Ergonomics of Cooking: From Julia Child to the Modern Day Rolling Pin


By Daniel Baumstark, Delight Contributor 

What do cooking, working on an assembly line, playing tennis, and writing an article for Delight Magazine have in common? All are activities involving repetitive actions and demanding sustained bodily postures.

Sustained activities have the ultimate effect of wreaking havoc on our health: overuse injuries in the form of tendonitis, osteoarthritis, and even spinal disc herniations can be the price paid for hours spent whisking, sautéing, or lifting heavy pots and pans. In order to avoid the negative repercussions of both our work and leisure activities, it is useful to understand both how our body is built and how it adjusts to the everyday stresses we impose upon it.

Evolutionarily speaking, we have moved up the food chain largely because of opposable thumbs and the wiring of our brains. Our eyes may have at one time been more separated: they now rest in the front of our heads, allowing us to focus intently on objects in front of us. This enables our opposable thumbs to manipulate knives, mixers, and countless other tools in our field of vision.

Form, however, does follow function.

Cooking requires a significant amount of time spent with both our arms and our attention focused forward. Prolonged reaching and grasping weighty objects cause the shoulder blades, or scapulae, to be drawn forward in order to support the arms and thus meet the demands of our tasks. The muscles of the back that attach to the shoulder blades from behind are too often stretched out and consequently weakened.

To add fuel to the fire, most of us work for hours on end in front of a computer. The constant forward position of the arms manipulating the mouse and keyboard, coupled with straining the head forward to look at the monitor, reinforce the poor positioning of the shoulder blades.

Over time posture suffers. The shoulders begin to assume a more permanent rolled forward position, leading to a hunched appearance. Many people will also develop an excessive forward bowing of the upper back, known as "hyper-kyphosis".

A forward-leaning, upright body posture puts tremendous pressure on the feet, the body's first balancing mechanism. A hunched-forward individual must "push through his feet" to avoid falling forward.

The late, great Julia Child is an unfortunate illustration of these points. Countless hours spent in the kitchen with her attention focused downward and forward undoubtedly had an adverse effect on her posture.

Just as the professional athlete takes preventative steps to minimize injury, so must the cooking enthusiast take measures to make his or her work as enjoyable and pain-free as possible. Below is a list of tips for protecting your body in the kitchen.

1. Use sound ergonomic principles while cooking. The simplest rule to remember is to keep all of your equipment and surfaces as close to you as possible. Ideally your elbows should remain at the plane of your body: avoid extending your elbows far in front of you, especially with tasks that require significant time such as chopping and hand-mixing.

2. The height of your work surface is critical. You should neither have to shrug your shoulders nor lift your elbows up in order to reach your countertop. Get a stable stool to stand on if necessary. If you are too tall for the cooking surface, try standing with your feet further apart. While not an ideal way to stand, this will lower you closer to the counter top and ease stress on the shoulders and back.

3. Be certain your tool size is appropriate for your grip. Most who have pain associated with gripping will find they have less trouble with larger handles, which tend to more evenly disperse stresses associated with tool weight. However, a too-large handle can cause you to fumble and drop from your inability to have full grip strength. Experiment with handle size: you should be able to hold the handle comfortably in your grip without pain and without fear of losing your grip.

4. If you spend hours in the kitchen, use a padded floor mat to lessen stress on your feet, which take a beating even if the posture is pitched slightly forward.

5. Take time to incorporate a structured back exercise routine into your fitness program. If you do not have a fitness program, get one. There are vast amounts of training information available to you. A routine that specifically targets the lower and middle trapezium, latissimus, rhomboids, and rotator cuff muscles is well worth your time. Training these muscles will greatly help to counteract the pulling forward of the shoulders, spine, and head.

So, remember to take a pre-emptive approach to your health in recognizing and correcting problems in your body and in your work environments, kitchens included. This will assure that what you cook will indeed be fit for a regal, straight standing king or queen.

*Photography by Silvia Jansen

3 comments (Add your own)

1. Katherine wrote:
Thanks for being on point and on tgeart!

Thu, December 27, 2012 @ 3:51 AM

2. Lurraine wrote:
I rceokn you are quite dead on with that.

Thu, December 27, 2012 @ 3:51 AM

3. lydia wrote:
very helpful

Wed, February 27, 2013 @ 6:02 AM

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