My personal story of how I changed the way I cook as well as store ingredients and kitchen equipment to reduce and prevent lower back pain. Hope these tips help you stay healthy in the kitchen.
After suffering from serious lower back pain for years, I’ve changed the way I cook and organize my kitchen. Keep in mind, I’m no doctor or physical therapist. SEEK PROFESSIONAL HELP if you’re suffering from back pain. Garlic Delight is for entertainment and educational purposes, not medical advice. That said, I hope the lessons I’ve learned the hard way can help you with better ergonomics and organization so you can prevent back pain in the kitchen.
Why Does My Back Hurt After Cooking?
My physical therapist Paul Murdock, the owner of Cupertino Physical Therapy (aka My Miracle PT), told me that cooking requires a lot of core strength and stability. We’re always bending over to pick up things in cabinets. Or we bend and twist when we pick up ingredients that we dropped. We’re twisting a lot as we grab things on the countertop. And we are lifting relatively heavy things, like pots and pans filled with soup or root vegetables. Add a cast iron dutch oven in the mix and the strain adds up.
Being a relatively tall person doesn’t help. He told me my long arms act as long levers, which put more strain on my back.
After moving to Boulder, Colorado, I saw Katie Andrews at Pace West Physical Therapy who mentioned that standing on hard kitchen floors with inadequate arch support leads to bad posture and eventually to back strain.
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How to Prevent Back Pain When Cooking At Home
Alex and I organize our kitchen with an eye towards back safety. From equipment storage to body positions to grabbing implements, we have commonsensical and unexpected strategies to keep my lower back pain free while I’m cooking and cleaning in the kitchen.
Use Standing Mats
We use standing mats in the kitchen. We first got these mats for our standing desks. Then we noticed they worked well for the high-trafficked areas in the kitchen. We make sure we have mat coverage in the following areas:
- Countertop for chopping
Luckily, our small apartment only requires 2 mats to cover the above spaces. However, your kitchen may require more standing mats for full coverage.
The Quality of Mats
I’ve purchased “anti-fatigue” mats as expensive as this commercial standing mat for $70 and as cheap as $19. Expensive mats have more support. That said, I’d rather get cheaper mats and have fuller coverage than 1 expensive mat and leave most of the hard floor exposed. I like our $19 standing mats from Costco which are decent quality and a great price when on sale (usually they are $40 each).
Store Food and Kitchen Equipment at Waist-Height or Higher
I store the most commonly used ingredients at waist-height or taller on the kitchen countertops and in the cabinets. Ingredients like spices, honey, dried mushrooms, and chocolate always go at waist-level. Equipment like plates, bowls, flatware (spoons, forks, knives, chopsticks) are stored in waist-level cabinets and drawers.
Rarely used or extremely heavy items (which I won’t pick up anyway) go in the bottom cabinets. Items like funnels, grilling tools, bamboo skewers, spiralizers, citrus reamers, and buckwheat flour live in the bottom drawers and on the bottom pantry shelves.
I recommend storing kitchen equipment at waist-level or higher, such as overhead. I can reach up or use a step ladder to get things. I store pans on top of the kitchen cabinets and the fridge instead of in the bottom cabinets (which I keep empty or store rarely used items).
French-Door and Bottom-Freezer Refrigerators
I prefer the French door and bottom-freezer styles of fridges over the old-school top-freezer fridges and the side-by-side refrigerators because French door and bottom-freezer fridges allow you to store most food at eye- and waist-level.
I rarely have to bend over to get any ingredients from French door and bottom-freezer refrigerators. Since I use the fridge more frequently than the freezer, these optimal fridge layouts reduce the amount of bending over.
Portion Bulk Items Into Smaller Containers
I buy in bulk from Costco because I appreciate the cost savings. But it’s too heavy for me to pick up a 2-gallon bottle of canola oil or a 10-pound bag of sugar to get a tablespoon or two of these ingredients.
As a result, I portion out the oil into a smaller glass bottle with a handy dispenser (using a funnel) and put the rest away in the pantry. I store bulk items under the stairs and in the wardrobe because we live in a small apartment. You could store these items in the basement or your garage if you live in a house.
Portioning out ingredients makes cooking more convenient because bulky containers are not taking up valuable pantry and countertop space.
Kneeling and Squatting
While I try to avoid bending over as much as possible by storing items at waist-height and eye-level, there are many occasions when I have to bend over. When I’m unloading the dishwasher, finding items in the bottom drawers, and loading food on the bottom shelves, I kneel or sit on the kitchen floor.
I squat with a good technique that Katie, my Boulder physical therapist, taught me if I am picking up heavy objects.
When I unload the dishwasher, I unload the top shelf first. Then I kneel on the standing mat to unload the items on the bottom shelf. I move all the clean items to the kitchen countertop first because I can’t reach the cabinets when I’m kneeling. Once I unload the bottom shelf, I stand up to put items away in the cabinets.
It felt weird and awkward at first to sit on the kitchen floor or kneel on mats when cleaning the kitchen. Now I’ve accepted that it’s the safer thing for me to do to protect my back. Besides, other than five-year-olds asking what I’m doing, nobody is paying attention to my kneeling.
Claws, Reachers, Grabbers
These pick-up tools come by many names, including reachers, nabbers, and grabbers. I like to call mine CLAWS. They’re designed for the elderly who have trouble bending over to pick up things from the ground or have arthritis and cannot grip securely.
I have a variety of claws in different lengths because I’m not kidding around 😉. I use the Unger Nabber and Ettore Grip’n Grab. I inherited some from Alex’s Grandma Jo. I prefer the Ettore because its rubber grip head is better at holding objects and the handle is more comfortable.
I use my claws for picking up things of all sizes:
- Vegetables I drop on the ground, e.g. carrots, garlic, onions
- Cartons of broth, soy milk, and soup
- Cans of coconut milk, tomato paste, pumpkin puree, baby corn, water chestnuts
You’ll be surprised how frequently you’re bending over to pick up things once you force yourself to be aware of it. My claws save me a dozen or more times of bending over during each cooking session.
Adequate Arch Support in Shoes
I cook while wearing Crocs because they’re comfortable and protect my feet in case I drop a knife or heavy object. But my Crocs will only support my feet for about 30 to 45 minutes. Katie recommended I wear shoes with great arch support if I plan to cook for an hour or longer. I wear my sneakers with insoles (I like Superfeet inserts) if I’m doing an epic amount of cooking, like during the holiday season.
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How to Prevent Back Pain When Cooking During the Holidays
Every Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday, I spent hours on my feet cooking with family. Like clockwork, these bouts of cooking would cause 2 or 3 days of terror-filled back pain. Yes, I could blame the hard tiles, hours spent baking pies, and thin slippers. But it came down to my bad habits and lack of self-control. (Hey, I love baking pies!)
Last year, Alex and I devised a plan to enjoy Christmas pain-free. I wanted to avoid hurting for days after the new year. What’s challenging about cooking in someone else’s kitchen is that I don’t have the optimal setup, claws, and smaller containers.
The new strategies had to address holiday cooking, being with family, and cooking outside of my optimized kitchen. We analyzed the situation and applied many of the workarounds and tricks that I use at home to prevent back pain.
I’m proud to share that I celebrated Christmas and New Year’s Eve without any back pain, which is truly a big accomplishment for me.
Here are the strategies I used to achieve this momentous goal. Most tips revolve around mindset, habits, and pride, which is what makes them challenging.
Accept Limitations on Cooking
Growing up, I was an avid baker. I loved baking cakes, muffins, scones, and pastries. I even made croissants from scratch. However, I chose to give up baking regularly because a lot of baking involves carrying heavy pans filled with batter and using ovens require bending over.
That’s why I only bake during the holidays because it’s a special occasion. But I binge on baking. I will bake 3-4 pies from scratch. Making the dough, pie filling, and whipped cream takes a lot of strength.
Last year, I gave up making pies. I may make a pie next year for Christmas. But I had to accept that baking 3 to 4 pies for hours at a time is too much.
I also don’t use dutch ovens like the beautiful Le Creuset set that my in-laws have. They’re too heavy for me, especially when the big 6-quart dutch oven is filled with soup or meat.
Ask for Help
In the rare occasions when I bake, use cast iron skillets, heavy stand mixers, or food processors, I ask for help to move equipment and pans (cast iron is like kryptonite).
Alex is gracious enough to put pans in the oven and check pies and cakes for doneness. Yeah, I learned to swallow my pride.
Changing Positions From Standing to Sitting
Alternating from sitting to standing at least once an hour helps rest my back muscles. Sitting also gives my tired feet a break from the hard floor tiles.
If I’m helping cook throughout the day, which can happen for Thanksgiving, I plan breaks. Relying on my brain to track when I’m tired isn’t effective. Instead, I set an alarm to remind me when it is time to lie down on the couch or in bed to rest my lower back. I’ll set a 30-minute timer for resting. When it goes off, I can get up and resume my baking.
Order Takeout Food
For a food blog that tries to empower you to cook at home instead of eating take out, I realize it’s a tad hypocritical to recommend that you buy takeout some nights. But that’s what we did during the Christmas holidays. And I don’t regret it. Life is complicated and nuanced. And this is one example of where I think it can make sense to buy takeout food sometimes.
We ordered food from the Auburn Thai Garden the day after Christmas (a.k.a Boxing Day), and it was money well spent. The food was delicious, and I avoided a night of cooking after the big Christmas blowout.
How to Prevent Back Pain Outside the Kitchen
In addition to the above back pain-reduction strategies, I have numerous exercises I perform outside the kitchen to keep my lower back healthy and strong. These stretches and exercises include:
- Planks (front and side planks)
- Air squats (with an 8-pound kettlebell to mimic carrying a soup pot)
- Deadbug stretches
- Ys and Ts with light weights balanced on a Swiss ball
- Avoid gaining a lot of weight
- Pilates or yoga (back-friendly version without inversions like plow pose)
My routine works for me. I’ve continuously tweaked it over the years based on my needs in the kitchen. Getting professional help from my physiatrist and physical therapist have been critical to ensuring I can continue cooking for my friends, family, and you, my Delighter readers.
I’m still a rookie at organizing my life and developing back-healthy habits. If you have any tips for me or fellow Garlic Delight readers on how to reduce and prevent back pain in the kitchen, please share them in the comments.