July-August 2011 | Health

Position for Life

A local therapist makes all the right moves to avert injury.

Kurt van der Schalie was sidelined by multiple injuries during his youth, including pulled muscles while swimming and playing high school water polo, as well as a torn knee ligament sustained in a fall. These days, the Bethesda resident can’t afford to be laid up: He has too much to do.

Van der Schalie, 34, treats patients with mobility issues and supervises about 100 staffers as the clinical manager of Georgetown University Hospital’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in Washington, D.C.

When he’s not working, he chases after his 21-month-old daughter, helps his wife prep for triathlons and gets in at least four to five miles of swimming and about 10 miles of running each week as he trains for his own long-distance swim events. His most grueling is the Great
Chesapeake Bay Swim, a 4.4-miler across the bay each June.

Van der Schalie learned about proper mechanics for movement and exercise while becoming an athletic trainer in 1999 and a physical  therapist in 2002. Then he applied those lessons to his daily life to help maintain an active routine.

“I’m always asking myself…if I’m using good body mechanics,” van der Schalie says, “because if I’m not, I put myself at risk for getting an injury.” This focus has safeguarded him from major injury for more than a decade.

What He Does

Keeps posture perfect: From the minute van der Schalie wakes up—rolling to one side to get out of bed, instead of popping up, which can cause lower back strain—he tries to maintain correct body alignment and minimize wear-and-tear on the joints. “Awareness of
proper positioning and mechanics is probably the main thing that will allow me to remain active well into old age,” he says.

When van der Schalie lifts his daughter, he keeps her close to his center of gravity, letting his legs do the work to avoid straining his spine.

At the office, he sits on a chair tilted forward, with his knees slightly below the level of his hips. This keeps his pelvis forward, rather than allowing him to slump back and strain the discs of the spine.

The top of his monitor is at eye level, which also helps him sit straight. Van der Schalie’s keyboard slides toward him so he can position his elbows under his shoulders and float his wrists while typing. This prevents pressure on the wrist pads and helps avoid problems such as carpal tunnel syndrome, he says.

His feet are firmly planted on the ground, ready to absorb his weight and protect his back when he gets up.

Tunes up his sports mechanics: Every couple of months, van der Schalie has someone review his athletic techniques, such as a coach from the Montgomery Ancient Mariners swim team. He says this ensures a good roll in his freestyle stroke, using his trunk to do the work and avoiding excess wear-and-tear on his shoulders. “I’ve been swimming a long time, but there’s no substitute to having a coach watch you,” he says.

Builds muscle: About two hours a week, van der Schalie does strengthening exercises to help maintain proper mechanics and posture. Squats, for example, help with running and lifting. One-arm rows—done with a hand weight while lying facedown on his bed with an arm hanging off the side—work his back muscles and aid posture. In avid swimmers, this type of exercise also counters the  overdevelopment of certain muscles from the swimming motion, which can cause the shoulders to slouch forward.

Warms up: Van der Schalie spends about 15 minutes doing a low-intensity version of the activity he’s going to participate in. That might mean a light swim before doing intense laps, which he says preps the muscles and helps prevent injury.

Cools down: Van der Schalie spends at least 10 minutes cooling down after an activity to aid his body’s recovery. “If you stop cold, your muscles will stiffen up, and your chance of getting muscle soreness increases,” he says. As with his warm-up, van der Schalie performs a low intensity version of whatever he was doing. To maintain flexibility, he’ll also perform a series of stretches, holding each pose for 30 seconds to a minute.

Bottom line: Van der Schalie’s diligence has helped prevent major injuries, surgeries or extended rest periods. “I want to be active as long as possible,” he says.

Leah Ariniello is a Bethesda-based writer who frequently writes about health issues.