Toughening up

It’s true; the dental hygiene profession is tough on the mind, body, and spirit. Occupational injuries of dental hygienists are an ongoing problem ...

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Saving your back, your career, and your sanity

by Alyssa C. Foley, RDH, BSDH, ACE-CPT

It’s true; the dental hygiene profession is tough on the mind, body, and spirit. Occupational injuries of dental hygienists are an ongoing problem that plagues our careers, and sometimes ends them abruptly. It’s a conglomerate of factors that converge into a myriad of health problems. Back, neck, and wrist problems, stress, confidence, and posture are all related to one another.

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I grew up the child of a dentist. One of my first jobs was as a certified dental assistant, and I then became a registered dental hygienist (12 years and going strong). I’m also a wife and the mother of two children.

I absolutely love being a dental hygienist. I knew at the age of 14 that I wanted to become an RDH when I made my first set of teeth out of Play-Doh for my eighth grade science fair. I find it to be extremely rewarding with regard to patient care and clinical outcomes. Within three years of practicing, I developed neck and back pain. After years of suffering, I pulled my back out while placing a lead apron over a patient, and it was then I knew I had to take action.

I consulted with an excellent chiropractor and joined a fitness boot camp. Within six weeks, my body transformed. My back was better and my stress noticeably alleviated. I realized that the more I exercised, the better I felt both inside and out. How, you ask? I did my research and focused my energy on core strengthening. I loved it so much that after 18 months, I went back to school to become a certified personal trainer. I want everyone to feel as good as I do. My goal is to change lives and help people become healthier, happier, and stronger. It worked for me.

A few months after I completed school for personal training, I started my own business (Center of Gravity Fitness, www.centerofgravity.co) and became a cofounder of the Shape-Up Showdown Weight Loss Competition. I completed two six-week competitions with 59 other people. We had a total loss of 433 pounds and 291 inches. After that, clients felt better all over.

I train five classes a week for women of all sizes and professions — businesswomen, mothers, grandmothers, and people in the medical and dental field. Not only do people decrease their blood pressure and cholesterol numbers, but also strengthen their core, which results in a strong back and better posture. Bonus — people look better in their scrubs too. And the boss will love this benefit — less sick time and more hygiene production. And what is the extra bonus? Self-confidence.

I’ve studied myself over the last several years, and here are my secrets:

  • Eat healthy and lose the extra belly fat
  • Remain positive, discard all negativity (surround yourself with positive influences and good people).
  • Exercise (cardio up to five days a week, 30 to 60 minutes a day, and strength training two or more days a week) and be aware of your posture. Don’t forget to take a day to rest.
  • Finally, educate yourself and know your body. Do a simple sit-up test. Here is how to do it. (Remember not to place any stress on your neck.) Place your hands crossed over your chest, knees bent, and sit up. How many can you do? If you are between the ages of 36 and 45 and you can do 33 to 39 sit-ups, consider your core to be in good shape. Or, how long can you hold a plank on the floor? You can hold it in full push-up position on your hands or you can hold it on your forearms. See if you can hold it for one minute. This is harder than it sounds.

Try these simple core-strengthening exercises at work. Yes, I said at work.

  • Sitting oblique twist: Here’s what’s fun … no one has to know you’re exercising. Place your instrument tray to the right or the left of your patient. As you reach for an instrument on the opposite side, really use your core to twist. Don’t just stretch your arm to reach for that instrument. (Example: if you’re right-handed, reach with your right hand for your instruments conveniently placed to your left.) Keep your belly tight, your back straight, and your chest up.
  • Practice engaging your core: Stand up straight, place your hand on your belly, and breathe out. At the last breath, you’ve engaged your core. Feel the hardness in your abs. Practice this several times a day, every day.
  • Knee tucks: When you have a moment, sit in your chair with your back straight, lift your knees, and pull them into your chest. If you are new to this exercise, try five to 10 repetitions.
  • Planks: Get into push-up position with your hands on the counter. Hold your position for as long as you can. Keep your back as straight as possible.
  • Hamstring stretch: Stand with your legs about hip width apart. Raise both arms over your head. Exhale as you bend to touch your toes. Hold for a few seconds and repeat several times.
  • Don’t forget to breathe.

Take it from me. I’m living proof. Take charge of your life, your body, and your career. If you have medical issues such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, or a knee, neck, or back injury, seek the advice of your physician before you begin an exercise regimen because you may need medical clearance. Your physician will make a list of restrictions and modifications to your exercise.

Next, join a fitness club with experienced trainers or hire a certified personal trainer. The key is to avoid further injury. A medical clearance assures your trainer that you are healthy enough to begin a fitness journey. If they are needed, the restrictions and modifications to exercise are of utmost importance to the personal trainer. This provides him or her with as much information as possible to provide you with the safest and most effective exercise.

A final note — Love your body and your body will love you back.

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