Health and Human Performance professor stresses importance of physical activity, offers tips to prevent pain, injury

Dr. Jeffrey Cowley

In light of the COVID-19 crisis and Wisconsin’s current safer-at-home order, Dr. Jeffrey Cowley, assistant professor of health and human performance at UW-Platteville, stressed the critical importance of making physical activity a priority.

“‘Safer at home’ may be true for COVID-19, but, being confined indoors can really limit healthy physical activity,” said Cowley. “Furthermore, online course delivery means many students, faculty and staff are spending more time at a computer than ever. The lifestyle changes imposed by sheltering at home threaten our physical and mental wellbeing. Making physical activity a priority can help us maintain health and sanity throughout the current pandemic.”

Cowley said that physical activity – bodily movement produced by muscles that requires energy expenditure – includes exercise and many other types of movement.

“For good reason, physical activity, especially exercise, is commonly associated with maintaining a healthy weight and preventing cardiovascular disease,” he said. “However, physical activity has many other benefits to human health, including maintaining brain health and preventing injury.”

He explained that the brain gets a boost in oxygen-rich blood with activities that stress the cardiovascular system, and physical activity can improve memory and mood.

“Physical activity helps to regulate damaging chemicals and promote the health of brain cells,” he said. “The brain also gets a significant workout when we move our bodies. One neuroscientist argues that the reason we have brains is to coordinate movement. Body movement is a multisensory experience that involves many areas of the brain. So, it is not surprising that physical activity is good brain exercise. Critical work activities, such as typing, speaking and reading are dependent on the brain’s ability to coordinate movement, so it is important to keep the movement centers of the brain healthy.”

Cowley noted that physical inactivity increases the risk of injuries.

“Even overuse injuries, the kind that often occur when working at computers, can be caused by inactivity,” he said. “When we sit in one position for an extended time, some tissues are constantly under pressure or stress. This can limit blood flow and promote inflammation. Moving promotes blood flow to remove wastes that accumulate in the tissues. In the joints, movement helps to circulate nutrients and lubricate the tissues, reducing the chance of damage accruing over time.”

He emphasized that a major principle in preventing work-related injuries is to vary work tasks.

“Maintaining the same posture or repeating the same task for extended periods of time places us at a higher risk of injury,” he said. “The risk is exaggerated if we are working in poor postures. Working at home can mean spending more time on a laptop, or even a tablet or cell phone. These devices are frequently associated with risky work postures. In addition, trips to the bathroom, etc. are likely to involve fewer steps and less time in non-working positions. This presents challenges for comfort and safety. It is worth taking some time to set up a good workstation.”

Cowley offered some tips for preventing pain and injury.

  1. Change position hourly or more throughout the day to ease stresses on body tissues.
  • Stand, sit, lean forward, lean back.
  • Use an adjustable chair and other office equipment.
  • Take stretching breaks.
  1. Optimize your posture. Spending most of your time near an optimal posture prevents pain and injury.
  • Top of computer screen should be at height of forehead, at least 20 inches in front of face; head resting over torso
  • Back supported with lumbar support
  • Knees bent between 90 and 100 degrees, feet resting on floor or stool, legs supported by chair
  • Wrists in straight (neutral) position; desk, keyboard and mouse at elbow height; forearms supported by arm rests
    • Use full keyboard or ergonomic keyboard instead of laptop keyboard, if possible.
    • Use standard mouse instead of touchpad, if possible.
  • Avoid resting wrists or legs on sharp edges (e.g. edge of a desk).
  1. Use common household items to stretch and get some physical activity.
  • Walk. Stuck indoors? Walk in place.
  • Sit and stand from your chair as many times as you can in 30 seconds.
  • Use a doorway to stretch and/or do some muscle strengthening
  • Go up and down the stairs a few times.
  • Use table or countertop. Here is a kitchen workout.
  • Step up onto chair/step stool and back to ground again.
  • More chairs: Easy, Medium, Hard 

The mission of the Department of Health and Human Performance is to help people live a healthy and active lifestyle. Through the department’s exercise science, health promotion and physical education majors, it helps people learn the fundamentals of movement, physical and emotional health, nutrition and ways to strengthen the body.