New year, new professional fitness

Dental hygienists: Ready to eliminate occupational pain? Dr. Walker has these exercises specially for you.

Content Dam Rdh Print Articles Volume 39 Issue 1 1901rdhwal 360x200

We’ve all heard it. It’s the most popular cliché this time of year: “New year, new me.” But as we think about next year, we have to look back to last year. Many of us probably had disappointing ends to last year’s resolutions—especially those pertaining to wellness and health. (There are years that I sure have!) But there’s no need to give up. There’s no reason to walk away in defeat. It’s time to get what you want in terms of fitness! In this three-part series, I want to give you the tools and state of mind to get there.

1901rdhwal P01

My story

I’m no stranger to pain, and I’m no stranger to body transformation. At one time, I was a dental professional who was unhappy with my fitness. I struggled mightily with musculoskeletal pain. Look at my before-and-after photos. The photo on the left is from 2004. I’m a dental student who is struggling and in pain. But the photo on the right is me now. It shows me years out from dental school. I’m out of pain and back in shape.

As someone who’s been down this unpleasant road, I know what it takes to persevere and get what you want. I also know that no New Year’s resolution will get you the progress you desire just because the calendar year turns over. What will get you there are two things: First, it requires a decision to change. Second, it takes steady, consistent work toward your goal. That’s how it happened for me. I got completely fed up with the state of my body, and I took action to change it. What I learned, I will share.

In 2004, I was in dental school. My fitness had plummeted to an all-time low. My problems began innocently as “a twinge.” It happened when I did a slight twist to pick up a handpiece. Then, the pain started to radiate down my back. As days passed, a feeling that was bothersome became unbearable. It hurt to turn my head. It hurt to sit down. It hurt to study. It hurt to see my patients. Yet, I saw no reason to modify my daily clinical routine or fitness plan.

1901rdh 30

As a dental student, I struggled even to run (left). Now I’m out of pain and back in shape (right).

After about three weeks, I paid the price. One day in clinic, during a practical exam, a paralyzing pain that felt like a knife in my back took over. I broke down in tears. I was ready to walk out on dentistry right then and there—before I’d barely even gotten started.

The “twinge” transformed into chronic pain. It led me in and out of doctors’ offices, to physical therapy visits, and to wearing a back brace 24/7.

If you’ve ever experienced something like this, you know that there is nothing that can transform your body and mind like pain when its claws sink in. From how you carry yourself, to your confidence, to your expressions of emotion, pain sucks the inner and outer beauty from you.

Overcoming pain

Many of us are eager to jump onto cardio machines at the gym, join fitness challenges at work, or try workout routines on a new app. That may all be great, but we can’t neglect what our bodies are telling us. Discomfort or pain is one of the biggest things that will put the brakes on your fitness transformation.

But pain can be overcome. Defeating discomfort is possible. I did it. I’m approaching 40, and I practice dentistry full-time. I’m in the best shape of my life. That same outcome is possible for you too.

Investing in the process

Along the way, I had plenty of hits and misses. There were wins and losses. There were times I failed. The change was a process. That is worth repeating—the change was a process. If you’re wanting a resolution and a quick metamorphosis, that is not the answer. I’m here to share with you my process. My process of change can help you with your process for 2019.

Here are some lessons I learned along the way and what I consider foundational truths when it comes to the process of defeating pain and being able to reach your fitness goals:

• It’s not all about ergonomics.

• It’s not all about how we hold our bodies while we are doing dentistry.

• It is all about our environment and how we move through it. It’s how we use our environment to shape us, harm us, or help us.

Most of us work approximately 40 hours per week. What about the other 128 hours? The process of transformation requires us to examine how we use all our time. What are we doing with our bodies throughout the day? What about the spaces and gaps in between our patient care? What are we choosing to move and not move? How are we choosing to move? I would like you to reflect on these questions as we dive into the sources of this problem.

1901rdhwal P04

Here I am in 2014, scaling the wall of my office.

Key principles

When I applied the building blocks of basic science to my pain problem, it made sense. When I was able to break my body down like a mechanic breaks down the movements of a car—that is, simple biomechanics—I was able to learn a system that helped fix my body.

Here are the key principles. (Yes, I know we all learned about these in school, but if you’re like me, a reminder is helpful!) You have three substances constantly flowing throughout your body:

• Electricity—This is used for communication between our brains and our bodies. This flows through our nervous systems.

• Blood—This carries nutritious oxygen, which is what our bodies’ cells “eat.” This is what flows through our cardiovascular systems.

• Lymph—This is what removes cellular waste. This is what flows through our immune systems.

Electricity flows through the spinal cord and nerves. Blood flows through the heart, arteries, and capillaries. Lymph flows through the lymphatic system. What do all of these have in common? They all require muscle usage in order to stay healthy. Repeat after me: Muscle. Muscle. Muscle.

Muscle usage is required for the nervous, cardiovascular, and immune systems to communicate, feed our cells, and remove waste. It’s critical to remember that muscle movement is the way we keep our tissues alive. If we haven’t been moving all of our muscles, then we’ve probably had problems with pain and injuries. We’re hurting, out of shape, and aging fast. No wonder!

Taking it back to dentistry and hygiene: What muscles do we use over and over again, in the same position, in the same motion? Those in our necks, backs, shoulders, arms, and hands. And what areas get limited electricity, nutrition, and waste removal? Those muscles in our necks, backs, shoulders, arms, and hands that aren’t being used.

Movement challenge No. 1

Here’s a little movement challenge you can do right now to wake up those stagnant areas. Experiment with this movement: Use your imagination and pretend that your upper body is surrounded by a globe. Now, reach your arms up over your head and touch the top of the globe. Now, reach down and touch the bottom of the globe. Next, reach your hands out as wide as you can to touch the sides of the globe. Now use your fingers to “paint” as much of the inner surface of the globe as you can (figure 1 and video).

1901rdh 31

Figure 1: Painting the globe

The more you do this, the easier it will become. There will be more of the globe that you’ll be able to touch. Yes, there is a big part of the globe that’s not “paintable” yet, but you can improve what’s possible by practicing this.

Congratulations! (If you did the experiment.) You’ve just introduced your shoulders to their full ranges of motion. As a hygienist, how often does your body experience this throughout the day? For most of us, our hands spend their time out in front of us, whether it’s holding dental instruments, texting on cell phones, or typing on keyboards. We literally live our lives in this position. It’s no shocker that our soft tissues have frozen parts, and it’s no shocker that we have limited ranges of motion of the neck, arms, shoulders, and hands!

Next steps

Just moving our muscles (such as the “globe dance” we just did) is not the complete story for moving ourselves out of pain. As we know from studying dentistry, our bodies are tremendously complex. Going back to the analogy of the mechanic, there is a way to operate our bodies to get them to last the longest and keep us feeling great. This requires us to hold our body parts in alignment when we move, and it requires that we move more often throughout the day. Also, in repairing our bodies, there is a two-part process of moving our bodies correctly and stopping the habits that are causing the damage. I’ll be diving more into body alignment in the next segment of our body transformation series in March.

As I come to a close, here is your nutritious movement homework to really get you moving. These are exercises designed to get those dormant muscles moving and nutrition (blood and oxygen) to those areas that we tend to starve. These movements require no equipment and should be done during the dental workday. (Yes, these movements are always done as a part of our morning huddle!)

Go get after it! Let this article guide you in the new year and the evolution of the new you—the new professional, pain-free you!


Paint the globe

1901rdhwal P08

Paint the globe with your team each day!

This is super fun because you can make this exercise a dance and move so much more of your body!

1. Pretend that your upper body is surrounded by a globe.

2. Reach your arms up over your head and touch the top of the globe.

3. Reach down and touch the bottom of the globe.

4. Reach your hands out as wide as you can to touch the sides of the globe.

5. Use your fingers to “paint” as much of the inner surface of the globe as you can.

Finger extension

1. Take your hands and—with palms facing up—place your fingertips onto the floor. (Alternatively, you can place your fingers on the top of a table or hold one set of fingers with your opposite hand.)

2. Gently press the heel of your hand forward, away from your body.

3. Extend each finger joint (the opposite joint movement from making a fist).

4. Bend your elbows until they point behind you (not to the side).

1901rdhwal P09

Finger extension

Reverse prayer hands

1. Place the backs of your hands together with all 10 fingers touching (thumbs are the hardest).

2. Lower your wrists until they’re at the same height as your elbows. Keep fingers together!

1901rdhwal P10

Reverse prayer hands

Hand/finger position in quadruped

1. Position yourself on your hands and knees.

2. Position your thumbs so they are reaching toward each other.

3. With fingers spread wide, try for a 90-degree angle between the middle finger and thumb.

4. Press the whole of your hands and fingers into the floor with no buckled fingers

5. Face your elbow pits forward.

1901rdhwal P11

Hand/finger position in quadruped

Author’s note: Next up in the series, I’ll be sharing more mobility exercises stacked with strength training that I do daily to keep me pain free in the office and strong for American Ninja Warrior training. Go get it! Let’s make some progress through the new year to the new professional you! Leave me your questions and comments. Shoot me over photos of your exercises on Instagram (ninjadentist_desi). I’m happy to help and cheer you on!

1901rdhwal P12


1. Bowman K. Alignment Matters, 2nd Ed. Sequim, Washington: Propriometrics Press; 2016.

2. Bowman K. Move your DNA Workshop Workbook. Sequim, Washington: Propriometrics Press; 2016.

3. Bowman K. Move Your DNA: Restore Your Health through Natural Movement. Sequim, Washington: Propriometrics Press; 2017.

Desirée Walker, DDS, FICD, is a general dentist and owner of Lumber River Dental in Lumberton, North Carolina. She graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Dentistry in 2008. Outside of her practice and training for her next appearance on American Ninja Warrior, she does yoga and gymnastics outdoors with her two cats, Lu and Jones. She can be contacted at Follow her on Instagram at ninjadentist_desi.

More in Personal Wellness