(This is Part 6 of the Repetitive Strain Series)
In the last two posts (here and here), I talked about postural habits that contribute to repetitive strain injury (RSI). Now let’s look at another behavioral habit that puts you at risk for RSI: excess effort.
Almost everyone uses more muscular effort than necessary, not only at the computer, but in many things we do. There are two main ways excess effort shows up: using too much force and isolating one part of you from the rest of yourself.
May the Force Be Light: How to Use Less Effort
Doing tasks requires muscular work; the trick is using the appropriate amount for the activity at hand. For example, when you lift a 10-pound object, you want to use 10 pound’s worth of effort. Using more effort than necessary not only wastes energy, it can also lead to inflammation, strain and injury.
The muscles in your hands and fingers are small and delicate, so too much effort can quickly create problems. Hands are designed for doing fine movements, while the bigger muscles in the upper arms and torso provide power and support. Sitting still, absorbed in your computer or device, it’s easy to overuse your hands and fingers while letting the bigger muscles go on vacation.
Tips for Lighter, More Effortless Typing & Mousing
Use a light touch, both on the keyboard and holding your mouse
- Let your fingers and hands relax when they’re not moving (instead of continuing to hold them engaged)
- Watch not to lift your fingers unnecessarily, especially your pinky (this is an unconscious habit for many people, including myself!)
- Imagine that your fingers start at your wrist and allow your whole hand to participate in the movement of your fingers
Exercise for Lighter, More Effortless Typing
Try this quick exercise to find the minimal amount of force needed for typing.
1. Let Go of Tension
Sit with your hands resting in your lap. Take a breath and let go of any unnecessary tension in your shoulders and arms.
2. Gently Press Fingertips into Thighs
Lift your hands so they hover just above your thighs. Imagine your thighs are a keyboard. Very gently begin to press all your fingertips into your thighs and then release. As you repeat this several times, let the weight of your arm be what sinks your fingers, rather than using the muscles. Each time let your touch be a little lighter, as if you’re gently pressing a Cheerio into its bowl of milk.
Next, play with pressing individual fingers as if actually typing. How do you retain the same ease and simplicity as before?
3. Lightly Type on a Keyboard
Finally, sit at your computer and open a blank document. Begin typing on your keyboard. Don’t worry about making mistakes or typing anything particular. How effortless can you make it? Can your shoulders stay soft?
May You Be Connected: Finding Support for Your Hands and Arms
The other way we use too much effort is by isolating our hands from the rest of ourselves. When you use your hands, you want a mechanical response through your arms and shoulders into your torso. When you fix your arms, shoulders or neck, this natural flow of movement gets blocked.
So instead of moving your fingers and hands from the wrist, what if you moved your whole arm and let that subtly echo into your torso?
Here’s 2 exercises to increase support for your hands and fingers while typing.
Exercise 1: Moving Forward and Back with Support
1. Reach for an Object
Sit at your desk and put a small object out in front of you (such as a pen, a pad of sticky notes or even your mouse). Rest your dominant hand at the edge of the desk, then slowly reach forward as if to pick up the object. Repeat this a few times, noticing where and how you initiate the movement.
2. Initiate from Your Elbow
Change to intentionally initiating the reach from your elbow. Allow your wrist to float up slightly as you reach.
3. Practice at Your Keyboard
Now practice this same elbow-initiated motion at your keyboard. Starting the movement from your elbow, reach forward so your fingertips can touch the far row of keys (i.e. the number or function keys). Then, again from your elbow, move your hand so your fingertips touch the keys in nearest row. Repeat this forward and back movement a few times. It’s as if your arms are a porch swing.
If you’d like, repeat the exercise with your non-dominant hand.
Exercise 2: Moving to the Side with Support
1. Reach Diagonally for an Object
Again, sitting at your desk, place the small object forward and to the right. Choose one hand and resting your right hand palm down at the edge of the desk, reach for the object a few times. As you reach, let your hand and forearm rotate outward slightly (i.e. your thumb lifts and the pinky rolls into the desk).
2. Reach with Palm Down vs. Rotating Palm Inward
Reach toward the object, this time keeping your palm down. After you’ve done it a few times, begin to alternate: once letting your arm roll and then not letting it turn. Which is easier?
3. Practice at Your Keyboard
Now practice this same motion at your keyboard. Initiating from your elbow, move your right hand so your fingers can touch keys at the far right. Remember to allow the slight rotation to happen naturally.
If you’d like, repeat this exercise with your left hand, positioning the object diagonally forward to the left (and then moving your hands to the keys at the far left of your keyboard).
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This week, I invite you to notice how much effort you’re using at the computer, as well as when you drive, cook, exercise, garden, etc. Play with reducing the amount of force and feeling the connection of your hands to your arms and torso—and enjoy the extra ease in your hands and arms.
Want more RSI prevention tips and practice?
Sign up for my August class series: How to Turn the Tables on Your Hand and Arm Pain.