Tactical Athletes

Cooking Up a Healthy Work Environment

By Tracy Howard

Toronto chef Ali Najafpour first had a taste of the dangers of working in a kitchen when he was an 18-year-old student doing a co-op placement in a restaurant.

“One of the chefs was picking up a huge pot and he just threw out his back in that instant,” Najafpour recounts. “He dropped down the pot and was off work for a while.”

While Najafpour is only 25, and, fortunately hasn’t had any major injuries, he’s already experiencing a few back and shoulder issues related to the job. “I’m worried about my body,” he says.

 For advice on how Najafpour and other cooking professionals can preserve their health, we consulted with Jennifer Johnson, a Certified Athletic Therapist and the owner of the SMART Clinic, which provides mobile clinics to workplaces throughout the Greater Toronto Area.

Learning to lift

When asked about the physical challenges that chefs face, Najafpour quips: “Other than the standing, lifting and putting yourself in awkward positions?” He explains that much of the equipment weighs over 50 pounds and that he often lifts hot pots on and off surfaces at awkward angles. Added to that, he estimates he moves around at least 40 boxes of deliveries daily.

 To help prevent injury, Johnson says it’s important Najafpour practices proper technique. “Use hips and knees to squat and keep the object close to the body when lifting and carrying,” she advises. He should also avoid lifting objects above shoulder level without assistance and, lastly, avoid twisting his body while lifting or carrying a heavy object.

Multitasking maneuvers

With the popularity of TV shows focused on celebrity chefs, it’s easy to think the job’s only about making food. But Najafpour’s role also includes ordering supplies, overseeing and training staff, keeping on top of costs and a multitude of other management duties. As a result, his body needs to be ready to transition between various tasks.

“What can help is to perform some dynamic stretching,” advises Johnson. “This will help transition from a static position, if his managing duty consists of paperwork, to moving around at a fast pace and awkward positions.” Additionally, Johnson says Najafpour should take frequent one-to two-minute breaks and move around differently than he has been over the previous 20 to 30 minutes.

Essential exercise

Najafpour says he hasn’t exercised regularly since becoming a chef, blaming his frequent 12-hour-plus workdays. While being young has likely protected him so far, doing a physical job and neglecting his body may put him at risk for a serious injury as well as more chronic pain.

“Every job has a physicality to it that our bodies weren’t designed to do on a daily basis,” explains Johnson. “Having the body prepared for what you do daily will help prevent injuries, overuse or chronic pain, especially as we grow older.” 

As Najafpour stands for long periods of his day, Johnson recommends a core-focused program to help those muscles stabilize his body, as well as general stretching and strengthening. 

To accommodate the chef’s schedule, she suggests Najafpour incorporates bits of exercise throughout his day, such as going for a 10-minute walk when he has a break.

Assistance from athletic therapy

Johnson says athletic therapy could benefit the chef in assessing his body as a whole to try to understand why he has back pain and addressing the cause. Additionally, she says, in the work-specific final stage of rehabilitation, her team prepares patients by having them mimic their on-the-job movements. “For example, a chef has to twist and turn throughout the day, so we may tie some resistance bands to the wall and have him mimic those movements to strengthen the muscles he uses in his job.”

By following these guidelines, Najafpour should be able to don his chef’s whites for years to come. 

Contributing Athletic Therapist
Jennifer Johnson

BPhEd(H), DipSIM(H), CAT(C)

Jennifer graduated from Brock University with an Honours degree in Physical Education. She then went on to obtain her Diploma in Sports Injury Management from Sheridan College in 2003. Jennifer opened up the SMART clinic and began specializing with the Industrial Athlete and has set up Athletic Therapy clinics on-site at various industrial settings across the GTA. These clinics use Athletic Therapy’s critical thinking, assessment and rehabilitation skills to keep employees working and preparing them for the motions they do on a daily basis. Currently Jennifer manages the industrial athlete clinics, which provide services to over 5000 workers, and treats various clientele at her private clinic in Mississauga, Ontario.