Living with osteoporosis in the workplace
If you are diagnosed with osteoporosis during your working years, you have two important aspects to contemplate: firstly, your job itself may be the cause of your osteoporosis if you spend your day mostly sitting and staring at a computer; and secondly, how you will manage the condition if your job is going to continue in the same vein for the foreseeable future. The modern world of work seems more often about performance than about people. It may power the brain, speed up productivity, but it is also slowly weakening our bodies.
However, there are several ways to cope with the condition and keep yourself active in terms of your job. And before you think about it – if your chair happens to be equipped with wheels, whizzing about on it with increased speed and agility is NOT going to do you any good. Nor is expecting others to lift, fetch, carry, and deliver on your behalf while you ‘rest up’. Surprisingly, there is much you can do alleviate your condition and ensure that you remain an active member of your team.
What to take care of first
Whilst osteoporosis can strike anywhere, shoulders and lower back are probably the first areas where you will feel compromised when working. Once you have osteoporosis, you will have to consider changes in the way you sit at your desk. You will need to look for chairs with better support, and also organise your workspace for greater ease of movement. Any unexpected movement to stretch, bend or lift could cause a serious repercussion. You need to consider the following:
You will have less muscle flexibility, which restricts the ability to easily move, rotate, and bend.
If your stomach muscles are weak from too much sitting in the workplace, this will increase strain on the back and may cause an abnormal tilt of the pelvis and hip bones, which can lead to fractures.
Weak back muscles on the other hand, can increase the load on the spine, which in turn increases risk of disk compression.
Let’s look at what you can do
Exercise at the desk
By this stage, you may already be aware that long periods of inactivity cause the joints to stiffen and adjoining tissue to weaken. So while you might think that resting the offending joints is a good idea, in fact getting up and keeping moving can also be beneficial. If you are ‘desk captured’, there are exercises you can do at your desk that can be helpful.
Keeping your upper arms and elbows tight against your sides, simply rotate your forearms out away from your body, opening your arms.Keep rotating. Then bring your forearms back together in front of your waist. You can add weights as you grow stronger.
Mid and upper back:
Sit on a chair. Bend your arms, pulling them in toward your body. Bring your elbows as far back as possible until they are pointing behind you. Add weights as you can.
Legs and hips:
Sit with your feet flat on the floor. Lift one leg slightly off the floor, then straighten. Then bend and lower to the floor. Repeat 6-10 times for each leg. Begin by just using your body weight. As your strength increases, you can add ankle weights.
Exercise away from the office
Many office workers in particular, consider running and cycling as a good way to work off the stiffness and stresses of the office. However these are not the best exercises once you have osteoporosis. Rather look at moderate exercise that includes low-impact aerobics, as well as power and strength training. This is not going to cure the condition but you will find that your daily movements will be easier, your energy higher and the aches and pains of daily sitting will improve.
- Repetition increases flexibility and builds endurance, and strengthens the specific muscles needed to support the spine. Should include: low-impact aerobic exercises, such as swimming, dancing, yoga, Tai Chi, and walking – all of which strengthen muscles in the abdomen and back without over-straining the back.
- Weight-bearing exercise (the best ‘against gravity’ exercise there is) is very beneficial for bones in people of all ages, but should be undertaken with care if bones are already fragile. It creates tension between muscle and bone, and the body responds to this stress by increasing bone density, resulting in a denser and stronger overall structure. Using your own weight to work against gravity is easiest – low-level aerobics and simply walking, are good for improving bone density and mobility.
- Gyms and wellbeing should be part of the benefits offered by all medium to large companies. If you don’t have access to that on site, then make sure you exercise after working hours and follow an osteoporosis-friendly diet. Every day there are more supplements out there to choose from; some products may be better than others – you will need to examine and investigate.
Love your bones! Do the best for them, no matter their condition. You’re not going anywhere without them.
NOFSA (National Osteoporosis Foundation South Africa)
NOFSA is the only non-profit, voluntary health organisation dedicated to promoting lifelong bone health. We focus on reducing the widespread prevalence of osteoporosis while working to find a cure for the disease, and by supporting research and developing programmes of education and advocacy.
Find out more about our work at: www.osteoporosis.org.za