Household Tasks Don’t Have to Be Chores
Scott Donkin, DC, DACBOH, Acclaimed Occupational Health and Wellness Expert, Internationally published author whose books include Sitting on the Job, Peak Performance Body and Mind: Make Your Body Last a Lifetime. Ergonomic consultant to office furniture and personal electronics manufacturers, airlines, hotels, government agencies, fleet managers. Interviewed in USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, LA Times, Self, and others.
Painful injuries sideline athletes all the time. But consider this: Simple household tasks such as ironing, vacuuming, sweeping, dishwashing, and doing laundry can create as much strain, pain, and stress on the human body as an athletic game, and housework is thought to be much less fun.
I see patients in my practice every day who have painful backs, stiff necks, and sore wrists after scrubbing a floor or washing the dishes. These injuries can be avoided, as we medical professionals teach our patients smarter techniques to accomplish what was once thought of as drudgery or chores. We can introduce new ways to think of these tasks and healthier skills and smarter tools to accomplish them.
Change Your Mind, Change Your Life
“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” Wayne Dyer
I learned early in my chiropractic practice that knowledge is powerful medicine. An informed patient would most likely be more compliant and have a better outcome. But if a patient did not want to perform healing activities that I recommended such as walking, stretching, or exercising, the resistant mindset was in itself a stressor that inhibited full benefit from the activity even if it was in the patient’s best interest.
It is better to address the mindset and resolve the resistance first, then move forward with the lifestyle recommendations. If too many recommendations are given, then the overwhelmed patient will likely do none of them, and our results would, of course, be less than desired.
The first step on the path to compliance is to think about household tasks less as chores and more as pleasant activities. It requires a mind adjustment. Because we can choose our thoughts, I recommend to patients that they hum a favorite tune, view a special photo, or smell a meaningful aroma to stir a physical reaction that increases their heart rate and makes them smile. These happy thoughts translate into happier, more positive attitudes (just as a negative thought, conversely, can make someone tense).
Understanding the concept of translating thoughts into attitude gives people the power to choose the outcome: tense or pleasant. This is the first step to choosing mind change that works.
I ask my patients to imagine ironing, vacuuming, sweeping, dishwashing, and doing laundry with less strain, pain, stress, and with more pleasure.
The Power of the Open Mind
Throughout my thirty years in practice I have had the privilege of treating many patients who have in turn become inspirations to me. Through them I have learned that life can be long, healthy, productive, and fulfilling.
Lilly for example was 71 when she entered my office following a slip and fall down two steps into her living room while carrying her vacuum cleaner. She experienced a moderate strain in her lower back and was quite interested in taking care of her injury so she could get on with the rest of her activities, including housework.
During the initial consultation I asked if she liked doing housework, and she instantly replied, “I look forward to getting and keeping a clean house, so I don’t mind doing the things it takes to get there.”
What struck me was that she did not curse the process to get to the end result she desired. Numerous people I have encountered did not get stressed, tense, or strained while performing household tasks.
I have observed that people who have truly mastered an activity – no matter what the task – tend to have a quiet confidence (almost serenity) and respect for the activity and a heightened relationship with the equipment, instruments, tools, or materials required to successfully complete the work. They gain a sense of success, accomplishment, or joy during and through their task.
Where Does It Hurt?
Preliminary results of an informal office survey of patients revealed this list of common complaints while performing household tasks:
- Neck pain
- Shoulder pain
- Arm pain
- Wrist/hand pain
- Mid-back and low-back pain
- Hip pain and stiffness
- Leg pain with ankle swelling
- Muscle tension
- Anxiety, pressure, tension
These injuries could be characterized as overexertion types. Overexertion is the third leading cause of unintentional injury for Americans from teenagers onward, according to the CDC. Overexertion is defined as working a body part too hard causing damage to muscles, tendons, ligaments, cartilage, joints, or nerves. This category includes lifting, pushing, or pulling injuries, strains, and sprains commonly associated with housework.
(Sources: Chiropractic Associates, PC; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, 2007)
Common Denominators on the Causes of Pain and Discomfort
Household chores may cause a constellation of symptoms. Consider the movements made while ironing, vacuuming, and sweeping. These tasks all involve slight forward bending at the waist (usually about 15 degrees of forward flexion), movement of the arms forward of the body, and forward head/neck bending. Fifteen degrees of forward flexion in the lumbar spine is shown to increase disc pressure by 50 percent. A similar phenomenon occurs in the neck during forward neck flexion. Movement of the arms forward increases neck and back bending as well as cumulative pressure in the shoulder joints and nearby muscles. So someone who is regularly stressing these key areas of the body forward is directly contributing to the symptoms that arise.
Similarly, loading/unloading the dishwasher, clothes washer and dryer typically requires extreme lower back bending with twisting while the arms are extended and the head and neck are unnaturally flexed and/or twisted. No wonder the low back, neck, and shoulders are first to scream and ultimately break down. General overuse of forward movements – especially in the absence of counteracting those movements with extension actions (see exercise) – leads to slumping deformity and much less enjoyment of life along the way.
In reality, household chore habits were learned by watching others, and then mimicking their behavior, thereby adopting the habit (and the problems) by default.
HABIT: Helpful (or Harmful) Automatic Behavior Increasing over Time
Most of daily movement is habit driven. I describe a habit as a Helpful (or Harmful) Automatic Behavior Increasing over Time. The brain is wired to move repetitive tasks into automatic mode so the conscious mind can focus on responding to a person’s current environment. This can be good or bad because little things (movements) add up. If the tasks are health positive, then there is a good outcome for accomplishing the task at hand without sacrificing areas of the body. But use poor form—and accumulate those habits over time—and people will be headed to see a health care professional.
I advise my patients to consider these simple steps while tackling each of their household tasks:
- Size up your task.
- Choose your tools.
- Master your tools and apply good technique.
- Warm up.
- Discover something you like about the task.
- Do your thing.
- Unwind and smile.
My simple 30-second warm-up and unwind exercise provides a powerful counteraction to harmful movements performed during household (or office) tasks.
30-Second Warm-up and Unwind Exercise
Take just 30 seconds before you get out the vacuum or turn on the iron and do this:
- Stand up flat footed.
- Partially close your eyes.
- Push your chest out and up like a soldier.
- Breathe in deeply … and out slowly. Do this again.
- Lift both shoulders toward your ears, then roll them back. Do this one more time.
- Relax your shoulders and arms.
- Stretch your fingers and hands as if you are making a high-five with your hands by your sides.
- Look toward the floor. Then look upward to the ceiling.
- Look straight ahead, then turn your head slowly to the right and then to the left.
- Keep smiling.
- Breathe in deeply … then exhale slowly.
- Now you are ready to start your task or unwind from your task.
This simple stretch may have taken only 30 seconds, but here is what was accomplished:
- You gave your eyes a vision break.
- Deep breathing stretched and exercised your chest muscles and expanded your rib cage enabling you to breathe deeper and better.
- Deep breathing also refreshed your body with extra oxygen.
- Smiling interrupted the stress cycle allowing you to focus your attention on your current task.
- The neck and shoulder movements helped relieve cumulative muscle tension and spinal restriction that occurs while performing prolonged or repetitive forward flexed tasks such as household cleaning.
Consumer Checklist of Household Tasks (and the Best Ways to Accomplish Them Injury-Free)
Why should your low back pay the price when all you want is a freshly ironed shirt? What if you could actually feel better and be healthier after ironing rather than feeling stressed or strained afterward? Ironing may seem like a minor, mindless activity, but it can be leveraged into a health-positive event that you can learn to actually enjoy and feel better doing.
- Perform the 30-Second Warm-up Exercise.
- Take a few moments to learn how to adjust your ironing board to minimize forward bending of your back and neck. The board should be positioned so that forward back bending is minimized, which is usually slightly less than waist high.
- Reduce unnecessary reaching while ironing as well while reaching for items to iron and hanging them when completed. Position the to-be-ironed pile and hangers at board level, on a table or countertop in your kitchen. Place newly ironed items on a hook positioned at eye level, not at the top of a door. Many people consider their little-used treadmill as a laundry center and use the hand grips for hanging laundry!
- Iron in a well-lit room so you can see your work clearly and don’t have to squint and lean farther forward to inspect your work.
- Choose your iron carefully. You may only occasionally buy a new iron so make sure it is well made, has a comprehensive warranty, and fits your needs. (My favorite is the Panasonic 360 that is well balanced and has forward as well as backward pressing power. This revolutionary movement has been shown to decrease ironing time by up to 25 percent. Since this newly designed iron is lifted up and placed on the fabric to be pressed with less frequency, you should experience less strain in your arms, shoulders, neck, and back.)
- Ironing techniques can vary, but generally speaking place the fabric to be ironed on the ironing surface in line with the seams of the item and use smooth movements with light to moderate pressure. Use spray or steam to assist as indicated for the fabric type. Elbow and wrist movements should be smooth and easy. Be careful not to awkwardly twist your wrist while ironing.
- If you are ironing for a prolonged period of time, try shifting your feet farther apart to change the weight distribution to knees, hips, and back. You can also try moving one foot forward of the other to shift knee, hip, and back pressures. Don’t lock your knees.
- Iron in pleasant surroundings. If you’re stuck in a dark basement laundry room, you surely don’t want to be there for a long time. Move to the family room or bedroom and surround yourself with music, photos, and happy smells.
- Place the TV in front of you and the ironing board. Watching TV forces you to look up from the downward gaze of your eyes, from time to time. Be sure to look up only when the iron is not on the fabric and do not risk inadvertently touching the sole plate of the iron.
- Open and close the ironing board carefully and from a position that is not forward bent and twisted. Wall-mounted ironing boards may be able to be adjusted for your height. If not simply take a stretch break more frequently.
- Perform the 30-Second Unwind Exercise.
Back and forth. Back and forth. Lift a chair. Move a couch. No wonder vacuuming qualifies for moderate physical activity, according to the U.S. Surgeon General.
- Perform the 30-Second Warm-up Exercise.
- Catch a glance at yourself in a mirror. Are you stooping forward so your posture is off-balance? Do you twist your upper body and shoulders, concentrating all the force in your shoulders while you push and pull? Bend your knees slightly and hold your body in a more upright and balanced position.
- Distribute the force and leverage of your pushing and pulling by stepping forward and back with your legs.
- Don’t overreach with your arms and shoulders.
- Periodically push on your thigh with your free hand to gain some extra leverage.
- Whether you use an upright vacuum or a canister-type with a nozzle, put the handle in the best position to accommodate your height. If you’re shorter, you can increase the leverage by holding the handle lower.
- Avoid wearing shoes that cause unstable footing while stepping forward, backward, and side to side or cause extra pressure in your feet, ankles, knees, back, neck, or shoulders.
- When lifting the vacuum cleaner up or down stairs or over obstacles, try using both hands and keep the vacuum cleaner as close to your body as practical. Watch your step to avoid tripping or slipping over the cord.
- Perform the 30-Second Unwind Exercise.
Loading/Unloading the Dishwasher, Washer, and Dryer
- Place the basket at the same level as the machine, perhaps on a stool.
- Don’t bend at the waist and lift wet objects out by straightening your back. Your knees were built for bending so use them in that way. Even slight bending of the knees can take a lot of pressure away from the lower back. If you have knee problems, then do what is possible to treat and care for them.
- Lift the laundry basket by moving your legs close to the basket, use your legs, squat lower for deeper lifts, keep your head up, now lift. Use this same technique for carrying groceries, luggage, and other heavy items too.
- If you need to reach for the laundry detergent or to place clean dishes into upper kitchen cabinets, think about ways to reorganize and move these items to lower shelves more easily reached.
- Use a step stool carefully to place items higher than you can comfortably reach.
- With new front-end loading washers with matching front-loading dryers, see if you can buy the stackable models. Then moving wet clothes to the dryer is a downward movement.
If you do dishes the old-fashioned way, you might stand at the sink for a prolonged period of time.
- Place one foot on a step stool and slightly bend the other knee. This is a similar stance you might take while waiting in line if you have something to step your foot onto (such as the grocery cart at the supermarket).
- Look up from time to time. If you’re lucky enough to have a window over your sink, place a bird feeder there.
- Loading a dishwasher often requires bending, twisting, and reaching – three strikes working against you. If you cannot avoid these movements, then try to eliminate one (or better yet two) of them at any given moment.
- Whenever possible have two people load the dishwasher and position yourselves so twisting is minimized. Loading goes much more quickly that way too.
Mopping, Scrubbing, Sweeping
- Keep your head up.
- Keep your wrists flat and straight by placing your hand along the side of the mop or broom handle.
- Don’t thrust your arm out and twist. Face the task head on.
- If you’re down on your knees with the scrub brush for a particularly dirty floor, take frequent breaks (maybe do half the floor one day and finish up the next).
- Instead of bending over to sweep dust into a dustpan, find one with a longer handle or simply squat down instead of bending over.
Be aware of bad form that becomes a harmful habit over time. Break the bad habits and postures by adopting a new pattern. Take quick stretch breaks. Seek ergonomic tools to help you do your tasks better and healthier, such as the Panasonic 360 iron that allows you to iron in both directions.
Do not become overwhelmed by trying to make too many changes at once. One change, even a slight one, heads you in a safer and more comfortable direction. Ask yourself at the end of a task or series of tasks if you are feeling better. If so, you are again heading in the right direction. If not, take a moment to decide what you might be able to do differently. If you have a health condition, be sure to ask your qualified health professional before making changes.
Instead of letting nagging household chores bother you, think of them in a positive light and brainstorm ways to make these tasks more pleasant. First think of them in a positive way; then healthier outcomes follow. You can always find solutions for a better outcome.
“My second favorite household chore is ironing. My first being hitting my head on the top bunk bed until I faint.” Erma Bombeck
“Cleaning your house while your kids are still growing is like shoveling the walk before it stops snowing.” Phyllis Diller
“Housework is something you do that nobody notices until you don’t do it.” Author Unknown
© Copyright 2010, Dr. Scott Donkin