Successful Aging: Getting locked in at work can hurt you
Attention to workplace health has taught us that too much sitting is bad for us regardless of how much physical exercise we get the rest of the day. It can also help us become more aware of ergonomic principles that incorporate human engineering in work and daily activities to help prevent musculoskeletal disorders and injuries. Applying these principles can help us stay healthier overall, especially during our second and third acts.
I just completed a weeklong course in data-based reporting that underscored the importance of ergonomic principles. Each day included a lecture session followed by several hours of hands-on experience in a computer lab. But the chairs in the lecture hall were uncomfortable, and taking notes on the little fold-down desk put my shoulder and hand in an awkward position for too long.
Then in the computer lab, I was in the back of the room facing away from the presenter, often looking over my shoulder to catch the new structured query language that I was about to play with. On top of everything else, I was using a keyboard and mouse that were never at the right height for me no matter how I adjusted the chair.
By Wednesday, I could not take notes or type without serious pain from the base of my neck down through my hand. My thumb and little finger were almost numb. Fortunately, my editor was also in the class, and we worked together on our projects, so I did not miss much. But OUCH!
Obviously, the first two days of class did not cause the problems that grabbed me tightly on the third day. Rather, Monday and Tuesday triggered a group of painful responses that my body had learned over many years of doing things at work and at home with little or no attention to ergonomic principles.
The week before the data class, I had visited with Jeannine Rembold, clinical educator for Outpatient Rehab at Valley View Hospital, to talk about ergonomics. I realized my experience was a combination of everything she had said not to do.
Rembold and I focused on the workplace in our visit. She started with the standard definition of ergonomics, which means to design or adapt the work environment around people instead of trying to make people fit their bodies to their jobs.
Rembold talked about three areas that make applying ergonomic principles especially important as we age:
• Decreased flexibility.
• Decreased strength.
• Bad habits — because we’ve been around longer, we are more likely to slip into repeated postures and movement patterns. Add losses in balance, vision and hearing, and we have a perfect mix of conditions that can lead to difficulties ranging from general discomfort to serious injuries.
Risk factors include:
1. Awkward postures.
2. Prolonged and sustained postures — particularly if they are awkward.
Sitting hunched over a desk with rounded shoulders, reaching forward to use the phone and mouse is a classic office look that subjects workers to constant microstresses from triggering stabilizer muscles in the back and shoulders. Taking time to return to a neutral posture with the shoulders relaxed and down will help prevent the wear and tear.
3. Repetitive tasks — avoid repetitive motion injuries by alternating tasks.
Ergonomic tools, such as sit-stand desks and platforms that allow adjustment of different workstation elements, can help prevent some workplace physical stress. So can postural exercises and getting up and moving around. Try to move every 20 minutes, even if it means just getting a drink of water or walking around the office.
Researching and writing this column made me rethink some of my exercise and nonexercise physical activities and realize that a working knowledge (pun intended) of ergonomics could have prevented a lot of physical issues to which my body adapted for years that are trying to catch up with me now.
• I resisted drop handlebars on my road bike for years because they never felt right. When I compromised with a spacer in the assembly, the style immediately became comfortable. I was no longer experiencing strain from locking my neck into an awkward extended position (the same way people sit at work with the neck extended forward to look at a computer screen).
• The last time I replaced my mobile phone, I was into the “phablet” idea. I liked the larger screen and thought I would commit fewer typos on a larger virtual keyboard than a smaller one. But a couple of months after getting one of the larger models, I developed a nagging soft tissue pain in my left hand around and below the base of my thumb. I had not injured myself, and after a few days of wondering what this could be, the “aha!” finally hit me: I was gripping the phone too tightly with my left hand and keeping it in a locked position for too long.
I could go on and on and on, but I won’t waste time wishing I’d known then what I’m learning now. The point is to prompt you to review your own activities at work and away. If we all pay attention to ergonomic principles, we will be more prepared to prevent new problems and tackle old ones.
Angelyn Frankenberg is a wellness coach and writer living in Carbondale. She has a master’s in physical education and an undergraduate degree in music. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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