|"One of us! One of us!|
Hey there, blog readers. I want you to meet someone very special to me, a very good friend who has a heart for helping out nerds and geeks like us (because, although you don't have to be one to be a writer, it helps). Ashly Mixon is a professional massage therapist/corrective exercise specialist, and we're going to be talking with her regularly here at the blog to see what we writers who sit at computers for long periods of time can do to be more proactive about our health, particularly our muscular health.
Thanks to Ashly for agreeing to become our official "nerdapist" (therapist for nerds).
Let's start at the top for this first column.
What is the most important issue writers and other nerds who sit at computers for long periods of time need to be concerned about and what can we/they (because I'm one) do to fix it?
It's difficult to choose just one, because there are a number of overly common pathologies associated with prolonged periods of sitting and/or computer work, but I think I'd have to go with Janda's upper crossed syndrome, which is a postural distortion we see in everyone - not just desk workers. With upper crossed syndrome, the affected individual has a forward and and rounded (forward) shoulders. This distortion is the culprit for numerous everyday complaints, such as headaches, tension in the shoulders, rotator cuff injuries, shoulder impingements, upper back tension between the shoulder blades, and an exaggerated curve in the thoracic spine to name a few. Sitting in chairs with a back on them to support you is the primary cause of this distortion, while the actual act of working on a computer tends to more exacerbate the issue than actually cause it.
Ever heard the saying, "If you don't use it, you lose it"? That saying doesn't pertain to educational lessons solely, but your muscles as well - especially as we age. Did you know that as early as your thirties you start to lose your muscle mass if you aren't actively challenging them? By allowing the chair to hold you upright, you're not engaging your core to do its job, so you begin to lose that connection between the muscle and the nervous system, and those muscles become inhibited. This is why trainers preach strengthening of your core, even while you're rolling your eyes because you've heard it so often. Without the core to fight against gravity and hold you up the way it's designed to, your upper body will start to slump forward. This results in a muscular imbalance called altered reciprocal inhibition, where (without getting overly technical) the muscles in your chest, the front of your neck, and the base of your skull become chronically shortened, while the muscles in the back of the neck and shoulders, as well as those in the upper back chronically lengthened.
This is what creates a lot of those issues I mentioned earlier. The chronically lengthened tissues are very stressed, which to you feels like tension or pain. To correct this issue, you must correct the imbalances. To do so, we use corrective exercise in 3 steps (technically there are 4 steps, but a trainer or Corrective Exercise Specialist is needed, whereas the first 3 can be done on your own).
Step 1 is probably of the most important, yet most overlooked steps, which is inhibition the overactive tissues (which are the ones doing the pulling, not the ones being pulled). For this step, you use a self-myofascial release tool such as a foam roller or tennis ball to locate tender points in the muscles that need to be released. A foam roller is a good tool for the larger muscle groups, such as those in the leg. For smaller muscles, however, the tennis ball is going to be the most effective. When you locate a tender point, apply gentle pressure (on a scale of 1-10, don't go above a 5), and hold either until the tender point releases or for a period of about two minutes at the most. If the tender point doesn't release after that amount of time, move to the next one. You want to repeat this process throughout the length of the muscle you're inhibiting, then you move on to the next step.
Step 2 is lengthening of the shortened tissues. Now that the overactive muscles have been inhibited, it's time to stretch them. **Please do not stretch the already lengthened tissues, such as those in the upper back. This could lead to a potential strain or sprain.** If you're unsure about how to stretch the muscles, a bodyworker can help you, or you could also do a simple web search. As you go into your stretch, stop when you get to what we call the "soft end-feel," which is that first bit of resistance you get from the muscle when it senses it's being stretched. Hold your stretch for at least 30 seconds, but ideally until you feel that release where you can increase your stretch slightly, but stop after that and repeat with the next muscle, such as the pecs. Many people, including other professionals, usually jump right to this step and ignore the first altogether. This is not recommended, because without first releasing the tender points, your stretch can't be as effective. Think of your shortened, overactive muscle as a handkerchief, and the tender points are knots in your handkerchief. If you jump right into the stretch, not only are you not going to achieve the desired stretch, you could potentially create a tear in the fibers around those knots. So please don't neglect step 1!
Another overly neglected, but much-needed step is step 3: strengthening of the lengthened, underactive muscles. All the stretching in the world won't correct your muscular imbalances alone. Your muscles know how to do one thing: pull. Re-train those lengthened tissues on how to do their job by strengthening them. Just as with stretching, if you're unsure about how to strengthen your muscles, a trainer or CES like myself can help you, or a web search, but be cautious when searching the web! With this step, it's best to have a prescribed exercise from a professional to prevent potential injury.
Following these 3 steps will correct your muscular imbalances, thus improving your posture. Proper posture isn't just about looking pretty; it's primarily about having healthy joints that function optimally, which is the best way to prevent those oh-so-common aches and pains.