There are a few common denominators when it comes to viewing the job of a professional cook. One, of course, is the need to appreciate, understand, and practice the established foundational processes of preparing food – this is essential regardless of the style of cooking or ethnicity of a particular cuisine. The foundations always apply. The other common denominator is the fact that the work is physically demanding.
Tall, short, young, or mature, male or female, prep cook, line cook, baker, pastry chef, sous chef, or executive chef – the work is physically demanding. Bags of onions are always 50 pounds, 109 prime ribs are 20-24 pounds, water is 8 pounds per gallon, strap pans with a pair of whole turkeys can top the scales at 50 pounds or more, and a stack of those 12-inch dinner plates can stress anyone’s biceps. The work is hard and at end of a 10-12 hour service, standing on your feet for most of it, lifting pots of stock, soups and sauce; wielding a 12-inch French knife as it cuts and chops through hundreds of pounds of vegetables; lugging stacks of those plates from dishwasher to the pass; constantly bending at the waist to reach for items in that lowboy cooler or oven; and reaching for pans and ingredients on that shoulder level shelf will eventually take a toll.
Being physically fit helps, having well developed arm and shoulder muscles is a plus, and using an isometric ball to help strengthen your hands that need to control that active French knife will absolutely delay the inevitable, but, at some point the pain from repetitive action will make the work difficult to bear.
This is not a complaint, but rather a reality check for those who are starting out in the kitchen or contemplating this as a career choice. Everyone talks about the excessive hours that cooks and chefs work, everyone is aware that cooks need to have a mastery of technique and well developed palates, but not enough attention is paid to the physical, mental, and emotion conditioning that is necessary if a cook is in it for the long-run.
Cooks may put on the macho (male and female) façade of toughness and brush it off as no big deal, but every cook feels the aches and pains of the physical nature of the work. It can hurt to be a cook! The number one workman’s comp claim stemming from kitchen work evolves around back pain. It is quite common to see long-term cooks suffer from carpel tunnel syndrome, or headaches from strain on their neck and shoulders. Swollen ankles, feet, and abused knees are as common as the flu and frequent visits to the chiropractor are a given for career cooks and chefs.
So, what can we do as cooks and chefs to ease the pain and maintain enough stamina to support a reasonably long career? It is not likely that a cook’s job will suddenly become less strenuous – this is the nature of the work. With this understanding it becomes important for each one of us to learn about taking care of our backs, feet, knees, and hands.
PHYSICAL MAINTENANCE FOR COOKS:
 PROTECT YOUR BACK
Sure, we have heard all of this before, but my experience is that most cooks fail to practice what they know to be important when it comes to protecting their backs. Simple habits make a difference: bend your knees before lifting, don’t life items off a shelf above from shoulders that weighs more than 10 pounds, wear supportive shoes, open your mouth when lifting to help equalize your body’s internal pressure, don’t lift from a side position – face the item to be lifted head on, and by all means – if an item is too heavy for you to lift then get help. Don’t be macho when it comes to back health.
 PROTECT YOUR NECK
Three points are most important: first is the same as protecting your back – do not lift items that are more than 10 pounds from shelves higher than your shoulders; second – make sure that the table that you are working on is the right height to match your own height (If you have to bend at the waist to effectively work on a table then it is too low and will cause neck strain) and most important – practice good posture.
 PROTECT YOUR FEET
There is no getting around the reality that kitchen work requires that you be on your feet at least 8 hours a day. You feet take a beating and as a result so do your back and knees. In a previous article that focused on the importance of your feet I pointed to a few simple rules of thumb: make sure that you wear supportive shoes and that if your shift is more than 8 hours a day you should bring an extra pair and change half way through your shift; wear white socks in the kitchen (since your feet sweat – the dye in colored socks will have an impact on foot health); and make sure that floors in the kitchen where you will stand are covered with flexible, porous mats to take some of the strain off your feet.
 WATCH YOUR POSTURE
Posture, as stated under “Protect your Feet” is the root of physiological health. Your back should be straight and tables at a height that does not require you to bend over, constantly looking down or up. In some cases it might be wise to wear an elastic back brace or shoulder brace to force you into a better posture position.
 PROTECT YOUR KNEES
Those who have suffered from “bad knees” know how debilitating this can be. Standing for periods of time without moving can lock your knees, working on hard surfaces without the advantage of rubber mats will add to the pressure on knee caps, rapid shifts in position without proper conditioning can stretch your meniscus, and constant bending into a squat position on the hot line as you move items in and out of lowboy coolers and ovens will compound the stress that your knees face. Exercises that strengthen calf muscles and your quadriceps will help, but after time the kitchen will take a toll on that important part of your body.
 TAKE CARE OF YOUR HANDS
Carpel Tunnel is a real problem with cooks and chefs. The way that we hold knives in particular, the pressure on your hands through grabbing and lifting heavy objects, and most significant – repetitive motion can result in the terrible pain that comes from compression on nerves in the hand. The results can range from tingling and numbness to weakness in the hand and pain in the wrist and palm. This can be truly debilitating to a cook that depends on hands as the most important kitchen tool. Isometric hand exercises, stretching and massaging hands, switching tasks every so often to give your hands a rest can help to prevent the syndrome, but consistent symptoms may eventually lead to surgery with extensive rehab time.
 KNOW YOUR LIMITATIONS
If there is one rule that stands out as most important it is to know your limitations, ask for help with lifting and pay attention to those situations that you know will put your body in a position for potential injury. Losing work time because of avoidable injury is not a great option for anyone. From the chef or owner’s perspective – make sure that you pay attention to work conditions and the work habits of those people who are on your payroll. Set the stage for everyone to stay healthy.
 BASIC CARE AND MAINTENANCE
Eat well (proper nutrition is fuel for a healthy body), try to maintain your ideal body weight, find a way to get enough sleep, and exercise every day (all it takes is 20 minutes out of every 24 hours). These maintenance activities will position your body towards a healthy today and tomorrow.
“Physical fitness is not only one of the most important keys to a healthy body, it is the basis of dynamic and creative intellectual activity.”
-John F. Kennedy
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