Thursday, November 16, 2017

Allow your back to do less

First published as Look after your back in an email newsletter 

Too many of us are subtly stressing our backs, whether in standing, walking or sitting.

Even if we have a standing desk, we all do lots of sitting at work and home, in the car, and on public transport. It can add up to hours each day.

Thankfully, just a few actions can make a big difference.

Why our backs do more 

Our human body is perfectly designed for an upright life. The lower vertebrae are thickest, and we have a low centre of gravity. Unlike chimps, we have four curves to the spine; two are added as the very young child learns to stand and walk (Dr Stephen Curnow, ABC RN The Body Sphere, 30 July 2016).

But now, our lifestyle choices mean that we place more stress on our spine than in ancient times.

Furthermore, humans now live much longer and so our backs are asked to carry the strain of poor use over many more years. Our parts wear out!

Did you know that life expectancy for women increased from 51 in 1881 to 84 in 2009. For men, the increase was from 47 to 79 (ABS 4102.0 - Australian Social Trends, Mar 2011).

Changing lifestyle habits 

We have more control over the habits associated with our lifestyle than over our life span. Habits of misuse create postural problems.

With care and re-education, the tear and wear can be avoided or at least greatly reduced.

Here are some tips to get you thinking.

Find the length of your back 

Wiggle as you sit on a chair - that's more or less where your lower back starts. The tail bone curls slightly under your bottom.

Nod your head very gently as though you are agreeing with me. Notice the head is pivoting just below your ear lobes.

Now you have found the length of the spine.

Secure your base of support 

First time. Pivot forward in a chair as far as you can comfortably go, thinking about length in the front and back of the body (check the photo). Stop if you feel any pain.

Notice how your pelvis is now tilted forward (as in the photo).

Keeping this tilt, use your arms to help lift your bottom right into the back of the chair.

Now unwind so that you are fully upright.

Does your pelvis still have some of the forward tilt? Are you slumping as much as before? Are you pressing as heavily into the back of the chair?

Thanks to fellow teacher Paul Cook for this activity.

Next time, as you do this exercise, observe if there is any tightening at the other end of the spine, around your shoulders and neck. If so, ask for release in this area as you move.

Other blog posts to help 

These blog posts are also aimed at helping our backs.
* Resting the back is great for desk-bound people
* Hold your head high
* Observation is the starting point to improving our well-being. Observing ourselves in the chair - 1
* Our necks are the fulcrum for the whole body. Look up and down with ease - at the computer and elsewhere - 1

Want to take this further? 

I hope that the information and tips are useful to you. If you are struggling at all, or feel any tension, why don't you explore the Alexander Technique further?

People benefit greatly from lessons with a teacher. A package of six lessons is recommended, but I suggest that you start with trying one lesson. Why don't you ring me on 0488 956 506 or email jimxwaite @ to book a lesson today?

For the workplace, I now have a great presentation. I use it to explain Alexander Technique, the evidence for its effectiveness, and what I offer in the workplace - and how it can help with work health and safety. Who should I talk to in your organisation? Please let me know.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Arm swing, walking and bags

(First included in my December 2016 email newsletter).

Tips based on Alexander Technique can help you with walking all year round. Let's consider arm swing and stride, as well as carrying a bag.

Arms can swing more 
Our arms are designed to swing as we walk. One leg moves forward, so does the opposite arm. What's great about arm swing? It helps move the back muscles, develops flexibility in the rib cage and so indirectly aids our breathing.

A recent student had very little arm swing and one arm rose higher than the other. She felt uncomfortable swinging her arms more - until I asked her to look in the mirror. She changed quickly once she could see that a larger arm swing didn't look out of place. 

Watch people around you - how do you compare?

Carry your bag evenly 

How well do you carry your bag? Do you habitually walk with one shoulder higher than the other? Chances are that you do if the bag is hooked over just one shoulder. Does your bag interfere with arm movements?

Start by observing yourself and other people. This may be enough to even up your shoulders. Try lengthening the strap, so it goes around the neck. Consider a different bag!

In these images, she has even shoulders but little arm swing - that's OK for a short time, but it shouldn't become habitual. His shoulders are quite uneven - I wouldn't want to do this for a long time.

Try a shorter stride 

My stride used to be very long - whether I was strolling or purposefully going somewhere. American teacher Bob Britton gave some advice that led me to make major changes. Now my legs don't reach much further forward than the front of my body.

An elderly student of mine finds that a shorter stride has reduced the back pain resulting from walking.

Bob Britton argues that a long stride means the front leg has to do a lot of work pulling the body and the rear leg forward. If instead, the stride is shorter, the front leg does much less - it simply takes the weight of the body and allows the rear leg to float through until it hits the ground.

Could the barman stride out and still balance the drinks?

More on arm swing 

The skeleton image below gives us much food for thought.
  • on the left side, imagine how arm movement affects the huge trapezius muscle (blue) and the equally large latimus dorsi running from armpit to pelvis. Notice how even the head is involved.
  • On the right side, where the muscle is cut away, consider how the shoulder blade is free to move and how gentle arm movement will also stimulate the long spinal muscles (close to mid-back).

Just starting out 
What will his walking style be in future?

Want to take this further? 

I hope practicing these tips is useful to you.
Perhaps you need to do more? People benefit greatly from individual lessons with me. I can help make walking, and everyday activities, much more pleasant.
Why don't you ring or email to book a lesson today?

Monday, August 29, 2016

Screens, posture and eyes

Screen based work has subtle effects on our health.

Firstly, computer-related eye fatigue affects just under 50% of Australian office workers (ComCare 2012 p.5).

Secondly, how we sit or stand while viewing the screen has implications for health.

Here I outline common problems, offer three strategies to try, and provide further sources of help.

Do you have a problem? 

Consider if one of these applies to you:

  • you crane forward as you focus on the work
  • you slump and pull your head back to see the screen
  • you become rigid in your arms, chest, neck and jaw with the effort to focus on the screen.

1. Set up your screen 

Aim to look down towards the centre of the screen. This allows the head to be poised on top of the neck. Worksafe (2011 p.42) recommend that the top of the screen be about level with your eyes, and that you sit about a full arm length away from the screen.

This is difficult with portable devices, but Worksafe (2011 p.42) has a series of very useful suggestions for using a laptop, tablet or mobile phone.

2. Ease back and up 

How has your posture changed as you read this email? Are you subtly drawing back from the screen. Good!

Pivoting back and forth on your sitting bones can help you find length in your torso. Aim for poise and balance rather than a fixed posture.

Can you sit and view the screen as effortlessly as the young people in this image? (note forearms should not slope upwards towards the keyboard).

3. Look beyond the screen 

When you take a break or turn on the computer, sit for a moment. Ask if your hands, arms and shoulders can soften. Ask if your neck is easy.

Now be present in the whole room, just as if you were soaking up the sun and breeze at the beach.

Questions to consider

  • What can you see using your peripheral vision, beyond and alongside the computer?
  • Can you picture the wall, door, window, desk or shelves that are behind you?
  • How high is the ceiling? Think gently about lengthening into the space above you.
It may help to imagine travelling along this road, as though the centre of your computer screen is just above the word 'vision'. Think in 3D - ahead, to the sides and the road behind. 

I can help with deep habits 

The tips above are based on helping other people at their office desk, as well as my own personal experience.

These tips may get you started. They are unlikely alone to help you easily break postural habits that are unhelpful but deeply held.

Alexander Technique lessons can quickly help the 'undoing', get you on the right track, and allow you much more comfort during the hours you face the screen.

Please email me or ring. Price for a package of six lessons is $300. Concessions available. Duration is usually 40-50 minutes.

Even better, talk to me about assisting you and others at your workplace.
I have an evidence-based presentation to show HR and section managers, and health & safety representatives.

More information

My blogposts that may help you:
Comcare (2012) Eye health in the workplace - a guide for PCBUs and workers, Commonwealth of Australia. Includes advice for, and obligations of, both employers and workers (available online).

OHS Reps is a great source of information in Victoria. Scroll down for lots of information including : Screen placement; Lighting for VDUs; and Glare and reflection.

Worksafe (2011) Officewise - A Guide To Health And Safety In The Office provides an important set of guidelines.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Celebrating and suffering

It is now five years since I began teaching Alexander Technique in Melbourne. I love teaching both individually and in workshops. It keeps me inspired every day. The downside is that I tend to see postural problems all around me.

A recent hospital stay exposed me to the dreadful situation of many health workers - and patients too. There is too much unnecessary suffering for those people in the future, if not already.

Health system warning
All of us need to be mindful at work.  Here I focus on the health system, but I suspect the problems occur where you work too. Please take it seriously and call on help if similar problems are widespread where you work.

I was in hospital for three days because of chest pain. No problem thankfully. The search for a cause took many tests, none of which were conclusive. Pancreatitis was suspected so I stopped drinking alcohol. Months later without pain, I'm sure it was gastric due to over-eating. So on doctor's OK, I was really pleased to resume my daily nip of whisky.

Riding hard in the ambulance
The paramedic riding in the back with me said 10% of his colleagues are off work with injury. They have to lift people from awkward confined places, like the shower, where maintaining good posture is difficult.  The ambulance driver is new to the job, and is concerned that paramedic work will exacerbate longstanding lower back issues.  She was very interested in my explanation of how Alexander Technique might help.

Beware the ultrasound
I was asked to have an ultrasound. The operator sat facing a screen that displays the image coming from the device that was moved around my body with the right hand. It is awkward work.

She has hand pain and said 50% of the 12-14 operators at the hospital have problems. She was initially sceptical that Alexander Technique could help any more than other approaches that they have tried.  But this seemed to change as I explained that AT investigates how we do things,  changing unhelpful habits and using less effort. What a pity we could talk for only a few minutes.

How do nurses bend?
Nurses are often bending over patients, perhaps administering medicine, fixing a bandage or helping them change position.

In the process, I noticed that most nurses keep their legs almost straight but bend in the middle of their back. They unconsciously misuse themselves, perhaps due to a mental map of their bodies that goes back to childhood and which hasn't been challenged by their anatomical training.

Learning how to release the knees in a lunge or monkey could help enormously.  A fellow patient instinctively did this as he folded by the joints to bring his eyes below the window blind, allowing him to see the view to the mountains.

I had several opportunities to talk to one nurse over the three days of my stay. By the end, she was convinced Alexander Technique was worth a try, and found great benefit. She came for six lessons. She now stands without thrusting her hips forward, and sleeps much better at night. She no longer needs orthotics in her shoes when working. How's that!

Pushing a heavy trolley
One observant staff member described the posture of the staff who push trolleys day in and day out.  The workers hold themselves rigid, leaning forward with rounded shoulders - even when not engaged in this activity.

Hospital budgets seemingly don't allow for job rotation and sharing.

Hospitals do clerical work too
Hospitals are now equipped with some standing desks at work stations as well as portable units on wheels that are used in the wards to check and update patient records.

As I saw it,  they are typically used poorly from a postural viewpoint. Key boards are too high so arms are reaching up,  screens are too low inviting a slumping forward. The standing desk can also invite locked knees and hips way too far forward.

But it wasn't just this problem.  Looking through to the back offices,  clerical staff were slumping,  pulling heads back and more. Not a pretty sight to someone trained to observe how people are using themselves.

Tentative answers for our workplaces
Will real action that works be taken to fix the problems in hospitals and in other workplaces?

I want to see organisations

  1. Bring in more job rotation and sharing to reduce time spent fixed in one position.
  2. Bring in skilled people trained in identifying problems in how people are doing their work, not just changing equipment and work practices but changing deeply ingrained habits that lead to postural problems and pain.
  3. Allow for learning over time both in groups and one on one.
  4. Rigorously evaluate each approach for results in addressing poor postural habits, reducing injury, and improving pain management.