Make Your Home Workstation Work

As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, many people are finding themselves working from home–with very little notice to prepare. Some without a dedicated home office are using coffee tables, recliners, kitchen tables and counters, and any number of other surfaces and locations as makeshift workspaces. All can potentially lead to aches and pain, according to the American Chiropractic Association (ACA).  

Scott Donkin, DC, DACBOH, and Scott Bautch, DC, DACBOH, CCSP, CCST, of the ACA Council on Occupational Health, are accustomed to making recommendations for their patient’s traditional workspaces, but they also understand that in times of unexpected change you must find ways to adapt quickly. Many of the workers forced to go remote are working on laptops, according to the doctors. Here are their top three suggestions for making a home workstation work with your laptop:

Pick a Spot

If you do not have a regular desk at home, working at a kitchen table is generally much better than sitting on a couch with your laptop on your lap.

Adjust Your Seat 

For those without an ergonomic chair, use a seat wedge to help maintain better posture. Sitting on the wedge makes you tilt your thighs forward and down, which causes you to arch your back and sit up straighter. You can purchase seat wedges online, or you can make your own by folding a bed pillow in half to form a wedge.

Adjust Your Monitor

The kitchen table is often too low for the laptop screen, so place large coffee table books or reams of copy paper underneath to raise the laptop in a stable way so that you do not have to raise your hands uncomfortably up, or bend your head uncomfortably down. Consider getting a wireless keyboard, which enables you to raise the laptop screen higher—to eye level—and place the keyboard on the table top, which will encourage better posture.

Create a DIY Sit/Stand Station

The popularity of standing desks has increased significantly over the past several years. You can create your own standing desk at home by simply working at a raised kitchen counter, for example, but be sure that the height of the counter does not cause you to bend your elbows too much. You should be able to comfortably reach your keyboard with elbows bent at about a 90-degree angle. While you’re at it, consider using a wireless keyboard and boosting the height of your laptop screen to eye level with books, reams of paper, or a stand, which in turn will prevent neck strain caused by looking too far down at the screen (see photo).

As it turns out, every seated workstation, even a makeshift one, can be a sit/stand station, according to Drs. Donkin and Bautch. All you need to do is simply stand up every 20 minutes or so and take a break that includes some stretching and movement. Here is an example: 

  1. Stand up and move your legs up and down like you are walking in place.
  2. Look at an object that is more than 20 feet away for about 20 seconds.
  3. Gently shake your hands wrists and elbows for a few seconds while you are also gently rolling your shoulders up, back, and down.
  4. Take a slow, deep breath in to improve your posture and smile, then slowly exhale.
  5. Sit down, refreshed, in a good posture. You are ready to get back to work!

For more information on musculoskeletal health and injury prevention tips, visit the ACA’s consumer website, HandsDownBetter.org.

Unmask Neck Pain

Unintended Consequences of Wearing Masks—

and What You Can Do to Ease the Discomfort

LINCOLN, NE. (April 30, 2020)—As if working from home or feeling the pressure revolving around mitigating the spread of COVID-19 isn’t enough, we now must deal with the pain of wearing masks. While admittedly protective, the wearing of these masks can become a real pain in the neck that can easily be prevented.

“Many of my patients who work in essential healthcare and personal services wear masks for a significant part of their day,” said Dr. Scott Donkin, a chiropractor in Lincoln, Nebraska. “They suffer from increased neck pain, headaches, shoulder/arm/hand pain as well as midback pain.”

Most patients now come into his office wearing masks and gloves while he and his staff wear them throughout their patient encounters. He saw a pattern that he himself experienced—neck and upper back pain with stiffness that increased through the workday. He initially directly attributed this discomfort to the increased stress associated with the COVID-19 phenomenon.

“But I realized there was another explanation—I was seeing a new and compromising health concern,” said Dr. Donkin.

When he saw a patient completing a required form in his office while masked and gloved and noticed how far she had to flex her neck forward in order to apply pen to paper and see the form properly, he then talked with other patients who wore protective masks for a significant part of the day to perform tasks like computing or writing in a workplace where others were present or examining patients in a healthcare setting. He asked them to simulate their body, neck, and head positions.

“Voila!” he said. “I found an additional culprit contributing to their pains.”

Protective masks—while necessary at this point in time—can add to the already heightened tension of the COVID-19 era because they can cause wearers to force their heads and necks farther forward or side-to-side to view their tasks.

Now that stores such as Walmart and other retailers are requiring their employees to wear masks all day while performing their duties, he is concerned that more people will suffer these unintended consequences from wearing masks.

“I have observed that people wearing protective masks tuck their chins in more than when they were not wearing masks. Extra chin tucking with additional forward head/neck flexion, tilting, or twisting are—in my opinion and observation—causing needless pain and suffering. They simply add fuel to an already raging inflammatory fire,” Dr. Donkin said.

He is an ergonomic consultant to the office furniture industry and for other consumer products such as standing desks and pillows.

Dr. Donkin offered these solutions for mask wearers:

Awareness wins half of this battle—

  • Wearing a protective mask often limits the lower field of vision as well as other visual fields causing a compensatory shift in body position/posture required to accomplish your tasks.
  • Be aware of your head, neck, shoulder, arm, and body positions while wearing your mask.

Action wins the other half of this battle—

  • Take a close look at the mask you are wearing to identify obstructions in your visual field that could be making you compensate by unnaturally shifting your head, neck, or body posture.
  • Position your mask for maximum protection while optimizing your posture and movements.
  • Fit your mask closely to the contour of the bridge of your nose as well as to your cheeks. This will minimize reduction in your visual field.
  • If you have identified that your mask increases head/neck flexion, tilting, or twisting, then take frequent “unwinding” breaks to lean back, move, and stretch in the opposite direction to relieve cumulative tension or pressure. Find out the rules and regulations for wearing masks in your workplace so you can use appropriate “unmasking time” safely and well.
  • Not all masks are created equal. Try different types that might make it easier for you to breathe because some people report difficulty (as long as they provide protection). And if the elastic on some masks is irritating, try a different mask configuration.

Awareness combined with action will maximize the purpose of wearing masks while minimizing their unintended side effects.

“Many of my patients who wear masks frequently comment about the difficulty they have breathing through it,” Dr. Donkin said. “I have noticed that restricted breathing can also be a source of anxiety especially with those who already have anxious tendencies. I have seen this subtle phenomenon add to the tension my patients express in their necks, shoulders, and midback.”

These patients are not alone. His recommendation is to take frequent breathers whenever you can remove the mask even if only for a few moments.

Then, before you put on your mask, take a few slow, deep breaths and do this when you take off the mask for the day.

“These simple practices have helped many of my patients get more benefit from their treatments as well as get through the COVID-19 era in a healthier way,” Dr. Donkin said. “I hope we can all unmask neck pain.”

This general information is not intended to replace appropriate treatment for any condition. Consult with your healthcare professional for help with your unique circumstances.

About: Scott Donkin, DC, DACBOH, has been in chiropractic practice for 38 years in Lincoln, Nebraska. He is the author of popular books (SittingSmarts and Sitting on the Job) and articles on health and related subjects. He is an ergonomic consultant to the office furniture industry and a go-to expert for local and national media

Making Your Home Work Station Work Well for You!

by Scott Donkin, DC, DACBOH

Scores of my patients as well as millions more are now working from home.  

Teachers, students, attorneys those in the financial services and many others are trying their best to remain productive in make-shift home work stations.

Even though an entire book could be written about setting up home work stations, here are three recommendations that many of my ‘work from home’ patients have found helpful.  I would make much different recommendations in the traditional workplace setting but we are in a novel time right now and we must successfully adapt to new circumstances at this time.

The majority of the people I know are using a laptop at home so with this in mind consider the following:

Pick your best spot at home

If you do not have a regular desk at home, working at a kitchen table is generally much better than sitting on a couch with your laptop on your lap.

Adjust your home work station for better seated posture

  • Use or make a seat wedge to help you maintain a better posture.  My favorite by far is the Kabooti. Some of my patients also like the Bamboo seat wedge.  You can partially fold a sleeping pillow to form a wedge too.
  • The kitchen table is often too low for the laptop screen so place large books like coffee table books or reams of copy paper under the laptop to raise it up in a stable way so that you do not have to raise your hands uncomfortably up or bend your head uncomfortably down.  If you have a wireless keyboard then you can raise the screen up higher and place the keyboard on the table top for better posture.

Make your home work place a sit/stand station

Actually, every seated work station, even this make-shift one is a form of a sit/stand station.  All you need to do is simply stand up every 20 minutes or so and do a simple routine like this:

  • Stand up and move your legs up and down like you are walking in place.
  • Look at an object that is more than 20 feet away for about 20 seconds.
  • Gently shake your hands wrists and elbows while you are gently rolling your shoulders up, back and down for a few seconds.
  • Take a slow deep breath in to improve your posture and smile then slowly exhale.
  • Sit down refreshed, in a good posture and you are ready to get back to work.

Consider structuring the timing of your home work day to be similar to your typical work day.  Remember individual circumstances vary so apply these suggestions to your own situation. This is not a replacement for treatment or consultation.  If you have specific questions contact your health care provider.  Don’t hesitate to contact me as well if you would like some additional information.

Sincerely,

Scott Donkin, DC, DACBOH

sdonkin@donkinchiropractic.com

Healthy Living – StressBusters

It is unfortunate that the joy and wonder of the holiday season is frequently overshadowed by anxiety and the physical and emotional effects of negative stress. As we investigate stress in this series, you will learn that the paradoxical nature of the Holidays, as we currently celebrate them, is predictable. This being the case, the best gift we can offer is the information you need to prepare yourself and your family for true enjoyment and fulfillment this holiday season. Since Stress if your body’s emotional, mental, and physical reaction to change, the greatest opportunity for work and lifestyle change occurs during the holidays. Virtually every aspect of your life is affected, and while some aspects of your life are affected more than others, their cumulative effect can sabotage the memories you are creating.

Understanding Stress

Stress, in the simplest terms, is your physical and emotional reaction to change. It sounds almost too simple, but that’s what stress is: your body’s reaction to change. If you perceive the change to be threatening or if you don’t understand it, it can cause physical effects on your body.

Let’s say, for instance, you have a deadline to meet on the task you are performing. You say to yourself, “I have to get this done by four o’clock.” Your body tenses. You know you must meet the deadline, and you focus your attention and concentrate on the task at hand, and you finish the task by four o’clock.

Physical Reactions to Stress

During the above mentioned stress cycle, certain things probably happened in your body of which you may or may not have been consciously aware. Your body geared up to accommodate the stress of the job at hand. Your muscles tensed, your jaw clenched, your pulse rate increased, and your blood pressure went up. These are the physical reactions to stress.

Perhaps you don’t perceive the task as a challenge. Instead, you fear your ability to meet the deadline—or to perform the task at all. The same physical reactions would still occur, but instead of using the energy created within your body by the assignment (stressor) to focus your attention and concentrate on the task at hand, you were preoccupied with thoughts of your inability to perform the task properly or how hard the task is, to justify the possibility of not finishing the task properly or on time. With this attitude, you will probably still be tense or “stressed” even if you do meet the deadline. This drains your positive attitude and self-confidence, and robs you of the enjoyment and satisfaction you should receive from performing your job well.

On the other hand, if you see the tasks before you as a challenge to be conquered, and you decide to take on the challenge and perform your tasks with your unique abilities, you will not only focus your attention, concentrate, and thus do better work, but you will also feel better about yourself and experience a sense of accomplishment from having successfully performed your duties.

Family Stress

While family interaction is expected during the holidays, don’t deny it as a leading source of stress. You will probably be sharing your time with more people than you are accustomed to; therefore, many conversations will occur simultaneously. Scheduling and organizing family events can be extremely difficult with so many additional opinions. It is noble to strive for perfection with family – but realize – we are all human, and none of us are perfect. Leave room in your expectations for spontaneity and compromise.

Food Stress

Special cookies, cakes, candies and other treats are anticipated, but remember that your blood sugar levels fluctuate drastically with the rapid influx of these foods to your diet. Corresponding mood swings are a natural consequence of indulgence, so be sure to take this into consideration during periods of family interaction. Ingestion of unusually large portions of food during holiday dinners is followed by periods of low energy as your body shifts to digestion rather than physical activity. Your brother-in-law may not be bored with your conversation, he may just be digesting the holiday meal!

How Long Do You Want To Live?

How long do you want to live? The common answer is, “As long as I have a sharp mind and a healthy body.” If we’re lucky, we watch our grandparents and parents age gracefully. However, sometimes it’s not so graceful. Sometimes they battle chronic conditions that restrict their ability to walk, move around their own homes, or dress themselves. We witness daily activities becoming difficult, if not impossible, for many of our senior citizens.

You might turn to your children and say, “Don’t let me get like that.” But whose responsibility is it to keep your body in the best possible shape to last your lifetime? It’s your responsibility, of course. And, believe it or not, you do have a certain measure of control over how well you age.

How To Age Well

If we expect to live as long as we are designed to, and also live as healthy and satisfying a life as possible – particularly the second half – then we need to modify many of our actions and habits right now. It’s never too late.

The body’s natural tendency is towards health and it will naturally search out the best conditions for health and longevity when given the awareness and the proper opportunity to do so. You have to provide the right mindset to promote health, and then be sure to include a high enough intake of oxygen to ensure that all the body’s tissues become, and stay, refreshed. Next, it’s up to you to take in the appropriate quantities and varieties of nutrients to be the building blocks of the physical body. It’s also your job to make sure they are digested properly so they can reach the areas where they are needed.

Aging

Of all the health problems facing society today, aging – especially premature aging of the physical body and its many related conditions – is the principal one that will confront each of us sooner or later.

Aging Well

How long do you want to live? The common answer is, “As long as I have a sharp mind and a healthy body.” If we’re lucky, we watch our grandparents and parents age gracefully. However, sometimes it’s not so graceful. Sometimes they battle chronic conditions that restrict their ability to walk, move around their own homes, or dress themselves. We witness daily activities becoming difficult, if not impossible, for many of our senior citizens.

You might turn to your children and say, “Don’t let me get like that.” But whose responsibility is it to keep your body in the best possible shape to last your lifetime? It’s your responsibility, of course. And, believe it or not, you do have a certain measure of control over how well you age.

How To Age Well

If we expect to live as long as we are designed to, and also live as healthy and satisfying a life as possible – particularly the second half – then we need to modify many of our actions and habits right now. It’s never too late.
The body’s natural tendency is towards health and it will naturally search out the best conditions for health and longevity when given the awareness and the proper opportunity to do so. You have to provide the right mindset to promote health, and then be sure to include a high enough intake of oxygen to ensure that all the body’s tissues become, and stay, refreshed. Next, it’s up to you to take in the appropriate quantities and varieties of nutrients to be the building blocks of the physical body. It’s also your job to make sure they are digested properly so they can reach the areas where they are needed.

Source: Donkin, S., & Meyer, G. (2002). Peak Performance: Body & Mind. North Bergen, NJ: Basic Health Publications, Inc.

Frequently Asked Questions

How can I best communicate with my doctor of chiropractic?

Since your main mission in acquiring the services of a chiropractor is to relieve pain and get well, you must communicate openly and freely about the history and course of events that led you to the chiropractor’s office. Remember to be candid and accurate when the doctor questions you during the office consultation. Your doctor of chiropractic will also expect you to communicate clearly during the examination and throughout any subsequent treatment visits.

Another integral part of a successful relationship is cooperation. This means that when the doctor asks you to relax or perform movements or other activities during the examination or treatment, that you do so to the best of your ability.

Closely aligned with cooperation is participation. The doctor-patient relationship is not a spectator arrangement. You have the opportunity to be a full partner in your own recovery. During initial treatment, it may be difficult to get in the habit of participating in your health care by performing health activities such as therapeutic stretching or exercise, walking, swimming, and other lifestyle and nutritional recommendations. If you work with your doctor to modify negative habits or lifestyle behaviors and develop a personal plan for staying healthy, you will notice the positive effects of your efforts.

Louis Sportelli, D.C., has stated that “our profession is much more aware of trying to harmonize with the patient’s goals. It’s almost inadvertent with us, because we are a hands-on, touching profession. And our touching involves not only the examination, but also therapy. But we also approach the matter consciously in three principle ways: we allow the patient to participate in his or her own healthcare; we concentrate heavily on the education of the patient; and we have substantial interest in the patient’s lifestyle, and in altering the lifestyle if, in fact, it is detrimental”

Communication, cooperation, and participation are directly within the realm of your control and will help determine the outcome of your chiropractic treatment. Make your relationship with your doctor of chiropractic a lasting and successful one.

What is whiplash?

It’s a common name for an injury when the neck is “whipped” – when there is a sudden hyper-tension (rapid backward motion) followed by sudden hyper-flexion (rapid forward motion).

Whiplash can occur when the body pitches forward suddenly from a stumble, fall or other accident. It happens most typically in auto “rear-enders.” The driver of the front car, usually unsuspecting and relaxed, is hit by the force of another car slamming into him from behind. The driver’s (and/or passenger’s) head first snaps backward and then forward by the quick stopping motion. This whipping motion usually strains or tears the muscles, ligaments and soft tissues of the neck and frequently injures the cervical spine as well.

Will I know if I get a serious whiplash injury?

A. Yes, but not always right away. You probably will feel immediate pain, but sometimes the symptoms take hours, or even days, to show up. Reactions to whiplash might include a stiff and painful neck, sever restriction of movement of the head and neck, shoulder and arm pain, headaches, visual disturbance and others.

Whether or not you feel the immediate symptoms, it’s wise to be checked by your doctor of chiropractic as soon as possible. Whiplash has potentially serious complications.

How can I avoid whiplash injuries?

For on thing, make sure that the headrests in your car are high enough to touch your skull. This can help prevent whiplash injury if you are rear-ended. Adjust their height for different drivers and passengers. Be aware, too, of unsafe or erratic drivers, particularly those behind you, and try to avoid them. Practice defensive driving.

But if you do suffer this most common accident, use ice packs on your neck, rather than heat, during the first hours and see your doctor of chiropractic immediately. Chiropractic care might include the use of ice packs, cervical support through a soft foam collar, moist heat and other physiological therapeutics, with specific manipulation to restore normal motion, function and alignment of the cervical vertebrae as soon as indicated.

What is Scoliosis?

Scoliosis, a disease affecting about four percent of youngsters between the ages of 9 and 14, results in an abnormal curvature of the spine that can become progressively worse. Unless it’s detected early and treated, it can cause deformity that’s difficult to correct. But when detected early, its progression can be halted in many cases.

How can scoliosis be detected?

Your doctor of chiropractic is highly experienced in screening, diagnosing and treating scoliosis. Also there are some screening programs in schools designed to detect it. A home check is also a good place to start.

How do I do a home check?

Have the child strip to the waist and face away from you. Signs of possible scoliosis are an obvious curve in the spine, a tilted head or one shoulder or hip higher than the other one.

Now have the youngster grasp hands in front and bend over at the waist. Do the ribs appear higher on one side than the other? Have him turn sideways and bend down again. Is there an excessive curve or angle in the upper back rather than the normal gentle curve?

If you see any of these signs, report them to your doctor of chiropractic as soon as possible and arrange for a thorough examination. When detected and diagnosed early, scoliosis can usually be treated successfully with conservative methods.

What kind of treatments are used?

For early mild cases, regular exams are recommended along with flexibility exercises and mild manipulative therapy. Moderate cases may require a scoliatic brace along with chiropractic adjustments designed to pull the spine into a more normal position and to strengthen muscles. Electric muscle stimulation may also be used in some situations. Only the extremely severe cases may require surgery and hospitalization.

The great majority of young people treated for scoliosis can expect little if any loss of mobility or change of appearance. They will be fully capable of taking part in all school activities, including sports. Remember, the earlier the detection and necessary treatment begins, the better the results.

Copyright © 2011 Scott W. Donkin, D.C.

Healthier Ways To Use Your Home Appliances

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
  • Headaches
  • 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.
  • Smile.
  • 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:

  1. You gave your eyes a vision break.
  2. Deep breathing stretched and exercised your chest muscles and expanded your rib cage enabling you to breathe deeper and better.
  3. Deep breathing also refreshed your body with extra oxygen.
  4. Smiling interrupted the stress cycle allowing you to focus your attention on your current task.
  5. 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)

Ironing

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.

Vacuuming

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.

Washing Dishes

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.

Final Thoughts

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