When playing video games, you can't just do it while sitting in any old position.
No matter what level of play you prefer—competitive or casual—you're going to need to get comfortable enough to focus on the challenges ahead. For the hardcore, that could mean headset on, sitting in your favorite gaming chair, leaning toward the screen, and ready to vaporize any enemies who dare confront you. But for many casual gamers, how you sit can vary depending on the console or phone you're playing on, as well as the types of seating you have in your home. When I play, for instance, I'm either propping my feet up onto a table from my chair, or lounging on the couch and leaning on the arm. Both of these positions are pretty common, comfortable ways to enjoy short to long-term gaming sessions, but apparently they could be messing with my longterm health.
Adam Fields is a chiropractor based in Kentucky, and has been an avid gamer since he was six years old. He says the majority of his clientele are gamers like me. "The biggest problem I see is postural syndrome," he says, referring to anyone with rounded shoulders, a hyper-extended neck, and a hunched back. "These are the slouchers. It comes from sitting forward or looking at your phone or TV screen for hours without any kind of exercise to counter that."
Fields says the condition is very common among gamers, many of whom visit his clinic up to four times a week for treatment. "If you don't correct the syndrome when you're young, you'll be prone to more of a hunchback as you age, and possibly lots of other issues," he says.
This, I have to admit, alarms me. I enjoy long gaming sessions, and I often spend an hour or longer at a time playing games on my phone. I don't seem to have any problems, but Fields says the symptoms and signs can be hard to notice at first. "It could just be general discomfort or a burning sensation that isn't necessarily a bad pain," he says. That's one reason the condition tends to sneak up on gamers. You'll be playing for a while and maybe think your neck is only slightly achy. "That's postural syndrome, or more specifically what we call upper crossed syndrome," Fields says. "It's caused by tightness of the trapezius and levator scapulae on the dorsal side, and tightness of the pectoralis major and minor. Your trapezius is the main one—it's the huge muscle in your upper back that's responsible for raising, rotating, and stabilizing the scapula along with extending the neck."
Fields, like many other console players, describes himself as a forward-sitting gamer—where you lean in and and focus intently. This is the worst position you can put yourself in, he admits, but he tries his best to be mindful of it. "There are times I'm playing an immersive game, like The Witcher 3, and I'll think, 'I need to get up and stretch. I've been playing too much'—I don't want to be one of those guys who can't do the things they want to do when they get old." In addition to the hunchback thing, he says, letting the problems persist could lead to muscle pain, headaches, and even a greater risk of developing arthritis in your back.
So is there actually any good way to game? Of course there is, Fields says, but first you need to learn what good posture looks like. "Sit up straight, put your shoulders down and back, and tuck your chin," he says. Generally speaking, this is also solid life advice—a 2014 study found that people who sat up straight reported being in a better mood than people who slouched.
Gaming is like anything else, he adds: everything in moderation. So changing positions often and taking breaks is also key. Another study, published back in 2006, actually found that leaning back at a 135 degree angle is one of the best ways to prevent back pain. You might also consider adjusting the position of your television—it may sound obvious, but raising your TV stand even a few inches or springing for a larger screen if you can afford one will help you avoid hunching over.
By far the worst offender, Fields says, is the smallest screen that most of us gaze into on a given day. "Handheld games are terrible for you, because you're looking down," he says. That slouch is the easiest position to fall into because it's physically uncomfortable to hold your phone at eye level. "If you're going to game on your phone or 3DS for a while," Fields suggests, "then at least put it on a table and rest your elbows on it to help you out." He'd even prefer someone lie on the couch—provided you have a good pillow that allows for your head to be slightly elevated. "But if you're laterally flexed for hours on end, it's going to cause problems."
While you don't have to be a gym rat to negate the hours you spent playing League of Legends last night, you should probably aim for three solid workouts per week of at least 30 minutes each, Fields says. It should be easy to tell if you've been slacking off: "Take three steps while looking at yourself in the mirror," he says. "If your neck extends forward or you're starting to get a hunch in your upper back, then you need more exercise." Moves like the bench press, dead lift, and seated row will be the most effective for reversing the damage, he adds. "Doing exercises like these will strengthen the muscles so they can easily pull everything back into place instead of letting it sag forward and down." And after all, thirty minutes isn't too much to ask when you really think about it, right? It's two multiplayer rounds of Call of Duty, at best.