Keep Workers Active During COVID-19 to Prevent Injuries, Physical Therapy Expert Advises

Nancy Grover

Sarasota, FL ( – One of the biggest enemies to maintaining a normal weight is inactivity. Workers who are overweight or obese statistically have more injuries than those considered at normal weight and often take longer to recover. Physical therapists helping overweight or obese injured workers see better outcomes when they help these injured workers increase their physical activity levels.

The current environment, with many people working from home and without access to normal physical activity, can lend itself to reduced activity. Encouraging workers to stay active can help prevent injuries now and in the future.

“It is easy to fall out of our daily routines during this strange time in our lives, but at least staying active each day will help to combat problems when going back to regular work duties,” said William Beck, regional manager for WorkStrategies at Select Medical. “Staying active can be as simple as taking periodic walks during the day, or as complex as attempting to mimic a worker’s daily routine of moving objects, carrying, climbing, etc.”

An area of concern is that once people do go back to their work environments they might not be physically able to do their normal tasks due to a prolonged period of inactivity. Employees should be encouraged to engage in activities that help maintain their physical abilities.

“If you are working now from home and on a computer, it is key to stand up and practice back bend, shoulder and wrist stretches and easy neck movement/stretching about once per hour to break up the constant sitting and forward positioning most people assume when working on a computer,” Beck explained. “For more strenuous jobs, practicing the basic movements of the work and moving things around the house like with re-organizing closets, garages, basements, etc.”

Also key for people working from home or forced to stay home due to business closures is to keep as normal a routine as possible. That means waking at the same time each day, staying as active as possible and going to sleep at the same time — or even earlier to improve sleep habits.

Obesity’s Impact on WC

During a webinar produced by Genex, Beck discussed the impact of obesity on return-to-work efforts and ways to improve outcomes. ‘Overweight’ is defined as a body mass index (BMI) of more than 25, while obesity refers to a BMI of more than 30. A BMI of more than 40 is considered morbidly obese.

“Employees with a BMI of over 40 have two times the number of injuries as those of normal weight.,” Beck said. “The direct and indirect costs of obese people far outweigh those [for workers] that are not. Not only in the fact that they take longer to go through typical rehabilitation, but the amount of care they may need is in excess of others.”

The number of U.S. adults who are overweight or obese has increased significantly in recent decades. “All states have at least 20 percent of the adult population that is obese,” Beck said.

A study out of Duke University showed the impact to the workers’ compensation system of workers with a BMI of at least 40 compared with their coworkers considered normal weight.

  • 11.65 claims per 100 workers compared with 5.8 claims
  • 183.63 lost workdays per 100 compared with 14.19
  • Average medical claims costs of $51.019 compared with $7,503

The areas of the body most prone to injury among the morbidly obese workers were lower extremities, wrist, hand and back. Causes of injuries most prevalent were falls, slips or lifting.

Increased movement can help to significantly reduce the incidence of overweight and obesity, Beck said. He cited a change that occurred in recent years.

“A few years back, about 5 or 10 years ago, there was a great increase in the number of obese young folks, adolescents,” he said. “That has started to turn around. There’s been an emphasis on ‘Play 60.’”

‘Fuel Up to Play 60’ is an in-school nutrition and physical activity program that was developed and launched by the National Dairy Council and National Football league in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It encourages young people to lead healthier lives.

“From a physical therapy end of things, that is one of the things we highly encourage, especially for injured workers, to increaser their overall activity level to improve their rehabilitation, but also to increase their overall activity levels, and increase their cardiovascular levels to withstand normal day-to-day activities and, especially their work activities,” Beck said.

Injured workers with upcoming surgeries are increasingly being encouraged to engage in pre-rehabilitation. Those facing total joint replacements, for example, fare better when they have lost weight and increased their activity levels before the surgery.

“Some orthopedic surgeons tell me they are asking to see folks before surgery specifically for this reason,” Beck said. “If an injured worker is going to surgery, especially with lower body or weight bearing joint, it’s not a bad idea to do activity preparation and [increasing the] ability to move, balance, overall functional movement patterns so it is less likely their obesity or inactivity will hurt them. That can reduce the risk of infection and other complications.”

Improved balance and correcting postural deviations is especially effective in reducing slips and trips among obese injured workers post-surgery.

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