Ergo Break: For those who stand or walk a lot

Ergonomics March 1, 2022

Take and Ergo Break with Dr. Bob Niklewicz PT, DHSc, CEAS II “The Ergo Whisperer”

I will make this disclaimer up front as to my comments below: You can do what exercises you wish in your work situation. — The exercises below are based on my experiences and the anatomy/physiology of the working body that I have observed. –They should not hurt to do them. STOP if they do.  –If you have special needs and have seen or worked one on one with other health care professionals for your pain, dysfunction or exercise, I will defer to that personal interaction and problem-solving recommendations made for you.” 

In a previous Newsletter I posted about “What exercises should I do during the Ergo Break?” That edition was focused on those who sit at a desk or workstation/bench. This does not mean they are exclusively for the sitting worker.  ANYONE can and should do them to promote good muscular system health. However, in order not to leave out the other vast number of workers who do not sit to do their jobs, I am adding the following exercises for those who stand and/or walk to do their work. There are literally hundreds of exercises that could be done, these are just a few that I like and would recommend for the general population of workers.

For those standing workers, I say the following with NO INTENTION to sound flip or having anyone producing the “DUH” sound.  Simply put, the first exercise is to SIT DOWN. In my view the muscles of the: Eyes, Neck, Shoulders, and Deep Breathing get priority over the: Trunk, Low Back, Legs and Feet. These muscles of the upper body are not as massive as the ones in the lower half of the body. They may fatigue faster than the lower half of the body. The same upper-body exercises will well serve the non-sitting workers too. They should be done in addition to the lower body protocol not, instead of them.  As you would check all the major systems in your car for its longevity when you have your oil changed, good maintenance of your body’s systems will serve you well in the long run.

The ergo break for the larger muscles of the lower body need some extra stretching. The low back and lower extremities generally work in relatively shorter ranges of motion if work tasks are done correctly.  e.g. lifting with your legs and not just bending down from the waist to pick up a box; lifting a box from shoulder level and lowering it down to a raised pallet or vis-a-versa.

Side note: I worked my way through high school and college in the grocery business doing pretty much every job that needed to be done. Everything from cleaning parking lots and bathrooms to moving freight, closing the store and closing out the registers. The most common factors in all the jobs were: 1) I worked crazy long hours and I was on my feet most of the time.  2) Since break time only came every two or three hours, I could not wait to sit and put my feet up. 

Standing feels great when your job is primarily sitting. However, I can tell you that nothing feels better after prolonged standing than letting the blood drain back to your hips. Specially, by putting your heels up on a case of toilet paper while reclining on a pallet of 50 lb. sacks of dog food.  – It is Heaven.

The older guys would go out for a smoke while us young ones went for the damaged cookie packages. What we did not do consciously, was stretch.  Some of us “jocks” had our own “get back to work” stretches but nothing specific. If it felt good, we did it. in our youth we were bullet proof.

Today, I have a better understanding of what I did to my body at work and what I should have done to have kept that “Greek God Physique” I (mistakenly) imagined I had. Moreover, I know why I eventually hurt my back and (to my good fortune) needed to change careers to one I have enjoyed now for over four decades. Having Ergonomics awareness and balancing work activities with stretching is the key. It is never too late in life to learn to do it.

Review of the Basics:

You have 209 bones. Where two bones meet is called a Joint. There are over 600 muscles crossing these joints. They do work by ONLY PULLING or shortening, they never push.    When muscles are static and tight, they have REDUCED circulation causing fatigue and will get a little stiff. This MAY cause damage to the muscle tissue itself from reduced circulation and strain to the tight muscles. Therefore, we NEED to relax the tissue and increase circulation. That is accomplished by changing positions plus rest. This is where Ergo Breaks come in.

In the Office Work environment exercise newsletter, I stressed the importance of balancing the trunk to a neutral position and posture. The sitting worker tends to lean forwards towards their Keyboard and VDT/Monitor. Thus, losing the back support of the chair and fatiguing the back muscles that are static. While at the same time, the shoulders and neck muscles are tightening. In that type of work environment standing to stretch is mandatory!

However, in the standing work environment, you will often find the need to lean forwards to pickup/ handle items or do tasks. Much of the time your head is bent forwards and down. In addition, you may be reaching and twisting out to the sides, bending to the floor and then moving back up to above shoulder.       

These types of tasks involve large or small Arcs of Motion that can be self-limiting on the task and workstation set up. (Easy to reach items vs. long reach with a twisting motion).  Sadly, many jobs require static standing with your head down and hands working up on a table for long periods. Your torso/trunk is leaning forwards (much like the office person bending over a desk) while standing static. The worker must realize that they are: reaching, grasping, pulling, pushing without moving their feet or only moving occasionally. This often occurs when using saws, hammers, or power tools. It may seem confusing but it helps to focus on specific areas one at a time.  

Take an Ergo Break! These are great for those who Stand frequently or constantly.

 Start with sitting down. Just getting off your feet to unload your legs will help restore circulation. (Think: you are avoiding Varicose veins, if you need a motivator). Below are examples of ways to achieve some relief after standing for a long period of time. You do not have to do exactly what is shown, but these are suggestions and a starting point for you to consider when you decide to take your Ergo Break.

Diagrams 1-4 are good options for resting and unloading your legs.  The ideal situation is getting your feet higher than your hips for a while. Granted this may not be easy in many situations but the goal for YOUR body is to Keep It Healthy.

Ergo Break

Dia. 1: Just sit down.  Dia. 2: Add some back and neck extension with your legs out straight. Dia. 3: Getting your feet above your hips with your back supported.  Dia. 4: Feet up and you are chilling out. These should be done for at least 5 minutes to help drain the legs of extra fluid.

To enhance the benefit to the hips and trunk while reclining, adding a slight twisting movement may feel good and be relaxing. Dia. 5 below.

Alternate Break

KEY CONCEPT:  The goal of the Ergo Breaks is to help RELAX the muscles to allow circulation by first unloading and relaxing the muscles that were in a static overstretched posture.

Next is the “W” exercise, also called, “Shoulder Retraction” Dia. 6. This exercise will stretch the muscles in the front of the shoulders and the chest wall. This also strengthens the shoulder muscles of the back and shoulder blades. The blue arrows show the “W”.

W Stretch

In Dia. 6 the Arms are turned upwards while the shoulder blades are pinched together. The Brown area is being squeezed together then relaxed. In Physical Therapy there is a concept that a maximum contraction helps give maximum relaxation when released. To really get the best of this exercise take a DEEP breath in through your nose for 5 as you start pinching your shoulder blades together. Hold for 3-5 seconds and blow out through pursed lips for 5-7 seconds as you drop your arms down. Repeat 3-5 times. Try this same breathing technique with ALL of the exercises in this BLOG.

Back Stretch Ergo Break

Dia. 7 is the “Back Bend” or “Gee” (Gee, that feels good) exercise. The hands go onto the top of your hip bones in the low back area. Lean back over your hands to the point of feeling a stretch to the abdominals, front of the chest and neck muscles. Hold 3-5 seconds repeat 5 times.

Next while standing, add a slight twisting motion to either side of the trunk. Dia. 8.   Remember it should not hurt to do any of these exercises. It is a gentle CONTROLLED motion to the left and right similar to the motion done above in Dia. 5, only standing.

Spinal Twist

Dia. 9 shows a side bending motion for the sides of your trunk. This movement and stretch should feel good as you move slowly from side to side.  

Side Bend

Below Dia. 10 is done to help stretch the hip and groin muscles.  Step/Lunge forwards slowly.  Dia. 10 shows this forward Lunge. Perform this stretch to both sides, alternately changing legs in the front. Reaching overhead at the same time, is a plus.


Dia. 11 above is the same basic idea except you will be going sideways. This focuses on the hip and groin muscles and should be done slowly and held for 3-5 seconds each time, 3-5 repetitions. This exercise will also stimulate circulation for the pelvic muscles.

Lastly, let us add a stretch for the ankles/calf muscles. This can be done as shown in Diagrams 12 & 13.

Calf Stretch Ergo Break

Lean against a wall with your back leg straight and hold for 5-10 seconds stretching the large calf muscle. Do 3 to 5 reps.

Dia. 13 is performed with the back knee bent. This position gives a great stretch to the deeper calf muscle. Also hold for 5-10 seconds and do 3 to 5 repetitions.

What has been presented in this Newsletter, are just a SMALL sampling of the possible exercises, positions and routines that are available for the legs, with a specific focus on people who STAND or WALK a lot.

What I have provided is just ONE possible routine for the standing worker.  If you know a different combination or positions, include them as well. Remember there are over 600 muscles in the body. Doing some type of exercise (even walking) will be a benefit to them and therefore to YOU.

Remember it is YOUR body. Use it correctly or you can Lose it.

Thank you for your interest in the Back School’s Newsletter and Blogs. Check out our website and library. Use The Back School as your Ergonomics resource anytime you are seeking information on Ergonomics issues.

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