Reducing Back Pain when you Stand as a Chef.

Standing in one place sucks. Like it really sucks. But you know what is worse than standing still in one place all day?

Standing still in one place working in a kitchen.

“It’s hot, loud, and you probably just got asked what the specials are by the opening manager. And even though you have been working for the last 4 hours, you still have a mountain of prep work to complete. “

Life of a chef right?

Fortunately, there are a few ways to reduce the nagging pain and discomfort that comes from working at the prep station all day. But before we get into how we can reduce these feelings; we need to learn a little bit of anatomy and a condition called creep.

And before we even get into that I need to get a few disclaimers out of the way.

This article is designed for someone who is experiencing mild discomfort from standing in one place while working in a kitchen. If you have chronic back pain that is consistent from the time you wake up to when you go to bed, persists after you finish work, or is getting worse. Please connect with your doctor or a regulated health professional that works with injuries. They will be able to get you help that you need to recover and become stronger. If you need help finding a professional just send me an email and I will connect you to someone in your area.

Now that we have that out of the way lets take a look at what happens to our body when we stand for prolonged periods of time.

Obviously, our body is comprised of bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves and a whole bunch of other structures. These structures are fantastic at keeping us upright when we move. But we were not the best designed for holding a static position. Let’s take a look at the factors that effect our body when we stand and what this means for our workday in a kitchen.

Gravity: A constant force on an immovable object.  

Gravity is a constant force that acts on us. None of us are able to escape gravity unless you happen to be part of a space program. Gravity is required for humans to stay alive, but how we interact with it will determine if the effects of gravity are beneficial or detrimental. One area that is effected directly by gravity is blood flow.

water-1008977_1920.jpg

Blood flow: Like a river

Blood is similar to water in the sense that it is a liquid. Liquids don’t flow uphill, unless you have a system to help the liquid be pumped against gravity. When we stand, our body is set up in a way for blood to pool in the lower extremities.

Fortunately, we are built with an amazing pump system to keep blood flowing. Firstly, our hearts pump blood through our arteries to our organs and extremities. The arteries are connected to nerve endings and receptors that track the CO2 levels in our blood. As CO2 builds up our heart rate increases to drive oxygen filled blood to the required organs and areas. When we exercise more blood is moved to the muscles because they require more oxygen. When we eat, blood is transferred towards our stomach to help deliver oxygen for energy production. In turn promoting digestion.

The heart and arteries are proficient at driving oxygen towards our extremities, but how do we get it back? This is particularly crucial in the legs because blood cannot flow upwards on its own. The veins have a little bit of pressure from the heart pumping but usually not high enough to get the blood that has traveled the farthest to make it back.

Veins return blood to our heart but the blood is pumped back via an effective venous return system. And our muscles are the key to it.

Veins in the extremities are surrounded by skeletal muscle. When the muscles contract the blood is squeezed in the veins back towards the heart. Along the way valves are placed in the veins to keep the blood from flowing backwards. This is system works fantastically when you move around a bunch. But it fails to get the job done when you stand in one place.

How to manage blood return:

Obviously if we want blood to flow back to the heart we need to contract our muscles to get that blood back. Here are a few specific techniques you can try:

1) Wear compression socks.

These increase the pressure around our ankles and calves to help drive blood flow back to the heart. These can help but they are not the be all end all for getting the blood to flow.

2) Contract your muscles in your legs to facilitate blood flow.

Tapping your toes, doing some quick calf raises, or a quick shake can get some blood pumped back to the heart.

3) Walk it out

Walking is one of the simplest ways to get blood flowing. Walking for about 2 minutes per hour is a good guideline. Build this into your workday plan and you won’t have a problem. (More on the process of building movement into your workday below).

Along with blood flow, our muscles and bones are also vulnerable when we stand in one place.

Creep phenomenon when standing.

Our structures are like any physical structure. They can have a force placed against them and they can return to their natural shape. All objects have a certain level of elasticity in them and our anatomy is the same. As long as the force is not too large they can return to their original shape. Our muscle are a great example of this.

Take a look at this chart to better understand elasticity bio-mechanics.

To put it simply, all objects have a certain amount of stress and strain they can take and return to their original shape. When they pass this, they switch from elastic in nature to plastic. They have become deformed by taking on too much force. Our muscles are extremely elastic because they can take on a large force and still return, whereas our bones are less elastic.

With elasticity comes a downside. When you take a rubber band and stretch it and hold that position for too long, the rubber band will begin to creep into a new resting position. You have probably seen this in action when you wrap a rubber band around an object and leave it there for years. When you take the band off, it does not return to its original shape.

This is called creep and it can be one of the major causes to back pain over the workday.

Injury Mechanics: How the little can become big.

When we hold one position for an extended period, we begin to have the creep phenomenon affect our structures.  Our structures begin to lose their elasticity, strength, and support capabilities. This is when we are susceptible to pain and injuries.

As we hold a sustained position, our tolerance for gravity will start to reduce.

This is best shown in the graph below:

 
tissue change over time.jpg

I drew this myself in paint so don’t mind the look of it.

Initially our tissues and well adjusted and strong to the stressors that are placed on it. But over time our tissue tolerance will reduce and the load that was very light before can now lead to pain and discomfort. This happens when the blue line crosses the red line in the graph above.

Mix this with bad posture or incorrect workstation setup you will see even more risk for problems to occur.

Injury Prevention in Static Positions.

Getting back to the kitchen, many chefs will spend a large part of their day standing in one place. When I say standing in one place, I don’t mean at a station on the line during service. I’m describing the static position when chefs stand doing prep work.

During prep, chefs stay in one place doing one task for lengthened periods of time. This is the perfect space to cause pain and discomfort from working.

Solutions can be managed in three ways. Organization policies, workstation management, and chef behavior.

Let’s get into it:

Chef Behavior: Atomic Changes for prevention.

Firstly, the solution to standing one place for lengthened periods is simple in nature.

Movement.

But just because movement is the solution doesn’t mean the application is easily attained. Though I think I can solve that for you.

Balanced Life Movement Prescription for Chefs.

For 1 hour standing at a workstation take a 2-minute movement break. This can be done by managing your tasks to do that. Here’s an example:

  • You need to go to the bar at the front of the restaurant to get beer for the beer battered fish and chips.

  • Or you need to go to the chest freezer downstairs to take out some fish

  • Maybe you need to walk to the dumpsters to take out the recycling.

These can all be a chance to build in your movement. But they can only be effective if we build our workday to reflect that. How do we do that?

Create a Task breakdown and management list: Breakdown all of our important tasks for the shift. Then insert your movement tasks into them. What would this look like:

Example:

Static standing task:

Chop vegetables for shift ahead: 1 Hour

Movement Task:

Load peelings into bus bin and carry them to the compost out back of the restaurant.  

Static Task:

Prep Dough for pizzas

Movement task:

Retrieve the prepped dough from the Freezer Downstairs.

Obviously, these are examples. I don’t know how your specific workplace functions but use this system to build the movement into your workday.

Workstation Set-Up:

We can also set ourselves up for success by managing the workstation itself. This can be done in 3 ways:

1) Maintain proper postures by making sure your workstation is at the correct height:

I will do an in-depth analysis on this in the future but you want your workstation to be high enough that you are not hunched over to do the work. This will reduce strain on the structures in the spine and increase the time before fatigue sets in.

Look at ways to raise your workstation if you are hunched over. Possibly stacking cutting boards on top of each other.  

2) Make sure the workstation floor has some cushion to it.

Many kitchens are made up of concrete floors. These are quite unforgiving when you hold one position for extended periods. But we can cushion it a little bit using various kinds of mats designed for the kitchen.

You can find mats here:

https://www.canadamats.ca/commercial-matting/restaurant-mats.html

Most restaurants these days have started to use mats as standard ways to prevent fatigue. These are great for preventing problems before they happen.

3) Implement the posture shifting box.

This is the simplest and cheapest way to keep static postures from wrecking your body throughout your shift. Get yourself a box. Preferably wood, but any material that you can keep clean and won’t slip. Make sure it is about 6 inches in height.

As you work, rest one foot on the box. Switch between feet about every 15 minutes.

The function behind this is the muscles in the back can tense and relax in these different positions. Reducing fatigue by holding different positions over the workday.

3) Organizational changes for management:

Reducing pain and fatigue for your employees is not an easy task but you can control for it by implementing a few policies for you employees.

1) Created a break schedule and stick to it.

I know this isn’t possible in the middle of rushes and service. But there is an eb and flow to the restaurant. Use the down times to build in a small break for your chefs. And make sure at least they leave their station and go somewhere else. This builds in the movement.

2) Implement a warm up routine for your chefs.

Soon I will be creating a pre-shift warm-up routine for chefs and servers.

Click here to sign up for the warm up routine. It will be sent out soon!

If you made it to the end of this article, what tricks do you do in the kitchen to stave off back pain and discomfort? Comment down below!