It’s Not Some Phone-y Problem


One of life’s greatest conveniences is also one of its toughest tyrants.

The telephone lets us talk to almost anyone, any time, anywhere. But the price is often a pain in the neck--literally.

When it rings, we drop everything and dive for it. Many of us spend long hours in offices attached to the receiver, then continue yammering into cellular phones in our cars and regular handsets at home.

Most Americans get little or no physical activity, typically claiming “lack of time.” Yet while at home, the average person spends 34 minutes on personal calls during a typical day, according to a survey conducted for American Telephone & Telegraph Corp. by Louis Harris & Associates.


To tame the telephone tyrant, here are six strategies for “phone fitness”:

* Never squeeze the receiver between your shoulder and neck. If you frequently make lengthy calls, invest in a headset to free your upper body from the tension of cradling the phone. (Electronics shops and office supply stores sell headsets for about $60 and up.) Speaker phones also offer hands-off use and are neck savers when you’re stuck on hold listening to Muzak.

* Alternate ears. Most right-handed people hold the phone with their left hand at their left ear, and left-handed people usually do the opposite. Over time, these patterns can cause muscle imbalance and tension that can lead to pain and injury. Try answering and holding the phone with your right hand and right ear on even-numbered days and your left hand and left ear on odd-numbered days.

* Whenever possible, stand and stretch while on the phone. Most Americans spend the majority of their days sitting, then wonder why they suffer from back pain, stiff muscles and tight joints. AT & T encourages its customer service associates to stand and stretch while on the phone, said Paula Lindabury, a site administrator at the company’s Atlanta office. Many employees have ergonomic desks that enable them to raise and lower their computer keyboards, she said, so they can work while standing and sitting.

“We tell our employees to think of themselves as ‘computer athletes’ and run contests to see which group did more stretching,” Lindabury said. “Sitting still is dangerous because lack of motion can cause injury.” If you must sit, do some shoulder shrugs, neck rotations or leg stretches.

At home, use a cordless phone and walk around while you talk. Climb stairs or get on an exercise machine to work out while you chat. Remember, a good way to tell that you’re exercising at a moderate intensity is the “talk test,” which means you can carry on a conversation while moving.

* Keep some “body tools” by the phone. While talking, ease tension spots with self-massagers such as the “knobble,” a small, wooden acupressure knob, or the “theracane,” which lets you soothe hard-to-reach sore spots in your back. Available from Stretching Inc. ([800] 333-1307). Or strengthen your hands and arms by gripping an egg-shaped Eggsercizer ([800] 858-EGGS).

* Never answer on the first ring. Telephone calls frequently disrupt our already harried lives. So instead of racing for the receiver, “take a six-second tranquilizer,” said Ronald Nathan, a professor of family practice at Albany Medical College in New York and author of several books on stress management. “Wait six seconds, or about two rings, before picking up the phone. Use that time to take a deep breath and visualize yourself as relaxed as a rag doll.”


* Try a “telephone meditation.” Buddhist monks use temple bells to remind them to come back to the present moment, said Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh in his guide to mindfulness meditation, “Peace Is Every Step” (Bantam, 1991). “Every time we hear the bell,” he wrote, “we stop talking, stop our thinking and return to ourselves, breathing in and out and smiling.”

Instead of being “victims of our own telephone,” Nhat Hahn suggested that “the next time you hear the phone ring, just stay where you are, breathe in and out consciously, smile to yourself, and recite this verse (which monks say when temple bells ring): ‘Listen, listen. This wonderful sound brings me back to my true self.’ ”

And remember: There’s no law stating that you must answer the phone. Let a machine screen calls, and refuse to let the telephone interrupt important events, like your workout or a family dinner.

Never answer on the first ring. Telephone calls frequently disrupt our already harried lives. So instead of racing for the receiver, ‘take a six-second tranquilizer.’