Chefs BEWARE! If you are just starting cooking school, or if you’re at home and have finally come around to that plant based diet using fresh produce, you are probably making a very important discovery. It means A LOT of chopping! And ask any more experienced chef (professional or Grandma) and they will tell you that can also mean PAIN. Seemingly endless standing, chopping, lifting, stirring etc. can take all the fun out of this healthy, great tasting lifestyle and send you right into my PT office. Neck pain, back pain, headache, elbow pain, carpal tunnel and multiple varieties of tendonitis can be common kitchen complaints. But wait, wait! Don’t quit! The health benefits are well worth it and you can avoid the pain. Follow these tips and exercises regularly to eat all that great tasting food and reap the health for years to come.
First: Do your best to set aside enough time to enjoy the process and savor (pun intended) the moment. Cooking should be fun and enjoyable as you make delicious meals to nourish your family. It should not be just another rushed activity on your “to do” list that causes you stress.
Second: Use the proper tools. You wouldn’t use a screwdriver as a hammer (hopefully) and you shouldn’t use a paring knife for chopping. Not only will using the proper tools decrease the chance of repetitive strains, but it will also reduce the possibility of accidents. For those of you who are completely new to the kitchen, there are a lot of very dangerous things going on in there! Fire, boiling water and a multitude of very sharp implements are just a few of the dangers that await an unsuspecting “new-bie” in the kitchen.
Third: Be attentive to your posture. Standing and working at a counter can strain your postural muscles to the point of causing chronic neck pain, back pain and headaches. Countertops are standard size for average height cooks. If you are taller or shorter you should have another surface to do most of the food prep such as a butcher block table or some other solid surface that will comfortably fit you. You can also try opening a lower cabinet and put your foot on the ledge to help you straighten up. A small foot stool can also be beneficial.
Try these postural exercises to stretch and strengthen these tight/weak muscles. This will prepare you for many years of strain during food prep.
1. Axial extension (chin tuck): standing looking straight ahead, pull your head straight back over your shoulders not looking up or down. Your chin will tuck slightly backward. Hold this straight 3 seconds and repeat 10 times. (Note: this movement is very small; don’t try to overdo it.)
2. Pelvic neutral - abdominal stabilization: lie on the floor face up with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Tighten your abdominals creating a slight flattening of your back toward the floor as your ribs pull slightly toward your pubic bone. (Exactly the contraction that would happen if you did a curl sit-up but without your head coming off the floor.) Hold the contraction for 3 seconds, then relax. Repeat 10-20 times.
3.Scapular neutral stabilization: standing in good posture (head over shoulders),
hold your elbows close to your body, bent at a 90 degree angle. Your hands will
be in front of you, palms facing the ceiling (or the sky, depending on where you are.) Now rotate your hands away from each other like you’re sliding them on an imaginary table (keeping your elbows at your side.) You should then feel your shoulder blades gently approximating each other. Return to starting position and repeat 10-20 times.
Fourth: Improve your flexibility/dexterity by releasing muscle tension and fascial restrictions. There are a couple of different types of exercises that will help. To stretch the muscles and tendons of the forearms/hands/fingers you will use a somewhat firm pull and hold for 30-60 seconds. These exercises include:
1. Hold your right arm out in front of you with your elbow straight and your palm facing down. Place your left hand on top of your right, and passively flex the wrist downward to approximately 90 degrees. Hold for 30 seconds. You will feel the stretch along the outside of the forearm from the wrist to the elbow. Switch hands and repeat for left forearm. Alternate each are 3 times for 30 seconds.
2. Now to stretch the inside of your forearm, hold your right arm out in front of you with a straight elbow and palm facing up. Place your left hand on the fingers of the right hand and pull them towards the floor, flexing at the wrist. You should feel the stretch along the inside of the forearm from the wrist to the elbow. Hold 30 seconds, then switch arms. Alternate arms, repeating three times for 30 seconds each.
The second way to increase flexibility is to release tension in the myofascial tissues. This is very often not addressed, but is just as important as the stretches shown above. Fascia is the connective tissue that surrounds all the nerves and blood vessels as well as the muscles, tendons and bones. These exercises are very gentle, and not held as long as the others. If you can master this “stretch point” release technique you will achieve the best results. These are very different exercises and require a much more moderate touch. You must be relaxed and stay focused. The “stretch point” will fee like a tiny stretch or a light aching in the deeper muscles. As you hold the light stretch for 10-15 seconds, the sensation will disappear completely, indicating that you have achieved the release and can move on to the next exercise.
1. While standing, clasp your hands behind your back with shoulders down and relaxed. Slowly pull your hands toward the left while simultaneously tilting your head to the left (ear towards shoulder.) Move slowly and breathe deeply until you feel the stretch point on the right side of your neck and shoulder. Wait 10-15 seconds for the release, then repeat to the opposite side.
2. Clasp hands together in front of your nose with elbows bent and forearms together. If you feel a stretch point here, wait 10-15 seconds until it releases. Then, keeping your elbows together, move your hands towards the ceiling until you feel another stretch point. Wait 10-15 seconds. There may be multiple stretch points as your raise your hands higher.
3. Interlace your fingers and turn your hands outward, pushing your palms away from your chest. Straighten your elbows, and wait here for the release of the first stretch point. Then, begin to raise your palms towards the ceiling, being careful not to arch your back. Push your palms gently up towards the ceiling, again wait 10-15 seconds for the release. From here, bring your arms back down to where you started, keeping your fingers interlaced and your elbows straight. Create a gentle twist by raising the left wrist, and let the stretch point release. Return to neutral, and repeat by raising the right wrist and releasing.
4. Standing in a doorway, place your hands and forearms on the door jam (right are at 10 o’clock, left arm and 2 o’clock.) Gently lean forward unti you feel the stretch point in your chest. Don’t push hard, and do NOT arch your back. Take a deep breath, then exhale to encourage the release. Hold 10-15 seconds.
5. Sitting with your right forearm resting on the table palm-down in front of you (do not lean any weight on the arm) and keeping your fingers relaxed, use your left hand to gently lift your middle and ring fingers off the table together until you feel the first stretch point. Hold 10-15 seconds until you feel it release.
If you prepare your body with the same loving attention with which you prepare your food, you will be able to cook more easily and with less risk of repetitive injury in the years to come. And if you are happier, and having fun/feeling good while you are cooking, all that positive energy will compliment your fabulous dishes even more. Remember, when you feel good the food tastes better!