Fight Techno-stress with Ergonomics!

I bumped into an old personal training client, Ryan Forman, at the gym yesterday. I hadn’t worked with him in over a year, but I still remembered many details of this “special” client of mine. Forman, 25, is currently in his second year of law school at the University of Richmond, and has had an extensive number of surgeries, which made him particularly challenging client to train because of his many physical limitations. Forman’s shoulder was reconstructed, his hip was surgically repaired, he suffered a debilitating knee injury, he had a weak elbow, and was about 30 pounds overweight. At first impression of Forman may mislead you to think he was like any sedentary, hypo kinetic adult, however, Forman does exercise and participate in regular physical activity. So, what is with all the injuries?

“The problem is that I am studying on my ass from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. everyday,” Forman explained. “When I am not in the gym, I am studying. And because I have had everything reconstructed, studying especially hurts my back, neck, wrists, shoulders… everything just hurts. If I don’t sit right, the pain goes all the way from my neck to my toes. It’s really hard because all of the chairs in the school recline. I recently got a book stand which actually helps a lot because I am actually sitting up and reading upright instead of hunched over. I had really bad back problems from that for a while.”

“My eye balls hurt when I study too much,” Forman’s gym buddy, Paul Zwicky said. “Last night, my eyes like physically hurt so bad from looking at a computer screen. I also have really bad posture because I always use the computer. It ruins my neck and my eyes and I don’t even know what else.”

Both students reported signs of “techno-stress,” referring to the adverse effects that technology can have on one’s postural and physical well-being. Technology and academic intensity has revolutionized the manner that students are performing work, often exceeding the capabilities of human design. In a rigorous academic setting that requires students, like Forman and Zwicky, to study for 12-hours straight, places a great demand on the students’ bodies and their physiological, psychological, and structural wellbeing.

“In the age of technology, people have forgotten how to inhabit the natural world and are experiencing greater amounts of ‘techno-stress’ than ever before,” Professor Stephen Sowulewski of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Health and Human Performance tells me through an email correspondence one snowy afternoon. “And the best way to combat techno-stress is to ergonomically design your workplace with you’re body’s natural movement and posture in mind.”

Technostress has been directly related to muscuoskeletal disorders (MSDs), which are injuries or disorders of muscles, nerves, tendons, ligaments, joints, cartilage and spinal discs, that do not include injuries caused by slips, trips, falls or other similar accidents. For example, some MSDs associated increase of technology and computer usage are carpal tunnel syndrome and chronic neck and back pain.

In 2003, the total cost of MSDs in the U.S. topped $175 billion and the cost of lost workdays and paid compensation exceeded $28 billion, according to ACE certified news. Ergonomists, also called Occupational Therapists, like Sowulewski, look at the equipment design, task design, and environmental design to help reduce the costs of MSDs by improving the safety, comfort, and health of company employees.

Sowulewki became interested in ergonomics when he was working with patients who injured themselves at work during his sports medicine internship.

“It inspired me to look at what they were doing wrong, how one should move throughout the day, and even how one should be positioned at rest,” Sowulewski said. “I enjoyed helping people function better in everyday life, so much so that I earned my license in ergonomics one year later and conducted design evaluations for three or four years before coming to teach at VCU.”

Ergonomics is the scientific study of the interaction between the human body and machines, and designing the workplace environment to fit the job tasks and demands to promote worker health, safety, and efficiency, Sowulewki explained. The word ergonomics dates back to early Greece and is derived from the Greek words “ergon” meaning work, and “nomoi” meaning natural laws. Proper design, like the positioning of the keyboard, chair, and computer screen to follow the natural posture of the spine, is necessary to prevent repetitive strains that could lead to long-term dysfunctions.

Ergonomics is an integrative discipline that involves knowledge in the fields of anatomy, kinesiology, biomechanics, physiology, psychology, anthropometry, and industrial hygiene. There are two goals that ergonomists strive for: to improve productivity and the health of the working population. Ergonomists look at both the physical and psychological factors that may help or hinder in the work place. For example, ergonomists may look at the physical characteristics of a computer screen’s size and brightness of display to study how it affects the workers’ posture and eye sight. The ergonomists may also look at the psychological characteristics and cognitive demands of the computer’s design by examining things such as distractions, pop-ups, complexity, and clarity.

“Ergonomics is important for physical and psychological functioning because injury is one of the most profound ‘negatives’ in life and nobody wants to be side-lined, out of work, or hindered within their sport,” Sowulewski explained. “Cognitively knowing that we are ambulating and holding ourselves in the correct form helps us work toward better balance in a holistic way.”

Ergomonically designed workplaces can provide many benefits including:

  • Reductions in job-related injuries and costs
  • Reductions in employee turnover and absenteeism
  • Increased work productivity and quality
  • Improved employee well-being
  • Moral and productivity
  • Overall improvement in business performance

“Everyone needs to practice proper movement patterns, nobody is exempt,” Sowulewski advised. “The aged, the elderly, workers, people who sit at work and get little movement are at risk for some of the debilitations that can arise due to faulty movement or lack of movement.”

Some postural distortions that may indicate signs of MSDs include  protruding heading and neck, rounded shoulders and sunken chest, an arched lower back and distended stomach, tight hips and twisted legs or ankles, weak wrists or bent fingers. These types of muscle patterns are most commonly seen in people who sit at a computer or desk for long periods of time, which makes college students a particularly vulnerable age group.

“I often witness students who slouch in their chairs during class,” Sowulewski  said. “Moreover, many students, both young and old, sling backpacks over their shoulder and fail to distribute their weight evenly, which can lead to shoulder drops, back problems, and the like.”

“Students can improve their workspaces through ergonomics by taking study breaks and stretching after prolonged sitting periods. Further, they should try to get a walk in or some other type of exercise, which will help them focus more and reduce the fatigue and sluggishness that ensues from prolonged sitting,” Sowulewski continued.

Forman also agreed that exercise can help improve productivity, posture, and work performance.

“I had a really good personal trainer last year, who told me that the more I exercise my abdominal muscles, the more I needed to exercise my lower back to help stabilize my core and maintain my proper posture,” Forman said, smiling at his sly reference to one lesson I had taught him during one of our sessions together. “She also taught me about circuit training and how higher intensity workouts can help me lose weight and lower my blood pressure so it is easier to sit for long periods of time. Exercise also helps me just blow off steam and get my mind off school work for a bit.”

Along with exercising, there are many other areas of your workspace that you can improve to ergonomically support your body and mind’s functioning.

 

1.    Do not overuse your hands to reduce carpal tunnel and arthritis. Take advantage of the talk-to-text technology instead of typing. Use a portable mouse instead of the small pad on your laptop. Buy objects like an electronic stapler, a gel padded wrist wrest, which are relatively inexpensive and can greatly reduce your chances of developing hand problems.

2.    Avoid shoulder pain. Do not hunch your shoulders while typing or talking on the phone. Instead, always practice holding an imaginary business card between your shoulder blades while you are sitting to pull the shoulders back, and take advantage of headsets while talking on the phone.

 

3.    Correct Bad Posture. Perform the drawing-in-maneuver while working by sucking your belly button into your spine to recruit your core and lower back for support. A lumbar cushion can also help get ride of lower back pain, but be care that you are not over supporting your posture restricting your body’s movement and muscle recruitment to support you while you sit.

4.    Take care of your eyes and avoid eye strain. Staring at a computer or book for a long time can lead to blurred vision and itchy, sore eyes. If your eyes are suffering these symptoms, you may want to invest in a anti-glare screen monitor or better computer display, as well as take a trip to the eye doctor for eye drops and to check your prescription.

5.    Avoid leg pain. Make sure your legs are bent at a 90 degree angle and your feet are on the floor to regulate proper circulation to your feet while sitting for a long time. There are many websites and articles about ergonomically designed chairs and footrests, which may be considered the most important aspect of an ergonomic design.

Click here for a complete checklist.

 

In addition to these design tips, there are also special companies that provide ergonomic equipment. This equipment, however, can be very costly and is one downside of the field of ergonomics—its pricey.

 

But, like every health related behavior, you have two choices. First, you could take a proactive approach of paying upfront and adjusting your environment before a problem occurs. Or, you could reactive approach, by solving the problems after you already are experiencing pain, which is much riskier and more damaging to your health and well-being.

So, what is the take home message that everyone should know?

“Become aware of your body’s movement patterns at work, at home, while getting out of bed, out of the car, even while sleeping,”  Sowulwski said. “Understand the natural movement patterns of your body and seek to change your daily patterns to match. Change sleeping on your back or stomach to sleeping on your side in a fetal-like position. Adjust your PC, desk, chair so your head is looking directly forward, not rounded over your shoulders and downward. Make your like more conducive to working the way you were designed to work.”

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