Ergonomics - A Lateral View

by Michael Stenning

Why do we suffer aches, pains, injuries and stress despite the most up-to-date, expensive "ergonomic" furniture?

The problems we deal with daily in staying comfortable and therefore productive, are not new. They have, however, been highlighted and intensified by the advent of computer technology. Computers are, of course, here to stay:. Ergonomic considerations, eg furniture, heights, angles, etc. have a bearing and it is important to get these easily adjustable external elements correctly organised.

However, these external considerations clearly do not answer everybody's needs. After all, we all already know about the desirability of good posture, relaxation, and the absence of tension.

Rather than looking at the problem from the outside, in terms of "good chairs", the "right position", or the "correct way to lift", what about considering the more fundamental internal aspects of how we organise our balance and co-ordination? These are the things which influence how comfortable we stay, how tired we get, how alert or mentally "sharp" we are and how prone to injury or stress we become. They are also the elements over which we can learn to have a direct and instant personal control. Here is what FM Alexander said in 1910 (!):

"...I am continually being asked, both by friends and unknown correspondents, for my opinion concerning the correct type of chair, stool, desk, or table to be used in order to prevent the bad habits which these pieces of furniture are supposed to have caused .... In my replies I have tried to demonstrate that the problem is being attacked from the wrong standpoint.

"Let us consider the problem in the light of common sense. Suppose, for example, that there is an ideal chair, some wonderful arrangement of perfect angles, hollows, and supports that will almost magically rectify or prevent every fault in [a person's] physical mechanism. Suppose further that the [person] finds great ease and repose when seated in this ideal chair. How, then, can he avoid suffering the tortures of all that is uncomfortable when he rides in the cars, or sits down in his own home, or visits a friend, or goes for a picnic on the river or in the woods? I see nothing else for it; when that ideal chair has been found, our[person] will have to carry if about with him wherever he goes.

"In the second place, how is it possible for this ideal chair to be miraculously adaptable to every age and type of [person]? Are we to treat [people] as plastic lumps of clay to be fitted to the model insisted upon by the lines of our ideal chair...?

"No, what we need to do is not to educate our .... furniture, but to educate ....[people]. Give a [person] the ability to adapt himself within reasonable limits to his environment, and he will not suffer discomfort, nor develop bad physical habits, whatever chair or form you give him to sit upon. I say, "within reasonable limits," for it is obviously absurd to expect a Brobdingnagian [person] to use a Lilliputian chair. But let us waste no valuable time, thought, or invention in designing furniture, when by a smaller expenditure of those three gifts we may train [a person] to win [his] own conscious control, and rise superior to any probable limitations imposed by ordinary .... fittings."

FM Alexander's observations, made over a century ago, on how we respond to stressful situations, have stood the test of time. He identified the basic patterns of good "Use of the Self"; that is, how to optimise performance and minimise the risk of suffering a range of musculo-skeletal injuries. Alexander has left us a simple method for self-maintenance, which anybody can learn to use.

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Michael Stenning, a Canberra (Australia)-based teacher of the Alexander Technique, has 17 years' experience helping people to overcome back pain and other debilitating conditions by reducing and eliminating strain from daily activity.

In addition to teaching the Alexander Technique to individuals, Michael consults widely to Commonwealth and ACT Government Departments and many other organisations with large numbers of people in desk jobs, and is a popular conference presenter.

Michael designed the Stenning Active-Balance Pelvic Support Office Chair and has produced Practising Poise with the Alexander Technique - An audio-cassette to help learn to stay centred and stress-free in an increasingly demanding world.

He is a qualified member of the Australian Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique, AuSTAT and he recently completed a pilot study into the effects of Alexander Technique training on the performance of elite athletes with the ACT Academy of Sport. Click here to visit Michael's Web Site

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M Stenning