Just breathe Featured

8:59am EDT December 3, 2001
Many business owners breathed a sigh of relief when newly elected president George W. Bush suspended the Workplace Ergonomics standard for businesses.

The standard included new workplace regulations and practices to curb the incidence of musculoskeletal disorders, primarily in the back, shoulders, neck and wrists of workers. Unions and workers groups applauded the standard, but many lawmakers and business groups claimed it would place another unfunded economic burden on businesses.

"It would've had a very high compliance cost, and there really wasn't good cost-benefit analysis of the benefits of the rules," says J. Donald Mottley, a former four-term Ohio state representative and now an attorney at Taft, Stettinius & Hollister. "In many cases, there would have been a relatively small reduction in injuries, and of those reductions, they would have been among the minor injuries."

But just because the government suspended the rules doesn't mean business owners should forget about the problem. Musculoskeletal disorders still cause about 1 million workers to miss work every year, costing the economy $50 billion in work-related costs, according to a recent study by the National Academy of Science, Institute of Medicine.

There are steps you can take to prevent injuries, including buying more body-friendly office furniture and equipment, but the root cause of many musculoskeletal problems is poor posture caused by weak abdominal muscles, according to exercise instructor Rochelle Licata of Smart Bodies in Solon.

Licata is a trained instructor in a new low-impact exercise trend called Pilates, named after its founder, Joseph Pilates. Pilates exercises, most of which are done with no equipment, focus on proper breathing and building the muscles in the abdominal and lower torso area so people will naturally sit and walk with their backs straight and shoulders back. Think yoga with some kick.

"Pilates is very empowering," Licata says. "It's all about body awareness and catching yourself in a lot of bad habits."

Here are three Pilates exercises you and your employees can do to improve your posture while at work or at home.

Breathe

Breathing is the core of Pilates. Simply concentrating on how you breathe and using the proper techniques will improve your overall posture, says Licata.

In Pilates, you inhale through your nose and exhale softly through your mouth. While you're breathing, it's important to keep the spine stacked. To do this, make an imaginary line from the top of your head to the ceiling and try to make your back follow that line.

"When you sit up straight and your internal organs aren't crushed, they have the room they're supposed to have," she says. "They start firing better, they start working the way they're supposed to. Combining that along with the breathing is really a boost to your immune system."

Stretch those neck muscles

Licata says the muscles in our neck are overdeveloped due to those muscles being forced to carry around our 12 to 15 pound heads all day. You can't remove your head, but you could take the pressure off your neck by strengthening the mid-back muscles.

Try this: As you inhale, roll your shoulder blades back and imagine trying to put them in opposite back pockets, hold, then exhale.

Work the abdominals

Forget about crunches. You're only working your abdominal muscles about 10 percent of the time.

Here's a better exercise: Lie on the floor, knees bent, feet flat on the floor, with your head on a towel. Have the corners of the towel just about an inch above your head. Pick up the ends of the towel, inhale and lift your upper body while cradling your head and neck in the towel, hold, then exhale as you return to the starting position. It will be a small movement, but it targets the abs much better than a crunch or sit-up.

Don't lift your head off the towel or jerk your head forward during the movement. How to reach: Smart Bodies, (440) 914-0014

Morgan Lewis Jr. (mlewis@sbnnet.com) is senior reporter at SBN Magazine.