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Evolution and Ergonomics

We have the same bodies today that we had fifty thousand years ago. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors shared our brain size, our upright posture, and our musculoskeletal, nervous, and gastrointestinal systems.

It took us a million years to get to that point. Our bodies slowly evolved to accommodate the activities necessary for survival.


How did we live? We dug edible roots from the ground. We chased and killed animals for food and clothing. We ran from animals, trying to keep from becoming their food. We climbed trees to grab their fruits and to find honey in hives hidden in their branches. We walked for miles, in tune with the seasons, following the herds. We sat around fires at the end of each day, drumming or singing, reaching out to the gods of nature for protection and sustenance. And the next day we did the same.

Flash forward. Today we huddle around computers and move from workstation to water cooler to lunch truck to home. Hardly walking, we are conveyed by trains, cars, or buses. In the industrial realm—beer delivery, construction, hotel housekeeping—work is frequently heavy, repetitive manual labor.

In my chiropractic practice, I see the effects; a daily procession of patients with sore lower backs, necks, shoulders, arms and legs from poor posture, improper body mechanics, and overuse.

The aches and pains of modern life are, in large measure, the result of a mismatch between biological and cultural evolution. The pace of our cultural development has far exceeded our innate ability to adapt to these changes. The price we pay is musculoskeletal pain and dysfunction. (In the metabolic realm we see similar mal- adaptations because of the industrial foods we eat—processed, sugared, salted and fat laden— which wreck havoc on our organic systems causing chronic, preventable diseases such as diabetes and hypertension.)

But this is the world we live in, the one we have inherited and continue to create. We will not go back to our ancient hunting and gathering ways. Nor would we want to. While easy to romanticize, those lives were far from idyllic. They were brutish and short.

Instead, we need to adopt coping strategies that combine behavioral changes and technological supports.

Because our lives have become sedentary, we must add exercise into our routines—cardio, stretching, and core strengthening. Because we sit, we must design furniture that helps to minimize strain on muscles and ligaments. And because the manual labor we do can be so physically demanding, we must be educated about how to best perform these strenuous tasks.

The nature of work today has led to the development of the field of ergonomics.

The International Ergonomics Association defines ergonomics as follows: “Ergonomics is the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data and methods to design in order to optimize human well-being and overall system performance.”

By applying our understanding of human biomechanics to individual needs, we can now customize solutions to help minimize worker risk. As a result, we have built sit/stand desks, adjustable chairs, high quality LED lighting, and much more.

This is an example of using science and technology to bridge the gap between biological and cultural evolution. The result: fewer injuries, increased productivity, and greater job satisfaction.

Dr. Ricky Fishman has been a San Francisco based chiropractor since 1986. In addition to the treatment of back pain and other musculoskeletal injuries, he works as a consultant in the field of health and wellness with companies dedicated to re-visioning health care for the 21st century. He can also be found blogging at Ricky's Riffs.

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