Taking care of your most important tool – part 1

I’m back again, I hope you had a great start of 2016! I have a new instalment of the “More headspace for Creators” series for you, I hope you enjoy it. Let me know if you found it helpful. This is part one of a three parter.

Many creatives use tools to do what they do: pens, paper, brushes, camera’s, chisels, tablets or musical instruments. Whatever you are doing though, we all have one instrument in common: our body.
Today, I talk about one simple thing you can apply that can greatly improve the quality of your work time in the long run: a correct posture.

taking care of your most important tool

Your body is the one tool you’ll ever use that can not be replaced, so we need to take good care of it. Physical pain and discomfort is a problem that strikes many creators and I, myself am very passionate about the subject of taking care of yourself to be able to do the work you want to do. We’re talking about eliminating problems to create more headspace, right?

“The body,” of course, is a very broad subject. It consists of many different parts and systems and everything is related. What I want to talk to you about in these articles is how to prevent, or act upon physical problems that can come from doing our daily creative work. Things like pain, strain, fatigue or loss of power in your arms and hands to name a few. Many of these problems can be summarized under the Repetitive Strain Injuries, (RSI) which you can read more about here

When we are focussed and concentrated on our work, we often forget what our body is doing. And even if we have a creative job that uses the body in the art form itself, like dancing or acting, we can still push it too far. When I did my training as a Sign Language interpreter I was made very mindful of the problems of RSI, since I have to lift my arms and make small, repetitive movements with my hands all the time. I even developed some weak spots in my shoulders and arms already so in the last few years I have gained more knowledge about posture and training. I use this knowledge in my art making too.

Before I continue, however, I want to tell you that I am not a professional, I have not done a four year college study to learn about the muscle system and the many different conditions it can suffer from. So whenever you experience problems that do not go away, or whenever you have pain, fatigue or strain regularly, be sure to visit a doctor or other professional. I have had very good experiences with my physiotherapists. Make sure you don’t wait too long, with these kinds of problems, the sooner you intervene, the better it is. Look at the signs, take them seriously, we’re talking about the thing you live your life in and what you work with.

Even if you never had any symptoms of this at all, you never know what a bad posture will bring you in the long run. For the longest time I didn’t have any problems, but my posture was (and in a way still is) very bad. I also move my arms with hunched and tense shoulders a lot. I push hard on my drawing utensils. But as I grew older and started interpreting, and drawing more again, I noticed that I couldn’t go on this way.

Once, I came back from an afternoon of canoeing and within an hour of stopping my arms where in so much pain that I wanted to throw up. I was 24 years old at that time. It was clear to me that it wasn’t simple “sore muscles” from working out to much. My arms were shaky and felt like they were on fire. My muscles all felt like two people were pulling at each end of them. That was the point at which I first visited a physiotherapist and, even though I push my body too far sometimes, I never had pain in my arms that extreme any more.

When it comes to preventing these kind of injuries (because that’s basicly what they are) there are two things to keep in mind. Forgive the blunt comparison with technology but for the purpose of creating an easy-to-remember analogy here, these things are: correct usage and maintenance. We will talk about the first one today.

Use your body well.

Everything starts with posture. We are hunched over our desks, tables and drawing boards. We look down on our phones and tablets constantly. Most of us sit down for the majority of the day. Developing a good posture for at least sitting and standing, and broadening that to moving, is half the work.

When standing, stand upright (like you’re pulled up by a string that’s attached to the top of your head) Don`t have any tension in your shoulders, let them down and pull them backwards if they are rolled a little towards the front. Lift your breast up so your upper back is straight, keep your knees unlocked, let your head sit comfortably in the middle of your shoulders.

When you’re sitting, remember the 90 degrees rule. This applies to your elbows and knees, your arms and legs need to bend at a 90 degree angle to be most comfortable. Your head needs to be upright, which means that the top of your computer screen needs to reach your eye level. It’s helpful if your lower arms can rest on a table or armrests when you work (make sure to take the 90 degrees in account). Again, keep the shoulders relaxed. It’s also best to not sit with your legs crossed, and keep your feet next to each other on the ground, distributing your weight evenly on both “sitting bones.”

When typing, it is best if your keyboard is as flat as possible so your hands can hang down rather than you having to bend your wrist upwards to type. When writing or drawing, don`t constantly push too hard on your pens and pencils, because you`re also putting a lot of force on certain muscles..

When you are moving around, keep in mind to relax your shoulders, unlock your knees, keep your back mostly straight. When lifting things be sure to squat, don`t pull heavy things with the muscles in your back only, use those abdominal muscles! And think of ways to relieve the pressure on your body in certain situations. If something is too heavy for you for example: ask for help, if possible.
There is plenty of information about these kind of things to find online too. When in doubt, ask someone who knows what they are talking about.

This all seems like a lot to take in. Believe me, I understand. When I`m tired I don`t want to sit upright, I want to slouch. And it`s ok to sometimes do that. Your body is strong, flexible and self healing. But if you use your body in the wrong way for a long period of time, if your posture is bad in and of itself, eventually, something will wear out. Especially when you get older. And no matter how old we get, I think most of us want to never stop doing their creative work, if possible.
So when you want to tackle this, make sure to take it easy on yourself. Move in small steps. Every time you think of your posture, adjust it. Maybe even take it in even smaller bites: pay attention to your shoulders a few weeks, or how you sit on your chair. Then, if it`s a habit and it grew more comfortable to you, focus on the next thing. And think positive, on how relaxed your muscles feel when you sit or stand upright. Maybe it makes you feel active and alert. I wish you a comfortable week.

To recap: A good posture in standing, sitting or moving around is half the work because it reduces the strain on your muscles and distributes physical force more equally through the body.
When in pain or in doubt: ask a doctor, physiotherapist or another professional specialized in the human body for advice.
Take the physical signals of your body seriously. After all, the place you live in is your most important tool.

Question: what do you do to keep a good posture? Do you pay attention to how you move, stand and sit?
Action: for the next few weeks, pay attention to your body. Do you feel tension somewhere when you stand or sit normally?

Next post: maintenance!

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