Friday, November 18, 2011

Your body may be working overtime (even if you aren't)

Fridays are my work from home day, the day I take to do admin duties; write checks, review my Pilates schedule, pay bills, and when I find time- my day to post to Pilates Geek. On the days that I work from home I sit more than usual. I notice that for a couple of days following my WFH days I get a bit sore in my right shoulder and feel the need to adjust my neck regularly. Sometimes I even notice soreness in my jaw. On days like these I find myself wondering- how does the average person do this on a regular basis?

I understand that tech geeks and desk jockeys love their jobs, just as much as this Pilates Geek loves hers, but I cannot imagine what it would be like to work like this day in and day out without a good understanding of how to better adapt to the physical demands of sitting, typing, mousing, repeat...

So today's post is dedicated to the die-hard geeks (of any trade) who are held hostage to a desk all day (and, who most likely, love every minute of it).

In my last several posts we have discussed how to sit in good posture while working and how to breathe properly in order to relieve tension. We went over techniques to release and strengthen tight shoulders, and learned some simple exercises to do from just about anywhere. Today we are going to tackle a more subtle problem that can undermine the best of our efforts when it comes to posture and endurance at the desk- CLENCHING!

That's right, clenching. That nail biting, gum chewing, white knuckled, teeth grinding arm crossing aggressive habit that goes hand in hand with hard work and extreme focus. In fact, if you look around your office right now, you may be able to observe some of these behaviors first hand. See that guy over there with the little muscle above his jaw bouncing around like a little rabbit, or how about your boss over there snacking on his finger nails, ooh, or maybe him, that guy next to you on the phone without a headset squeezing his phone between his ear and his shoulder while he hammers away at his keyboard. It may be surprising how many examples you can pick out in just one sweep of the office. The simple fact is, these behaviors are so common we hardly notice them anymore, in others or in ourselves.

Unfortunately these unconscious and unnoticed habits create long term tension in the muscles, tendons and ligaments of the jaw, neck and shoulders. Over time the accumulation of tension causes muscles to spasm and inflammation to occur. When this happens regularly nerves become compressed, leading to pain, tingling and numbness in the arms, hands and fingers.

The first obstacle in correcting these habits is that they are usually unconscious. So you are going to have to use your habit radar and start seeking out some indicators that these things are happening in the first place. Once you pinpoint one or two of them, well, then the real work begins...

Here are a few things to be on the lookout for, and what to do to correct them once recognized:

Phone cradling- this one is pretty simple, make an effort to use your headset and avoid holding the phone to your ear. Even holding the phone with your hand for more than several minutes causes poor elbow mechanics and clenching. If you know you are going to be on longer than a minute or two, use your headset!

Gum chewing- skip it, or do it very minimally, for a very short amount of time. Repetitive chewing mimics jaw clenching and teeth grinding which produces major tension in the jaw, neck and shoulders.

Jaw clenching- this is a bit trickier because it is less noticeable. For starters it is helpful to realize that unless you are chewing up your food, you should always have space between your teeth (all of them). The lips can be closed, but the top and bottom teeth should have space between them at all times. It may help to use a rest break software that can help to remind you to relax and release your jaw.

Nail biting- this could, by far be the most difficult to tackle. I'd recommend designating two 5 min nail biting times during the day- say 11 am and 3pm. Outside of those times do not bite- and when you catch yourself biting stop and remind yourself of your biting time. Set an alert to notify you it's time and bite away. Over time you may find that you no longer have the desire to bite.
If this doesn't work I would recommend doing some research, and possibly looking into some cognitive behavioral therapies for suggestions on how to break this habit. Nail biting also has a negative impact on jaw, neck and shoulder tension, because, like gum chewing and jaw clenching you repetitively engage and stress these muscles.

Shallow breathing- this clenches the muscles between your ribs and compresses all of the soft tissues of the torso. Learn to take full deep breaths (see previous post on breathing techniques).

Aside from these detailed tips, here are some general recommendations to keep your body happier:
  • Seek out stress reducing activities that you enjoy like Pilates, Yoga, Meditation, or maybe running.
  • Take breaks regularly. I've mentioned there are software options that will remind you when a break is needed
  • Make time for physical activity, don't "try and find it", because it will not magically appear, you have to make it happen
  • Take a walk around the block, or try taking the stairs
  • If you have difficulty staying motivated, schedule regular workouts with a trainer. If you have it on the books and are accountable to someone else, you are more likely to actually follow through.