During my typical day as a teacher and graduate program coordinator on a college campus, I have seen disturbing ergonomic habits wherever I look, whether in my building or while moving across campus.
Many young people do not yet feel the accumulation of wear and tear they are creating in their poor, repetitive ergonomic habits. So they seem less concerned than my older friends.
It is troubling to contemplate how these habits will impact this age group earlier than past generations, who were more active before and during their college years.
This issue was my inspiration for developing a new Ergonomics course for SUNY about personal health components of ergonomics. It covers how multiple body systems are impacted by our habits, and offers self-care hacks to mitigate the stressors and potential damage.
The best news is that techniques for recovery and injury prevention can be learned. We can choose to be the masters of our technology-driven, sedentary world and optimize our habits to feel our best. Embedded in this post you will find practices to take the essentials of ergonomics into your own hands.
The Pitfalls of Our Modern, Cushy World
Health among deskbound populations is impacted by our modern habits of excessive screen time in chairs, or with limited body movement. This is often coupled with cognitive demands while using modern technology devices, now ubiquitous in the workplace and during personal time.
You may be reading this and think, “but I exercise regularly, so this does not apply to me.” If so, please read my article about repetitive motion, exercise habits, and how a lack of variety of movement is also a factor.
Those of us who do not sit at a 9-to-5 job at a computer may also think, “thank goodness this is not me.” However, you may be unaware of how much time your eyes are focused upon your smartphone, often in a gripped and hunched position.
The use of technology, the force of gravity, and today’s environment impact our muscle movements and strength, physical work capacity, and stress. This, in turn, impacts metabolic outcomes, deconditioning, the risk for musculoskeletal injury, and wellbeing.
Personal ergonomics are comprised of our biomechanical positioning habits (always loaded by gravity), repetitive motions related to our particular lifestyles, how we hold and process stress in our bodies, and “cognitive ergonomics” which address the psychological and mental impact of our physical environment on our whole system.
Statistics show epidemic levels of musculoskeletal disease (MSD), repetitive strain injuries (RSIs), and the need for better stress management. These issues are further reflected in our pain medication and Rx addiction crises.
There are warning voices regarding damages of our movement-limited lifestyles such as the teachings of my mentor Jill Miller, Katy Bowman, and others. Yet it seems that prevention education for self-care is still lacking; it is not mainstream at schools, nor workplaces yet.
Most US health insurance will “fix broken people” but pays little toward self-care and prevention. Individuals must seek out their own self-care education through yoga classes or other self-funded extra-curricular activities.
The fantastic news is that it is possible to learn do-it-yourself techniques to improve your ability to manage and navigate the pitfalls of our modern cushy world.
DIY Techniques for Good Ergonomics on the Workplace
“Ergonomics” and “human factors” include the interaction of humans with their environments. It is a huge topic for which entire books are written. Today, I will discuss body positioning, along with a few key interrelated elements of ergonomics that do not get enough attention, yet impact health profoundly.
Follow along with the practice exercises to experience this learning in your own body.
Exercise #1: CheckIn on Seated Ergonomics
Sit at your desk the way you normally would. Notice how your body feels–hips, spine, neck, etc. Use this as a baseline to check in on how you typically sit.
The science behind position, loading, and movement:
Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are injuries or pain in the human musculoskeletal system, including the joints, ligaments, muscles, nerves, tendons; the structures that support limbs, neck, and back. MSDs are the leading cause of physical disability in the US.
The top three (of four) most commonly reported medical conditions are chronic low back pain, joint pain, and disability from arthritis. Once upon a time, such conditions were usually a result of strenuous manual labor like heavy lifting, but now we see many people sustain these injuries just by sitting at desks all day.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention warns us that prolonged sitting can reduce blood flow, increase our risk for blood clots, irritate nerves, and even cause “micro-trauma” to muscles. But surprisingly, it is not just “regular folks” who are impacted by too much sitting in our modern world.
Even research on younger adult athletes shows that as high as 30% report low back pain which agrees with more recent studies showing that “very active” people, as well as the “sedentary” groups, have a greater risk for chronic diseases than we previously thought, due to too many hours of stillness.
DIY Ergonomics Technique: Pelvic positioning
To begin to sense the position of your pelvis and better understand your typical pelvic alignment, try this exercise sitting on a Coregeous® sponge ball on a low bench or chair. This can also be done on a larger exercise ball.
Exercise #2: Pelvic Tilts Sitting on Coregeous® Ball
- Rest your pelvic floor straight down on the sponge ball
- Anterior and posterior tilt your pelvis by curling your tailbone under, then tilting it up
- Next, rock your hips right to left several times, you could also circle your hips
- Sense all the different possible positions of your pelvis and how they relate to the position of your spine
- Finally, try to find an even position where your pelvis is perfectly neutral
How technology impacts stress-sleep-relaxation:
Now consider “cognitive ergonomics.” This is how mental stress and body tension, including the use of technology, impact the nervous system, sleep, and more. The combination of inactive physical habits together with nonstop mental stimuli from technology-driven devices results in a hazardous physical-mental strain that leads to a greater incidence of chronic disease, now seen at younger ages.
Research shows that our ever-increasing use of computer screen devices at work, for school and for pleasure (often late into the night), results in general fatigue, aches, and stress. This excessive “screen time” is linked to an elevated state of ‘fight or flight’ of our nervous system and is related to sleep deprivation which also raises our health risks for higher anxiety, anger, daytime exhaustion, problems focusing attention, mood swings, and even lower grades among students!
Being in a chronic state of ‘fight or flight’ negatively impacts our emotional balance well-being and actually most systems in the body. This primal stress reaction was meant to quickly save us from danger if we needed to run from a saber-toothed tiger. But, nowadays, our environment triggers us 24-7-365, and damage occurs over time if our body tries to maintain the cascade of stress hormones.
First, adrenaline kicks off a faster heart-rate and breathing and shunts blood away from our guts to our arms and legs to run, while conserving immune system power (because using energy to fight or flee is more important in an “emergency”).
The problem is that our modern “danger” is simply a screaming customer, an argument with a stranger on social media, or a traffic jam. This chronic state of stress not only impacts our cardiac and respiratory systems but also our digestive system and immune function to name a few.
Over time, this vicious cycle of stress, sleep deprivation, too much screen-time, leads to more moodiness and more tension (body and mind). It is associated with many serious long-term problems because it can actually change our brain chemistry and create tissue damage. These physiological changes can lead to sleep disturbances, insulin resistance, diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure.
DIY Ergonomics Technique: Calm the Body Through the Breath
These techniques will help relax tense respiratory muscles that could be contributing to stress, overwhelm and sleep issues.
Exercise #3: Roll Out Stress Muscles of Respiration
Using one Roll Model® therapy ball, ease up the subclavicular respiratory muscles with deep-tissue myofascial self-massage at the wall.
- Put therapy against yoga block, or doorframe
- Lean your body weight into the therapy ball placed just under your collarbone
- Take several breaths, then slide your body right and left and wiggle your shoulder up and down
- Plug the therapy ball in one place and move that arm up and down
- Step away and notice how your shoulder feels different
Breath and ribcage mechanics:
Our statue-like habits, including slumping for long periods of time, limit the way our ribs were meant to move which alters normal breathing patterns, which in turn trips a switch in our nervous system. When our brain detects the shallow obstructed breath pattern, it thinks we are in trouble and signals a “high alert” and keeps us in a stress state (“fight or flight”) until we fix it.
In addition to poor breathing creating stress to our nervous system, we also increase our chances for backaches and create a major “amnesia” in our spine’s ability to detect body position (proprioception). This impacts our quality of movement and stiffness.
But the great news is we can easily “hack” into our primal stress response and this lousy series of events by creating relaxation and better well-being when we practice slower, deeper breathing habits.
Exercise #4: Breathe into Sternum, then Massage the Circumfrence of the Diaphragm
Using a Coregeous® sponge ball, stand at the wall.
- First, place the sponge ball at your sternum, stand upright, and breathe deeply into your chest
- Feel the sternum press into the sponge ball on inhale, and pull away on exhale
- Stay for several rounds of breath
- Next, place the sponge ball at the line of your respiratory diaphragm, where your front ribs meet
- Interlace your hands behind your head and breath into the sponge ball, sensing it
- Then, rock right to left and make a full loop tracking the circumfrence of your diaphragm
- Do this several times
- Finally, rest with your back against the sponge ball and take severall deep breaths
Aside from back and neck pain, our slumping and stuck postural habits not only cause somewhat shallow breathing, but specifically, we do not exhale properly. Poor exhalation perpetuates the “fight or flight” response which keeps us stressed out. The sad cycle of poor posture, causing aches and overall stress, is reinforced by continued shallow breathing patterns and poor ribcage movement.
Unfortunately, there is even more bad news about this state of chronic tension that involves our heart health. A measurement called heart rate variability (HRv) assesses the variation in time between each heartbeat and is a known marker of cardiovascular health, vagal tone (relaxation capability), and is a tool for predicting disease.
Decreased HRv (less variability of time between heartbeats) is associated with chronic diseases that include diabetes, coronary artery disease and congestive heart failure. Increased HRv (more variability between heartbeats) shows an ability to manage our sympathetic or “fight or flight” reactions and to switch gears. It is considered a marker of enhanced parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) nervous system health which leads to greater wellbeing.
Good news is that relaxation practices promote a more “parasympathetic state” known as “rest and digest” (versus “fight or flight”), so we can improve our HRv or vagal tone. The phrase “vagal tone” refers to the vagus nerve, a major nerve in our upper body, that controls our heart tension and heartbeat.
When we practice breathing exercises, we improve overall relaxation of our body’s environment for wellbeing and prevention of chronic disease.
The exercises in this post will help relax the nervous system while improving posture and breathing.
Exercise #5: Expand the Intercostal muscles
Stand at the wall to perform boomerang at the wall. This will help lengthen the ribcage and stretch soft-tissues that will help break the tension pattern and increase your volume of breath.
- Stand sideways at the wall
- Place your bottom hand against the wall, fingers up, approximately at waist height
- Reache the opposite arm toward the ceiling and internally rotate the shoulder so the palm faces away from the wall
- Sidebend toward the wall and place yoru fingertips against it
- Elongate through the side-body–especially the ribcage
Exercise #6: Seated Posture Support
- Sit in your office chair with a Coregeous® sponge ball at the line of your respiratory diaphragm (at the lowest ribs)
- Create impeccable poise through your torso while sitting evenly on your ischial tuberosities
- Keep your head level and gaze straight ahead with your eyes
Exercise #7: ReCheck on seated ergonomics
Sit at your desk again. Notice how your body feels different after these exercises – hips, spine, neck, etc. Attempt to embody the below alignment points.
Final Thoughts on Maintaining Healthy Ergonomics
This author’s short review of basic mechanical loading of the sedentary body illustrates how static positioning can impact ALL body systems including mental stress, cardiac, neurological and musculoskeletal health.
But, there is more emerging research showing that our chronic lack of movement and limited body use may be associated with other chronic conditions including cancer, diabetes, obesity and digestive issues.
While this article offers a brief “survivor’s guide” for sitting and electronics use, the truth is we need to move all day long. It is movement, NOT sitting and stillness, that is wired into our DNA and our primal body-systems design.
Our modern habitat deprives us of the movement variety for which our bodies were created. After 200,000 years of daily movement variety required for survival, humans have wreaked havoc on their health by use of “convenience” and modern “built environments” in only a few short decades!
In our present-day carseat, couch potato, desk-chair habits, entire body segments may go unused during a day (or more). But, for good health and wellbeing, ALL of our body’s cells and body segments require some mechanical movement pressure or vibration, not just a (blood) supply of oxygen, food-glucose, and CO2 removal.
Good self-care dictates that we continue to learn more about ergonomics and movements that our bodies crave (and rarely practice) in a healthy movement diet. Tune Up Fitness friend, Katy Bowman is an expert in body mechanics and also writes easy-to-read, scientifically sourced information about movement as a required daily “nutrient” of our cells and there is also a rich collection of information in the Tune Up Fitness library, DVDs and YouTube page.
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