Exercise is the New Watercooler

This week I gave a lunchtime talk about fitness at a local law firm. The firm has a group committed to health and fitness, and they provide a weekly lunchtime yoga class as well as a lecture series. When they asked their yoga instructor–the multi-talented Molly O’Neill–to suggest a speaker for a talk on fitness, she recommended me. Of course, “fitness” is a pretty broad topic, so I asked them if they had any particular topics in mind. It turned out they had something very specific in mind: office exercise.

Cartoon of office exercise

As someone who usually teaches group exercise in gyms, I knew this would take some careful thought and preparation. Pretty quickly I decided that Functional Fitness would form the heart of my presentation. Because offices offer limited space and time, small scale exercises that contribute to overall ease of movement, reduce risk of injury, and ultimately improve quality of life seemed like a logical choice. Plus, knowing that Molly was offering yoga on a weekly basis meant that I could focus on complementing her work on flexibility, breathing, and stress reduction.

To be brutally honest, desk work can put the body at risk. One study revealed the staggering effects of habitual sitting: “men in the study who spent six hours or more per day of their leisure time sitting had an overall death rate that was about 20 percent higher than the men who sat for three hours or less” (“Is Sitting a Lethal Activity“). Since many occupations necessitate prolonged sitting, simply telling my audience not to sit was not a sensible option. There are, however, two parts of the day where office people can easily integrate more physical activity and break up a “long sit”: commutes and brief breaks.

Click on the link for the article
Click on the link for the article

For the commute:

  1. Take the stairs (this office happened to be on the 19th floor, so I suggested getting off on the 17th or 18th and taking the remainder on foot)
  2. Park the car a bit farther away from the office
  3. For those taking public transportation, choose a train or bus stop that will force you to walk an extra block or two

For Breaks:

Cartoon of man doing bicep curls while speaking on the phone

Yoga: I mentioned poses they were quite likely already doing in Molly’s class that stretch or open the front of the body: crescent moon, bridge pose, or a simple standing backbend.

Core Stability: these exercises can help prevent low back pain and injury while lifting objects from the floor or a table. Although many people immediately think crunches when they thing core stability, crunches can reproduce some of the same postural problems caused by sitting: Why-Crunches-Dont-Work-Your-Abs. Consequently, I recommended planks and single-leg balance exercises (like Tree Pose). I demonstrated a basic plank/hover and side plank done on the forearms and knees on top of the conference table. Later (see below), the group tried a modified table plank–forearms on the table, feet on the floor–a simple but effective variation.

Weight-Bearing Exercises: after a quick Q&A, I invited everyone to try a few exercises that could easily be done during short breaks.

  1. Squats: to strengthen the glutes and hamstrings, reproduce a move we do every time we get out of a chair, and promote mobility and balance
  2. Tricep Dips (we did these from a chair): these reproduce the action of the elbow joint when returning something to a high shelf. They strengthen the triceps, engage the chest muscles to assist, and tone the backs of the arms
  3. Single-Arm Rows (we did these with a waterbottle and in a lunge position): terrific for strengthening the middle back (esp latissimus dorsi) and thereby counteracting the pitfalls of prolonged sitting
  4. Incline Pushups: as one of the best functional fitness exercises, these require no extra equipment, engage multiple muscle groups (chest, glutes, the entire core), and actually reproduce an action we do all the time (getting up, pushing off or away from things). We did these with our hands on the conference table, but I also demonstrated wall pushups as an option

Any of these exercises can be done in a small space and during a short break. Doing something as simple as 5 tricep dips and 5 desk pushups before lunch or setting a goal of 10 squats every Friday can make a difference over time. The audience responded with great enthusiasm to my short presentation. In fact, it was their response that prompted me to turn that presentation into this blog post. I hope you enjoy it too!

Call Me “Ropey”

Shortly after my evaluation with the chiropractor I returned to receive my diagnosis. I was expecting to hear that I was hopelessly “subluxated” and in need of three years and several thousand dollars worth of chiropractic care.

Because I scheduled my initial appointment at Instructor Appreciation Night, I didn’t need to use the voucher they had handed to me. In fact, they told me, “Go ahead and give it to someone else.” Since my boyfriend is also a fitness instructor (he teaches Body Pump), I thought he might be as interested in a free massage as I was. Not only was he interested in the massage, he was vaguely curious to see what they would tell someone who is healthy and pain-free. When he returned from his followup, he was “prescribed” 19 visits: 3 visits per week for 2-3 weeks, then 2 per week, and gradually tapering to once a week. Even with coverage from his insurance, the copayments would have amounted to over $500. He politely declined.

Now my boyfriend teaches a sensible 2-3 fitness classes a week, works with a trainer, and runs or takes spinning to maintain cardiovascular fitness. He also eats pretty well, goes to bed when he’s tired, and doesn’t stress out about things he cannot control (he even sings around the house). I, on the other hand, teach an excess of classes (13 classes across 6 days), frequently find myself substituting snacks for meals, and often lose sleep or sleep poorly because I worry about falling behind on my grading or choreography. So you can see why I was braced for grim faces and a dire prognosis.

Cartoon about having a stiff neck from sleeping in a headstand.

Shockingly enough, the doctor’s treatment plan amounted to 22 visits–only a few more than my super-healthy boyfriend was recommended! Here’s the plan I was given:¬†3x per week for 2 weeks, then 2x per week for 6 weeks, then once a week for 4 weeks = $770 (at a $35 copay rate).¬†They offered me a 20% discount if I committed to the entire package, but that still would have amounted to $616 over 12 weeks. This prescription was based on the questionnaire, weight balance test, a postural analysis based on a photo (I was wearing wedge sandals), and the doctor’s hands-on examination of my spine. From the top down she felt I suffered from the following:

  1. decreased range of motion in all my cervical vertebrae
  2. swelling and inflammation in mid and lower neck
  3. tension in the muscles from T5 on up
  4. T9 “jammed up” and she described the right side of my thoracic spine as “ropey”
  5. knots were noted in my lumbar area
  6. decreased range of motion around L4, especially on the right side
  7. tension in the hip area, and my sacrolliac joint was out of balance and rotated
Chiropractic Illustration of the Spine
Chiropractic Illustration of the Spine

In all honesty, none of this really surprised me, but I was mildly impressed that all her trouble spots matched what I actually felt in my own body. I have long felt that my neck was far stiffer than it was during the head-throwing jazz-dancing days of my youth. I also frequently feel that the supposedly fixed bones of my sacrum are not so much fused as jammed on top of one another, especially on my right side. Not wanting to commit to over $600 worth of treatment about which I was still somewhat skeptical, and also not being able to fit probably more than one visit a week into my busy schedule, I decided to try weekly treatments (which include a 30 minute massage) for 4-6 weeks and see how I felt.

It’s been about 6 weeks since my experiment began. I missed a few weeks due to other commitments, but so I’ve had 4 sessions so far. I’ve noticed that I feel somewhat light-headed whenever I leave the office. The chiropractor said this is due to sudden, unimpeded blood flow to my head after getting adjusted. I kind of figured it was due to the massage, but many people seem to have the same reaction (based on a quick online search of “chiropractic adjustment light headed”). After each appointment I really do feel great, especially my neck. I’ve noticed that the “cracking” noises have become less loud and feel less “violent” than during the first visit (where it took two tries to get one side of my neck to release). It’s also possible that the range of motion in my neck is increasing or returning to where it ought to be. Is it the adjustments? the massage? the combination? I can’t say for sure, but I’m feeling pleased enough with the results that I plan to continue for a few more sessions. As with the original treatment plan, I’m now tapering to once every other week. Stay tuned and see if my neck returns to its old creaky ways.