manufactured components to make a DIY docking station. For iPad and iPhone users, while there is no official support for an external mouse or monitor, external keyboards are widely available, and it’s not too hard to find instructions online on how to jailbreak your Apple device and then download apps that let you add an external monitor and navigate your iPad or iPhone screen with a Bluetooth mouse.

Strategy 2: Favor a Data-Entry Position

When you’re on a plane, in a conference room, or at a coffee shop, and all you have is your portable computer, you have to compromise on ergonomics. The fixed relationship between the screen and the data-entry interface means that either your wrists or your neck will be challenged as you use your portable.

If you’re doing mostly programming, writing, or other keyboard work, position your portable as you would an ergonomically arranged keyboard – the “B” key aligned with your body’s midline and the surface of the keyboard situated so that you can reach it easily with your wrists in a neutral position.

This means, of course, that you’ll end up looking down at your portable device’s screen. In this situation, don’t scrunch your neck forward like a turtle to see the screen. Instead, keep length in your neck as you look down, like an egret scanning a pond for fish, tucking your chin downward and lifting the back of your head upward and back.

Strategy 3: Favor a Viewing Position 

If you’re using your portable device primarily to read, watch videos, scan reports, or otherwise take in information, set it up to favor a viewing position, positioning the screen as you would a desktop monitor.

If you’re using a laptop, elevate it so that the screen is at eye level, using either a commercial laptop stand or whatever you have handy – a cardboard box, an end table, etc.

If you’re using a tablet or smart phone, put it on a commercial stand or your favorite DIY solution (three-ring-binder, rolled-up jacket, backpack, pillow, etc.) that lets you position your screen in a near-vertical position just below eye level. If there’s not an appropriate-height table or cabinet handy, you can raise the stand using your suitcase or a box.

If you’re holding your device in your hands, lift it as close as possible to eye level, resting your elbows on your rib cage or your knees to prevent arm fatigue.

With any of these viewing set-ups, you’ll have to reach out to navigate from page to page, of course, but the light stress of occasional reaching for the screen is a small price to pay for a properly positioned neck and head.

I hope you’ll keep these strategies in mind and draw on them the next time you find yourself wrapping yourself around your tablet into a pillbug shape or pecking at your laptop like a latter-day T. Rex.

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