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Ergonomics and the holidays

Carol Green P.T., C.O.M.T.

Santa and his merry little elves may be nimble and quick, but the holiday season brings with it less frequently recognized hazards that could potentially have you muttering Bah-humbug!

Ergonomics is the study of people’s efficiency in their working environment, which includes work you may do in the office, at home or in your daily life.  The fast pace of the holiday season means that slips, falls or trips can happen in mere seconds and become major causes of injuries. We often push ourselves to get seemingly endless tasks completed during the holidays and we sometimes forget how a heavy workload can impact the body. By carefully considering the ergonomics in your environment and minimizing risk factors, you can keep injury out in the cold.

Deck the halls…safely.
For many holiday revelers, a major tradition is putting up the Christmas tree.  You likely will either retrieve an artificial tree from the attic or pick up a fresh one at your local Christmas tree lot. No matter where the tree comes from, there are a few things to remember. If you are hauling a tree down from the attic, take precautions to have someone else to help with getting up and down the attic steps or ladder to avoid a major fall, trip or slip. And while we all wish we were as adept as Santa navigating the chimney, make sure the floor of the attic is appropriately reinforced so that you do not fall through the ceiling. Trees are typically heavy and cumbersome, so have several people help with lifting, spotting and holding the tree while putting it in place to help prevent injury to your back.

All that’s shiny does not always glitter.
Frequent lifting and hauling of gifts and boxes of décor can be a major contributor to stiffness and back pain.  When lifting, bend your knees and stick your rear out behind you while keeping your back flat (not rounded).  This position keeps the back safe and reduces stress to the muscles, ligaments and discs. Pull your belly button in and use your core muscles (the transverse abdominus) to help stabilize your spine and avoid injury and pain. Decorating can present unique challenges particularly when it requires positioning objects in high places. Always have someone supporting your ladder, and even if you are only using a step stool, make sure you are not solo during your decorating just in case an accident occurs.

Keep fatigue tied up in a bow  
Wrapping presents can be time-consuming and fatiguing to your body. Place gifts on a table and alternate between sitting and standing as you wrap. If you have large presents to wrap, put them on a kitchen counter (usually 35-36 inches in height) which keeps you from having to lean over, and prevents back pain and neck pain. Some homes have bars that are at a 42-inch height (elbow height) which can also be used well for wrapping while standing.  

No sugarcoating: cooking and baking are serious work
Cooking those delicious meals takes lots of hours in the kitchen while standing and lifting heavy pots, pans and dishes. While standing at the sink, change your stance periodically to avoid leg and low back pain and fatigue and to send blood pumping from the legs back up to the heart.  Try the following: spread your legs a little wider and rock side to side or put one foot forward and rock forward and backward.  Occasionally rise up and down on toes and then your heels to pump the blood from your legs back up to the heart.  You can also open the cabinet under the sink and prop your foot inside to give an alternate stance position and give your legs a break.  Sitting on a high stool while cooking or chopping can reduce back and leg stress and fatigue.  Just like you are mixing all those wonderful ingredients in the kitchen for a healthy meal, mix up your positions to keep your body healthy.

Stir the pot…carefully
When lifting heavy pans and pots, first remember to keep the weight close to your body. It might surprise you to know that an object weighs more the further it is from the trunk.  For example, a 10 pound weight weighs 10 pounds when held close to the body but weighs 10 pounds x 10 pounds (which equals 100 pounds of force) when it is held arms distance from the trunk.

Bend your knees (squat), keep your back straight, stick your seat out behind you, and make sure to use cooking mittens or cooking gloves when lifting a hot object. 

A squeaky clean holiday celebration
Loading and unloading the dishwasher can be done safely by putting one foot forward and one foot back in stride stance, lunge squat position with the seat out and knees bent.

Ergonomics may not be the present you were expecting or wanting under the tree this Christmas, but it may be the best gift you ever received in order to prevent an injury and allow you to enjoy your holidays. 

What's next:

- Having consistent pain? Find an OC physical therapy location near you for an evaluation to determine the specific exercises and treatments that are best for you.

- Set yourself up for success and finish strong! Try a morning Pilates routine to kick off the day and then incorporate the five gentle stretches you need once you leave the office.

- It's all in the ergonomics. Stop the pain before it starts by learning how to best set up your workspace. Ever wondered if you should switch to a standing space? We've got all your standing desk questions answered.

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