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Give Your Home an Ergonomic Makeover

When it comes to preventing discomfort and injuries, why stop at the office?

By Deborah Quilter

We know ergonomics can help at the workplace, but what about comfort at home?
If you’ve ever had a backache from bending over a kitchen counter or stumbled due to poor lighting, consider an ergonomic home makeover.
Many of us could use one. By age 65, most people have lost strength and flexibility, and a third of us have arthritis.

(MORE: How to Ease Arthritis -- and Stay Active)
It’s more difficult to change the facts of our bodies than to adjust our surroundings. Ergonomics is the science of fitting the task to you so you don’t strain your body to accomplish a job.
While it’s easier and cheaper to build in ergonomics from the start than retrofitting after the fact, you can alter existing structures to add comfort.
Here are four ergonomic rules to focus on:

Get the Height Right

You should not have to bend over or raise your shoulders to use a counter or sink. When measuring, let the elbow be your guide. Kitchen counters should allow you to chop vegetables or use your hands without bending over, i.e., they'd be even with your elbow when you're standing and it’s bent to 90 degrees.

If you have a spouse or housemate of a markedly different height, consider two counter heights when renovating. If you can’t remodel, tall people can use elevated chopping blocks; shorter people can sit at a table.

Your sink bottom should come to 8 to 11 inches below the bent elbow. Place dishwashers and front-loading clothes washers and dryers high enough off the floor that you won't need to bend so much.

Zero-cost tricks:

  • Position clothes closet hanging bars so you can reach them easily.
  • Put heavy items at waist height there. Lighter items can be higher.

Straighten Up

Maintain proper posture and body mechanics for activities of daily living. If you crane your neck with a slouched spine — or lie lopsided on the couch — to view television, you are asking for aches, pains and muscle imbalances.

Get a proper chair for reading and viewing; the position for reading is different from using a computer. Your chair should angle slightly back, and with the spine and head aligned. Bring the reading material up to you — get a table that holds the book or e-reader at the proper viewing angle or place it on a large high pillow.

An easy chair that supports the back, neck and lower legs is great, as long as there is no upholstery that pushes the head forward and the lumbar spine is supported.

Reading in bed is not advisable unless your spine, head and knees are aligned as in sitting, and you can prop your book on a pillow or over-the-bed table.

Zero-cost tricks:

  • When you’re vacuuming, reduce shoulder strain by “dancing” with your machine as though it was your tango partner and you were moving as one.
  • Use good form — bend your knees when lifting, keep your spine aligned and hold heavy packages close to you.

(MORE: Stop Slouching: Poor Posture Leads to Poor Health)


Lighten Up

Lifting large loads repeatedly can strain your spine, arms and wrists. Skip the chic cookware that weighs a ton and go for leaner products. Transfer hefty wet laundry from the washer to the dryer in small batches. Shop more frequently rather than lugging bulky grocery bags.

Zero-cost tricks:

  • If you are moving heavy pots of food, slide (don't lift) them from burner to countertop.
  • Divide large portions of food into two baking pans rather than hoisting one too-big entrée.

Brighten Up

Mood lighting works for romantic restaurants, but presents ergonomic hazards at home. “Why does someone go into awkward postures? It’s because they’re trying to see what they’re doing,” explains Jane Bear-Lehman, Ph.D., a professor of occupational therapy at New York University.

(MORE: How to Choose Efficient Lighting for Your Home)

According to Dr. Richard W. Bunch, Ph.D., a clinical associate professor at Tulane University, by age 40, we need twice the illumination as when we were younger. By 60, we need five to six times that amount.

If you are reading a recipe, or labels on pill bottles, Bear-Lehman emphasizes the importance of task lighting, i.e. spotlighting what you are doing with a small bright lamp.
Do you have specific individual issues? Occupational therapists are highly trained in helping people adapt their homes. Ask your doctor for a referral.

Deborah Quilter, author of Repetitive Strain Injury: A Computer User's Guide and The Repetitive Strain Injury Recovery Book, is an ergonomic expert who has lectured internationally about repetitive strain injury to business groups and conferences.

Deborah Quilter is an ergonomics expert, a certified Feldenkrais practitioner, a yoga therapist and the founder of the Balance Project at the Martha Stewart Center for Living at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. She is also the author of Repetitive Strain Injury: A Computer User's Guide and The Repetitive Strain Injury Recovery Book. Read More
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