A chance meeting with the best in the field—Stuart McGill, professor of spine biomechanics, University of Waterloo, Canada, and author of Low Back Disorders and Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance— changed my outlook on ergonomics completely.
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The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “ergonomics” as an applied science concerned with designing and arranging things people use so that the people and things interact most efficiently and safely. I am of the opinion that humans first need to change themselves and learn how to use their working environment better. Here are a few tips on how to use your body to protect you from injuries.
1. Avoid bending the lower back or lifting weight shortly after getting out of bed
Stress through your lower back (on bending forward) first thing in the morning can spell bad news for you.
• Some people go to gyms or parks to run in the morning but they need to be careful not to do this right after getting up. There needs to be a gap of at least 2 hours between getting up from bed and doing any strenuous activity.
• If you have to lift a bucket of water, say, soon after you get up, keep your lower back straight. Also, keep the weight of the bucket close to your centre of gravity (see 5, below).
• Be careful not to bend your back while brushing your teeth or shaving either—this happens when the mirror is too low for you. A simple solution—raise the mirror.
• This is a very important point for people on call at night, who are roused from sleep to attend to a client: If you need to drive, avoid slouching. That way you will arrive with your spine better prepared for any strenuous work.
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2. After prolonged sitting (or slouching), do not launch into strenuous exercise directly
• You need to stand and move for a while first. You will almost always see footballers on the bench warming up before they replace a teammate on the field.
• If there is no break between long hours of sitting and undertaking a strenuous activity, an artificial abdominal brace, such as a lumbar belt, helps.
3. Stop sitting still
• Posture changes at regular intervals are very important. They give relief from cumulative tissue strains caused by daily activities.
• Avoid prolonged sitting—it is associated with disc herniations. Of course, many modern jobs require that you sit for long hours so adjust posture often, stand up every 30 minutes and stretch the spine, and take a loo or water-cooler break so that you end up walking a bit as well.
4. Don’t hurt yourself while lifting a heavy weight
Don’t bend too far backward or forward. Bend backward or forward only partially to reduce pressure on your spinal discs.
5. While lifting, hold the weight close to your body
Bend your knees while lifting a heavy bag. By doing so, you bring the load closer to the spine. Effect: less stress on the lower back.
6. Picking up the pen you dropped? Stabilize your back
The chances of having an episode of back pain is higher in people with a history of back pain.They need to learn how to brace or stabilize their spine (see Surf).
7. Avoid golf-like movements, i.e. twisting
My golfer patients will kill me for this… but golf is just not a natural sport. Back pain and golf are like Siamese twins.
If you still have to play, be very careful about your back. Twisting reduces the intrinsic strength of the spinal discs by disabling some of the supporting fibres, while increasing stress in the remaining fibres that are left to take the load. Bad news for your back, obviously. (but yes, you can train your back to quite an extent and have a more back-friendly swing).
The author is a practitioner of musculoskeletal medicine and sports and exercise medicine. He is also CEO and medical director of Back 2 Fitness.
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