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On Your Feet All Day?

Use these 4 strategies to build strength and reduce pain.

When you’re on your feet all day, it’s not uncommon to experience pain, strain and muscle weakness. Your back aches, your dogs are barking and all you want to do is sit down! Before you take a load off, it’s important to realize that these symptoms are telling you that your body is weak and off balance. But there is some good news: Experts say with a little common sense, proper alignment and muscle toning, you can train your body to stand all day—without pain. To get started, try these 4 strategies:

1. Choose proper footwear. High heels, flip-flops, strappy sandals and even unsupportive flats (think ballet slippers) wreak havoc on the body. When you wear shoes that force you to transfer weight toward the toe and away from the heel (like pumps and high heels), your gait dramatically shifts. Similarly, if you wear shoes with only of a thin strap of plastic, you alter the way you walk, shortening your stride and scrunching your toes, which increases the angle of the ankle. “Your best bet is to choose comfortable footwear that supports your feet,” says Karen Jacobs, Ed.D., OTR/L, program director of Distance Education Post-Professional Occupational Therapy Programs and clinical professor at Boston University College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. For added comfort, Jacob recommends wearing insoles to provide extra cushioning.

2. Stand tall. Watch most educators stand and you’ll see why so many of them suffer from pain in the neck, back and shoulders. Poor posture runs rampant in our culture, particularly an imbalance known as “forward head,” where your head extends from beyond your shoulders. Unfortunately, when you have a forward center of mass, pressure increases on the arch of the foot and the muscles that support it causing them to work harder and eventually strain. To correct this default position, focus on keeping your ears over shoulders and shoulders over hips. “If you can envision a little string that travels through your midline, that’s good posture,” says Jacobs. Another tip: During your off time, flex your feet toward your shins to strengthen the muscles in front of the lower leg. That helps support the arch of the foot.

3. Move around. “Look at yourself as an athlete,” suggests Jacobs. “Before you start your work day, do some stretching and, at the end of the day, cool down (with more stretching).” You can even walk to work to get your muscles warmed up, or consider incorporating activities that require movement into the classroom. Build in a stretching or moving break every 20-30 minutes, for example. “That will really help reduce fatigue for both you and your students,” she says, “and it instills good habits at the same time.” During your off hours, build exercise into your daily routine, especially stretching activities like yoga.

4. Build strength. The human head weighs 10-15 pounds—about the same as a bowling ball. Imagine holding a bowling ball in front of you all day and you’ll get a sense of what happens with poor posture. To support this weight, you need to build strength in your abdominals, glutes, hamstrings and hip flexors. Building muscle increases your functional capacity. “Since most people stand slightly hunched forward, their skeletons are not in a position to support them so their muscles have to kick in,” says Mitchell Yass, Doctor of Physical Therapy and owner of P2Therapy in Farmingdale, New York. “Ultimately you have to strengthen the muscles that help you stand upright.” The result: less strain and less pain. Yass recommends performing the following 2 exercises, twice a week for 15 minutes to strengthen your target muscles—and thus minimize the toll standing takes on the body.

  • Deadlifts: Deadlifts work both your glutes and hamstrings. Stand up and make a fist like you’re holding a dumbbell. Your palms should be facing your thighs. Unlock your knees, keep your back straight, and slide your hands down your thighs until they reach half-way down your shins (make sure to keep the weight in your heels so you’re not leaning forward). When you feel a tightness in the back of your thigh, you’ve exhausted full range of motion. Return to standing and repeat. As you get stronger, do the exercise with dumbbells, gradually increasing the weight as you improve. Do 3 sets of 10 repetitions, resting for 2 minutes between sets.
  • Side-lying Hip Abduction: Lie down on your side and bend the leg that you’re lying on. Straighten your top leg so it lines up with your torso. Then raise your leg up until it’s parallel to the ground or hip height (never go above hip height). As you get stronger with this exercise, add a cuff weight around your ankles. Try 3 sets of 10 repetitions, resting for 2 minutes between sets.

Keep in mind that schools are mandated to have occupational practitioners available to teachers. “They’re in every school throughout the United States,” says Jacobs. “So you don’t have to do this alone. Occupational therapy practitioners will come to your teachers’ meetings and they’ll give you strategies for things you can do both inside and outside the classroom.” So what are you waiting for? It’s time to get through your day without pain!

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