By SANDY CLARKE
When it comes to professional growth, we often hear talks about stretching our minds – but did you know that stretching our bodies can help improve our performance in the workplace?
Here in Malaysia, a staggering 80 per cent of people suffer from backache at some point in their lives, with lower back pain being second only to the common cold in causing absence from work.
As many of us spend several hours each day sat at our desks, or at the wheel driving to work, over time we become fatigued and stressed as the pressure on our backs and legs takes its toll.
Thanks to our sedentary lives, our muscles become stiff and knotted, which results in poor blood circulation, affecting not just our physical health, but our mental well-being too.
If you’re familiar with spending hours hunched over a keyboard or craning your neck as you look down at your phone, chances are you will have experienced some level of muscular pain.
Unfortunately, the longer we spend being inactive and in poor posture, the more trouble it will cause for us in time, and the problem becomes increasingly difficult to reverse.
Over the past few months, I’ve been attending massage sessions with a veteran physical therapist, Tony Ng, who’s based at the My-Life Centre in Petaling Jaya. Aside from ironing out my knots, Tony keeps reminding me of the importance of stretching daily – particularly the lower half of the body, where much of our daily stresses accumulates.
Tony – who has over 20 years’ experience as a therapist – told me, “A lot of people come to me and say that they have back pain that’s just come overnight – but that’s not the case. It takes time for such pain to accumulate in the body, and it’s because we don’t stretch or move around enough.
The research echoes Tony’s concerns. A 2017 survey by RAND Europe found that Malaysia’s workforce is ‘generally unhealthy’, with 64 per cent being physically inactive, and 53 per cent experiencing work-related stress. On average, organisations here lose 67 days per employee per year due to health-related absenteeism or presenteeism. In terms of cost, that works out at just under RM3 million per employer.
While any number of factors can contribute to poor health-related work issues, lower back and leg pain is prevalent in Malaysia. The human body isn’t designed to remain seated or static for long periods of time, and concerns are growing that an inactive lifestyle could give rise to silent-yet-significant health problems that could cost individuals and organisations dearly.
Harvard psychiatry professor Dr. John Ratey has pointed to a lack of exercise and activity as being a contributing factor to fatigue, stress, loss of focus, and decreased cognitive functioning. Interestingly, when we become more active, the brain becomes supercharged and we begin to notice several improvements to our physical and mental health.
For example, one study pointed to the benefits of a 10-minute stretching activity among assembly-line workers, showing ‘significant improvement in joint flexibility, fatigue, anger, depression, and overall mood’.
Another study, with 80 executives, showed that exercisers experienced ‘a 22 per cent increase in fitness and a 70 per cent improvement in their ability to make complex decisions as compared to sedentary peers’.
Of course, we all lead busy lives, and many of us feel there’s simply no time to spend stretching our bodies while the morning emails roll in. But, according to Tony Ng, a 10-minute daily stretching session is a good start to help get the blood flowing and the brain pumping.
“Our muscles are mostly in a state of contraction – we don’t give so much attention to stretching them. What happens is, you spend one day at the computer, the stress builds up, you don’t relieve it, and then it continues like that until you find yourself with a problem.
“Stretches such as bending forward to touch your toes, or lying on the floor with one leg straight while pulling the opposite knee up to your chest can help with lower back pain and improve circulation.
“Most people neglect to stretch their bodies, and that’s why they end up in trouble and have to come and see someone like me. Stretching is very important. You need to keep the body flexible, otherwise, you’ll end up with all sorts of problems.”
As the saying goes: healthy body, healthy mind. With the focus very much on mental health these days, it’s easy to forget about our physical well-being.
Our physical state affects our mental health and vice-versa, and we owe it to ourselves to make sure we attend to both. It’s easy to take our health for granted but, when we treat it well, it pays us back dividends, from a boost in job performance to an increase in positive mood, energy levels, and longevity.
Sandy is a freelance writer based in Malaysia, and previously enjoyed 10 years as a journalist and broadcaster in the UK. He has been fortunate to gain valuable insights into what makes us tick, which has deepened his interests in leadership, emotions, mindfulness, and human behaviour.