Staying fit for manual work

How you can maximise the opportunity to improve your health through the course of active or manual work, while reducing your risk of injury

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The idea that manual handling or repetitive movement is ‘bad for you’ is a myth. Active work is good for you and can have a positive impact on our physical and mental wellbeing.

But it is true that active work, if approached incorrectly, can sometimes contribute to health conditions like musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) such as lower back pain, joint injuries and repetitive strain injury (RSI) - which is a commonly used umbrella term for some types of pain felt in the fingers, wrists, forearms, neck and shoulders.

Physical benefits

If your job involves a regular amount of activity like bending, lifting, stretching and pushing, the good news is that it affords you an excellent chance to take charge of your physical health. Frequent physical activity improves your overall health and fitness and will help you get the most from work and your life in general.

Your job alone can help you fulfil, or could put you well on the way to meeting, your weekly quota of exercise.

Physiotherapists suggest you do 30 minutes of physical activity at least five days out of seven. Simply make sure you:

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  • Use good technique. Request tailored training for the tasks you do and follow the advice you’re given
  • Use any tools provided to help you do your job correctly. Think about top athletes. If a tennis player held her racquet wrongly or a golfer didn’t swing his club properly, they would soon develop aches and pains
  • Warm up a little, to prepare your body for heavy or repetitive work
  • Adopt good work postures
  • Report any symptoms to your employer promptly
  • Follow your employer’s health and safety procedures – they are there for a good reason
  • Eat well and drink enough fluids.

Mental health benefits

What employers can do

Remember also, that all employers have strong moral and legal obligations to provide safe and healthy workplaces for active workers. They should provide:

  • Information and training about safe ways to work
  • Risk assessments conducted by trained assessors to minimise hazards
  • Changes to work environment and work style where necessary
  • Safe equipment to assist you in your duties
  • Encouragement for staff to take allocated breaks and leave work on time.

Active employment can also benefit your mental wellbeing. Being physically active causes your body to release chemicals which help lift your mood and encourage you to feel more relaxed. These simple suggestions can help you keep your stress levels in check:

  • Breathe properly. If you feel stressed or anxious, take several deep breaths and fill your lungs. You’ll feel calmer and more in control
  • Consider your work environment. Suggest your employer provides better lighting or a refreshing coat of paint if the atmosphere makes you feel gloomy
  • Use your breaks to get away from your work area. Enjoy some fresh air and a change of scene
  • Try to keep challenging situations in perspective. Learn to celebrate where you’ve been successful rather than give yourself a hard time about what you haven’t achieved
  • Make getting a good night’s sleep a priority. If you’re not doing shift work, aim to go to bed and get up at the same time on most days
  • Use your holiday allowance. It will help you unwind and recharge.

Looking after yourself

There is much you can do to look after yourself in the course of your active work.

Physiotherapists recommend you think carefully about the movements your job requires you to carry out regularly.

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You should try and eliminate movements that are not benefiting your health and might be limiting your productivity. Movements you should look to avoid include:

  • Awkward or uncomfortable positions
  • Using too much force
  • Placing too much strain on one side of your body

You can achieve this through developing better working postures.

Good posture

Correct posture is really important for good health and it’s something physiotherapists can work with you to help you achieve. If you adopt the correct postures for the tasks you do at work and at home, your back, neck and other joints will remain healthy and strong, you’ll breathe freely and your internal organs will be able to work more efficiently.

Poor posture is often the result of bad habits developed over a lifetime, such as slouching, but can also result from:

  • Obesity
  • Stress and anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • Poor lifting and handling technique.

In a good posture, your spine, shoulder and hip joints will all be in correct alignment. Viewed from the back, your spine would appear straight. From the side, it would have three natural curves, similar to the letter ‘S’. Whether you are standing, sitting or leaning you should aim to avoid undue stress and strain on your joints. This will help you feel:

  • Stronger
  • Less tired
  • Fewer aches and pains.