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The Physical and Cognitive Connection to Ergonomics

By: Kibibi Springs, Ph.D., FitWel, CEAS I Workplace Well-being Advisor, MillerKnoll

Decades of research establish that the spine is the center of our musculoskeletal system and the central communication system between our bodies and our brain.

The mind-body connection is enhanced when we practice good spinal health, including protecting the nerve roots in our spinal cord, absorbing stress from movement, maintaining flexibility, and preserving muscle strength.

While much focus is placed on managing the physical symptoms of back pain and spinal health from a physical ergonomics point of view, as outlined in the previous section, there are significant benefits to understanding the positive cognitive outcomes we receive when managing our spinal health.

The Construction of the Spine

For context, let’s start with a brief and rudimentary review of the marvelous construction of the spine.

  • The 26 bones in the spine, divided between the cervical, thoracic, lumbar, sacrum, and coccyx, surround and protect the spinal cord with discs between each vertebra.

  • The spinal cord divides into spinal nerves at the lumbar region that exit at the sacrum.

  • Ten of the twelve nerves that control our body functions and five senses (smell, sight, sound, taste, and touch) start in the brain.

  • With the anatomical connections between the brain and the spine, their performance together forms our central nervous system which sends electrical signals to and from the brain and the spinal cord.

These signals control our breathing, heart rate, food digestion, body temperature, and blood pressure. They are commonly experienced during periods of stress as low oxygen breathing, and a lack of or spike in appetite, to name a few

From a physical and cognitive ergonomic perspective, the following best practices are worth consideration:

  • Invest in a good mattress: Quality rest is essential to our physical and mental well-being. As such, special consideration should be given to how our mattress supports our spine and our sleep. Firmness and temperature affect the body’s ability to get comfortable and into a state for rest.

  • Form sit-to-stand habits: Daily sit-to-stand habits facilitate the muscle expression our bodies need throughout the day. They also help elevate the combination of natural chemicals produced from a movement that supports happier moods while delivering good oxygen flow to keep the brain processing complex projects.

  • Practice upright ergonomic postures: According to a San Francisco State University study, practicing upright ergonomic postures can help our confidence during challenging and complex tasks and make them feel effortless. Allowing for poor postures where the front of the body curls in on itself reduces the capacity of oxygen to flow to the lungs, where they get compressed in these postures. Thus opening up the body can help with the ability to focus and optimally operate our brainpower.

  • Restore muscles, practice self-care: Our spine thrives when we give it regular self-care in the form of rest and recovery, massage, and self-care services that restore muscles, relieve tension, and improve circulation.

  • Breathe better: Adopting a routine that focuses on breathing can optimize the benefits to our minds and bodies. Meditation, breathing techniques, and various yoga and tai chi methods that use strategic breathing processes can increase the production of endorphins, the "feel-good" hormones in the body. When the body relaxes, blood flow increases to muscular areas that have been under tension, reducing pain. A rotation of massage, infrared, and cryo therapies can be integrated into self-care routines to manage relaxation and pain management for greater emotional self-regulation, self-awareness, self-confidence, and increased concentration benefits.

Rest, sit-to-stand habits, mindfulness, and rest and recovery practices offer many ways to implement self-care for the spine into our wellness routines that make us feel and think at the highest levels. With this much information processing happening in the spine, a holistic approach applied to spinal care can offer a combination of optimal physical and mental benefits.

Check out INDEAL Cares’ Living Well at Work Guide: Spine Health at Work for tips and tools that you can use to support spine health at work. This resource includes ergonomic guidelines for sitting and standing at a desk, ways to incorporate movement at work, and considerations for spine health in your overall wellness strategy. For additional details, or to learn more, contact Stefanie Ince, Executive Director, INDEAL Cares.



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