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Ergonomics and Reading

Why is it Important? 

Those who read a great deal whether for pleasure, work or study have experienced the unpleasant side effects that long hours of reading can cause to many different parts of the body. We may put our bodies in the most stressful positions and circumstances and tend to ignore the physical signs until the discomfort becomes intolerable. 

The common effects are burning of the eyes, neck pain and pain in the upper back or between the shoulder blades. There are probably no other activities that engage us in such prolonged motionless postures as reading and watching television. The result can create havoc on the eyes and musculoskeletal system. 


Lengthy reading should therefore be avoided under circumstances where one has little control over lighting conditions and seating arrangements. 

The best means of illumination for reading are narrow beam adjustable lights with a metal head. Halogen lamps are a fire hazard due to their high operating temperatures and therefore are not recommended. Ideally, the bulb should not be visible from the sides. Overhead ceiling or ambient lights are inappropriate for reading and only cause eyestrain due to insufficient concentration of the beam. 


All reading material should be positioned as close as possible to eye level as this maintains the cervical spine or neck in its correct neutral posture. 

Probably the worst postural habit we have while reading is looking downward for extended periods of time. This is sure to bring on intense upper back and neck pain. The solution is to prop the book on a tilted reading stand or a bookstand that sits on the desktop. The platform of the stand should have an adjustable tilt and the height of the stand should be adjustable. 

In libraries where we have little control over what is available it is usually more practical to use a portable bookstand. Holding a book with the hands totally supported by arms and shoulders will also quickly bring on fatigue and discomfort in the arms and shoulders. If the reading material is held upright with the hands then the arms and shoulders should be supported. 


The chair that you use depends on your reading environment. Aside from your bed your personal chair should be the most important piece of furniture in the house. It should be versatile enough to serve as a place to relax, watch television or read for hours in comfort. It should support the entire spine and include a footrest that is separate from the chair itself. An ideal chair does not force the spine to conform to the chair but contours to the spine as you adjust or change sitting position. 

The average person probably spends half of his day sitting at their workplace. In our information based economy more and more people sit for the greater part of the day. For this reason home and office chairs are being realized as playing a major role in our overall health. Throughout the day we are continually shifting our postures to redistribute the gravitational loads on our spines. This causes the recruitment of different muscle groups and ligaments that support the spine to share the load. 

A good reading chair would allow us to shift in and out of different positions and recline while having our arms supported by well-padded arm rests. We know that as we recline in our chair there is a dynamic change in the shape of the upper and lower spine and the seat back needs to be flexible enough to change it's shape with the spine and provide sufficient support at the same time. 

Implementing the ergonomic principles stated above and increasing our level of comfort afford us with longer hours of productive reading with less stress on our bodies. Reading should be a rewarding experience and not a painful one.

1). Inkeles, Gordon and Iris Schencke. Ergonomic Living; How to Create a Friendly Home and Office. New York; Simon and Schuster, 1994