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Flexibility Key to Dispatcher Health
Author: Evamarie Pilipuf
Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content
Attention, Dispatchers: Your first emergency is in your chair!
Long periods of sitting can take years off your life, but a few easy stretches can add them right back
If only our neck, low back, hips and knees could talk to us the same way a frantic caller can pick up the phone and dial 9-1-1. Such an exchange might go something like this:
Mr. Low Back: “Help! I’m in pain and it’s only getting worse!”
Dispatcher: “Well, have you gone to the doctor?”
Mr. Low Back: “I did, but he can’t find anything wrong, and yet I’m still waking up with that stiffness, and by the end of the day I feel like Frankenstein!”
Dispatcher: “Have you tried altering the way you move? Maybe bend over differently?”
Mr. Low Back: “Yes, but the change is only making things worse! Now my neighbors – the Knees – are complaining about pain, too. Yet if I change my movement again, Mr. Hips yells at me, telling me I’m tightening him up when I do that. This isn’t working!”
Dispatcher: “What about aspirin or other pain relievers?”
Mr. Low Back: “I tried. I also bought those patches, braces and ointments. They seem to help at first, but the pain eventually comes back, worse than before. I’m really scared, it’s starting to affect my ability to keep up with the kids and do my favorite sport! Where will I be five years from now at this rate? Please help me!”
Unfortunately, we don’t have such direct lines of communication from our body. We can only decipher early warning signs of trouble by staying alert to our bodies’ signals, and to be aware of those daily activities that cause us unnecessary risk and long-term debilitation. We need to then use that information and become our own rescue team, taking steps to intervene before it’s too late!
Probably nothing revelatory about that, except for one thing: Who could have guessed that your chair, of all things, could be a major source of so many bodily problems? But it’s true: studies are now showing that the whole spectrum of health issues, such as low back pain, excess weight, heart disease, diminishing brain function, and even depression, can be directly attributed to the repetitive stress imposed by long, unbroken periods of sitting. Sitting, as it turns out, can literally shave years off your life, and as the saying goes, shave life out of your years. And it’s an equal-opportunity problem: whether you’re a high-powered athlete, a confirmed couch potato, or somewhere in between, the gravitational “crunch and hunch” our bodies are subjected to every day is a powerful force to be reckoned with, not unlike the effect of flowing water on carving a canyon through rock.
I can’t say I’m surprised at these findings. As a longtime fitness professional, I had to alter the way I train my clients, students, and members of my website, long before there were studies to confirm the need to do this. It turns out that no amount of sophisticated training methods, fancy equipment, or cutting-edge exercises can accomplish anything until we first address our activities of daily living. And for most of us, sitting is at the top of that list, both in terms of how much we do of it and in terms of its detrimental effects. Here’s why:
When we sit, all of the muscles in the front of our body are shortened and tightened, while the muscles in our upper back, low back, and buttocks become excessively lengthened and weak. This in itself causes problems – muscle imbalances, poor posture, aches and pains – but making matters worse, when we sit we also compress our spine – its vertebrae and discs – like a squeezed accordion. As if that weren’t bad enough, our hamstrings – that is, the muscles on the back of our legs – become tight as a result of our knees being bent all day. Do you struggle to touch your toes when you bend over? This is part of the reason. And to top it all off, our necks tend to jut forward when we sit, resulting in a distortion of our upper spine, which leads to a host of problems, such as headaches, numbness, arthritis, and a chronic pain in the neck (literally)!
The worst part about all of this is that we don’t even notice the deterioration. It’s slow, gradual and silent, until one day we wake up tired and stiff, with an extra 30 or 50 pounds that seemed to appear out of nowhere, and increasing aches that affect all of our daily movements. It doesn’t take an imaginative leap to see how this is often the first step towards premature aging, where the body is hobbling along in constant pain, favorite activities long abandoned in favor of just trying to meet one’s basic daily needs. Enter, that hypothetical 9-1-1 call from a distraught low back!
Here’s the good news: By adding a few easy stretches during the course of your day, you can start to reverse that ominous trend right now. You only need a few minutes of time, and you don’t need to change clothes. Nor do you need to be flexible or particularly athletic; these stretches are accessible and enjoyable for everyone! Best of all, you can start right now, and feel instant results, with the promise of continuous improvement over time!
Need some proof? Try this experiment right now: Stand up, reach your arms up to the ceiling, stretching as tall as you possibly can, and keep reaching, reaching, reaching. Hold this position and take a long deep breath. As you inhale, stretch a little taller, like you’re trying to touch the ceiling. As you exhale, let your arms relaxed back down at your sides. Do this three more times: raise your arms, reach higher and take a deep breath, then let your arms relax back down as you exhale. Now, sit back down. Don’t you feel better? More relaxed? A little more alert? Less achy? Just think, if you can feel this good after just 20 seconds of a super-basic stretch, imagine how good you’ll feel with just a few more such stretches, done regularly to give your body the added flexibility it needs!
With that in mind, the following are four additional stretches that will help unlock tight muscles, restore good posture, and leave you feeling energized. Ideally, you want to do at least one of them several times during the course of the day. For example, whenever you get up for a coffee break, a lunch break, or to visit the restroom, you can tag one of these stretches to that break, making the addition virtually seamless.
For each stretch, you want to get into the position until you feel a distinct stretch sensation on the target muscles. Hold the stretch for at least 30 seconds, taking deep breaths and concentrating on relaxing those muscles. Where applicable, perform the stretch on each side of the body, and if time permits, repeat the stretch one or two more times, since you’ll find that with each repetition, you’ll be able to stretch and relax a little further.
(Side note: Be sure you check with your doctor, to make sure it’s safe for you to be stretching, and always stop what you’re doing if you feel any pain.)
Stretch #1: Chair Forward Bend
This position stretches the muscles in the back of the leg, chest and neck. Rest your hands on either the chair seat or, if your muscles are very tight, the top of your desk instead. Walk your feet away so that you’re able to drop your chest low enough that your arms are out in front of you, and you’re relaxing your neck completely. Be sure to keep your knees fully stretched, and push your tailbone way back, with most of your weight in your heels. Relax your legs, neck and chest as you take deep breaths while holding the stretch. If by chance you can’t straighten your knees when your hands are resting on your chair seat, choose a higher object, such as a desktop or even countertop, until you find the height that allows you to keep your knees fully stretched.
Stretch #2: Chair Hip and Glute Stretch
Believe it or not, discomfort in the low back often stems from exceptionally tight hip and gluteal muscles. By releasing tightness in these areas, you automatically take stress off of your low back. To perform this stretch, sit down and cross your left ankle over your right leg, just above the knee. Rest your left hand on the knee, and push down on your knee a bit to ensure it’s dropped as much as possible. Extend your right arm in front of you. After taking a deep breath, lean forward as though trying to reach an object with your right hand. You’ll feel the stretch in your hips, no question about it! Hold the stretch for at least 4-5 slow breaths, then do the stretch on the right leg. If possible, repeat the stretch 2-3 times.
Stretch #3: Chair Side Stretch
This stretch helps to elongate the back and waist, and releases tension from the neck and shoulders. Stand up and turn so that your chair is off to your left. Place your left foot on the chair seat, with your left knee bent. Rest your left forearm on your thigh, and lean left, resting your upper body’s weight in your forearm. Now, reach up for the ceiling with your right arm. Reach as high as you can, like you’re trying to touch the ceiling with your hand. You should feel a stretch along the right side of your waist and back. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds, taking deep breaths and reaching your arm continuously. Release from the stretch and perform the other side.
Stretch #4: Chair Twist
This stretch gently loosens the low back, and relieves it of the repetitive stress caused by moving exclusively in a forward/backward direction. Sit tall, with knees hip-width apart, and your heels squarely on the floor. Turn to your right and grab hold of the back of the chair with your right hand, and grab the outside of your right knee with your left hand. Use your hands to increase the rotation of the twist, until you feel a comfortable but distinct stretch in your back. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds, taking deep breaths and relaxing your shoulders and neck (they will often tense up and elevate initially). Release and to the other side, then perform the stretch a second or even third time when possible, since you’ll get an even better stretch with each repetition.
The bonus about these short stretch breaks is that they can pave the way for bigger and better things: Once you’ve established this basic routine and feel the results in the form of better flexibility and comfort, you just may find yourself seeking other ways to increase your daily activity, further enhancing your fitness, health, and long-term well-being!
We may not be able to receive messages from our body via phone calls, but thank goodness we can be our own dispatcher and rescuer, so that such calls never become necessary in the first place!
Evamarie Pilipuf is a yoga instructor and stretching consultant based in southern California, and the owner/operator of www.TheFlexibilityCoach.com, a membership website where athletes and non-athletes alike stretch online via Evamarie’s audio and video workouts.