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Women In Wellness: Jeannie Koulizakis of Ergo RX on the Five Lifestyle Tweaks That Will Help Support People’s Journey Towards Better Wellbeing

Success is a feeling, not a destination — End every day recognizing at least 5 things that fill you with feelings of thankfulness. They’re why we are here, so enjoy them.

As a part of my series about the women in wellness, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeannie Koulizakis.

Jeannie Koulizakis, MPT, is a physical therapist and custom ergonomic workstation designer on a mission to advance the art of living, learning, and working from home. She is the founder of ErgoRx.Com and the inventor of the “Ankorite Work System”, a patented and Cornell University-validated method of computer workstation design proven to eliminate the awkward postures during computer use at the root of the chronic spine and joint pain she treats every day as a practicing physical therapist.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

When I first finished physical therapy school, I did not yet own my own laptop because that was the year 2000 and they were still pretty expensive. My first job after school was treating injured factory workers on the west side of Chicago and medical notes were still written by hand, at least in the clinics I worked.

Fast forward a decade, I pivoted from the clinic to the classroom. It was my first desk job and I worked from home, something no other PT I knew was doing at the time. My job was to develop an academic program for PT assistants in Florida and, without students in the classroom yet, writing the curriculum could be done from anywhere. I started working at the office, but eventually moved to working from home full time with the laptop they gave me.

A few months into what was supposed to be my dream job, I experienced my first ever moment of intense upper back and neck pain. I had experienced a few less intense bouts prior to that, but nothing like this one. This time was different. It was less slow-onset and more baseball bat to the back. I was young, active, and fit. It made no sense to my PT brain. I tried to stop it with self-care, but it kept coming back with what seemed to be a grudge. Eventually, I hated my job so much that I quit and returned to the frontlines of patient care, where I thought my body was telling me I belonged.

My next job would move us back to Northern Virginia where I grew up. I accepted a Director of Physical Therapy position in a multidisciplinary primary care and rehab center (shout out to Nova Pain and Rehab Center) where I still work to this day. Our small clinic sits inside a very busy Gold’s Gym in South Arlington, just a stone’s throw from the Pentagon, and the rest of the federal government and its many surrounding neighborhoods of tech consultants. When I first started treating patients here, I began to repeatedly hear echoes of my own neck and back pain from almost every patient intake, mostly from gym members who clearly prioritized their health and wellness. As time went on, those echoes just got louder and more frequent (especially now, post-COVID). I realized early on that much of the pain we were treating was being aggravated by, if not the singular cause of, the chronic awkward sitting positions being assumed during computer use, regardless of weight, fitness level, or standing desk use.

I spent the next few years burrowed in online rabbit holes centered around all things office ergonomics research-related. I went on to receive a certification in corporate ergonomics and took on a part-time job performing desk-side evaluations for techies complaining of neck and back pain in Fortune 50 and 500 companies. These expensive, reactive workspace evaluations would usually occur in very high dollar cube farms, in $1000 office chairs, in the most cutting edge of open plan offices on K Street or near the Dulles Corridor, DC’s version of Palo Alto.

My AHA moment (I’ve had a few) was when it became crystal clear to me that none of the surprisingly numerous stakeholders in the world of office furniture and its proper operation were understanding the real reason why people sitting in self-identified ergonomic chairs were experiencing real pain. The root cause of toxic postures and repetitive stress injuries during computer use, I eventually came to realize, wasn’t a glitch with the will of the user, it was a simple glitch in workstation design. Once I understood that essential, non-negotiable reality, my path was made clear and I’ve been on it ever since.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? What were the main lessons or takeaways from that story?

It was while sitting and working at my kitchen table in Florida that my first real ergonomics-related AHA moment occurred. At 39, I started to experience extreme pain and stiffness in my neck and back of unknown origin. One evening, as I was sitting at home on my laptop, the pain ramped up quickly again. As I started to rub my neck to calm it down as I always did, it happened. I suddenly caught a full-body, side view glimpse of myself in our glass sliding doors. This was the first time I had ever really stared at myself while seated and typing. The horrid hunched turtle posture I saw in my reflection and my “mystery” pain instantly made perfect sense to my PT brain. The fact that I did not realize I was sitting so awkwardly all that time was equally surprising. That physical self-reflection was so powerful, that I have used “before” and “after” posture pictures with my patients ever since, to help them make the same connection for themselves.

My chronic pain was the spark that launched my own journey. Particularly in the last decade, and most especially post-pandemic, chronic exposure to toxic postures while working, learning, and even gaming, is a full blown public health issue that will only get worse if it continues to go unaddressed on a mass scale. The big takeaway for me was, if you are suffering from a serious problem and you manage to find a better way, fix it for others, too. Chances are great that you are not the only one suffering. And second, I believe whole-heartedly that, when you aspire to help the world in a good way, the world welcomes it and seems to conspire to help you right back.

Can you share a story about the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons you learned from that?

I think the biggest mistake I made at first was not understanding who my target audience was and that it can be a moving target. At first, I tailored my messaging to the injured worker. However, after understanding that they do not buy the furniture they use for work, their input often made little difference in terms of policy formation. Facilities managers, environmental health folks, architects, interior designers, furniture sales people, were all new professionals with whom I was interacting, but with which I was completely unfamiliar. What I learned was that, in changing ergonomics policies, each of these varying disciplines have their own unique agenda and that, to help the most people possible, better understanding of the pinch points of each stakeholder is an essential part of successful execution. So get to know your stakeholders, as it may not always be strictly the end user, and target your messaging accordingly.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Like most success stories, it takes a village. My mom has been particularly helpful by being the only octogenarian using The Ankorite as of yet. After she had lumbar stabilization surgery at 76 years of age about a decade ago, I immediately set her up with an Ankorite and she uses it to this day. Her posture, daily long walks, and 3 days of vigorous Zumba each week a decade later is exemplary which, as a PT, makes me so proud to see. Much of the posture decay we see with older people comes from prolonged poor sitting postures in recliners without adequate lumbar support. My two sons, a kindergartner and a fourth grader, also help every day by being my guinea pigs at the other end of the lifespan spectrum. They are subjected to daily R+D while they homeschool in their mom-made “learning stations”. This front row seat to watching the formation of their computer use habits has been both horrifying and inspirational to watch. There is no denying, they will not know a world without high durations of daily computer use. Teaching them good habits now is the key to prevention. As they say in my biz, it’s a lot easier to raise an intact spine than to fix a broken back.

Professionally, I think the person whose belief in me and my work for which I am most grateful is that of Dr. Alan Hedge. He is Professor Emeritus at Cornell University and an internationally acknowledged leader in the field of ergonomics. It was his personal invitation of the Ankorite Work System to be the subject of PhD ergonomics research at Cornell (that he would go on to co-author) that has been the most distinguishing feature of my solution versus all others on the market. He has spent years in the field of computer based-worker safety and workstation design and his appreciation of my approach to a solution has meant so much to me. Dr. Hedge and co-author Dr. Gourab Kar found that my solution eliminates all the awkward tech-related postures that cause pain and, eventually, spine and joint disorders. This isn’t just reduced spine and joint pain. This is an immunization to what I felt that day at my kitchen table in Florida, and to much of the pain I see clinically every day. It also reduces claims risks, healthcare costs, absenteeism, presenteeism, and other collateral damage and buzz terms I learned at the crowded stakeholder table. So I am eternally grateful for the work of Dr. Hedge and Dr. Kar in helping to advance my determination in reducing the unnecessary pain so many are experiencing today.

Ok perfect. Now let’s jump to our main focus. When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?

The work I am doing right now is all about eliminating the spine and joint pain that is coming from chronic toxic postures during computer and cell phone use. SInce the COVID pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, people have been working and learning on their electronics, largely in poor ergonomic conditions, causing a huge spike in patient and ergo client caseloads. By educating patients and clients on the best spine and joint hygiene practices during computer use, which includes employing ideal postures and movement patterns, musculoskeletal disease prevention is finally possible. The impact I am trying to have is to reduce spine and joint decay by making compliance with healthier tech-use habits as human-proof as possible. Like brushing and flossing, healthy daily routines must be taught and adopted young, and should be guided by science. Tools may vary, but ideal work postures and patterns will not.

To scale the educational component of my work, I am currently creating a continuing education ergonomics course for rehab professionals that welcomes any and all other stakeholders including HR, wellness officers, facilities folks, and anyone else who wants to learn the art of avoiding the many layers of damages caused by poor tech-use hygiene. Post- COVID, HR departments are being bombarded with reports of employees suffering from achy backs and necks, especially as work-from-home is becoming mainstream, and claims are on the rise. Because most of the research relating to computer use is published in ergonomics, human factors, and other peer-reviewed journals that physical therapists, HR managers, and facilities people do not read, my life’s work at the moment is dedicated to being that missing link at the intersection of healthcare and the built-environment, providing the right information and evidence to all the right stakeholders, as soon as possible.

Can you share your top five “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing? Please give an example or story for each.

  1. Success is a feeling, not a destination — End every day recognizing at least 5 things that fill you with feelings of thankfulness. They’re why we are here, so enjoy them.
  2. Nurture emotional intelligence — LIfe is not perfect and, as soon as we realize that we don’t need to be, the better. To nurture long term feelings of success, it’s important to put setbacks and the hard days into better perspective. The more innovative your work, the harder the setbacks can feel, so reminding yourself of that when things are rough and to keep you moving forward.
  3. Stay active — This may be the PT in me, but movement matters. I look at my mom and I am so grateful to have her as an example. To feel as alive as possible, I think you have to roam about. Roam about your living room, your city, and the globe. RIght now, most of us are limited to our living rooms, so we should work on creating healthy interior spaces and habits that facilitate as much movement as possible exactly where we sit and stand the most often.
  4. Eat well — Though it was stolen from a Wayne Fields poem, Steve Jobs said in the last essay he shared with the world before he died to “Eat your food as your medicine, otherwise you have to eat medicine as your food”. That stuck with me.
  5. Work Right — Make the plunge. Invest in a healthy home workspace. Like brushing and flossing, it’s not the price of the brush that reduces tooth decay, it’s about hygiene routine compliance. A healthy workspace does not have to be expensive, but ideal postures and movement patterns are non-negotiable. I don’t see daily use of computers going away anytime soon, so teaching our kids healthy habits as soon as they first hold a cell phone in their hands without help, should be a priority.

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I was recently reading about the origin and history of dental hygienists. One of the first mentions of decay prevention in the history of dental research noted that so much attention was paid to therapeutics and surgery of rotten teeth, yet “the hygiene of teeth was wholly neglected”. The author of the paper, from only 150 years ago, went on to say, “Certainly there is no part of the physical organism to which prevention of disease can be more successfully or effectually applied than to the teeth”. I believe the exact same can be said of the spine and joints in our new tech use reality and my movement would include creating an army of spine and joint hygienists through an accredited education program, helping to prevent the spine and joint disease happening all around the industrialized world as we speak.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

1. Nothing happens overnight. When I started to hit my first big milestones, I used to think my life would change dramatically. I didn’t know how, but it was my expectation. Unfortunately, after my first patent, the Cornell research, my first workstation installation, and my hundredth, the ticker-tape parade in my mind did not materialize. Now I see my journey to success as a quieter and collective celebration of all these milestones.

2. Team building matters. Forgive the overused cliche, but there is no “I” in team. You don’t know who you’ll need, or who will need you. To be successful in launching health and wellness initiatives, you should be prepared to fully embrace your humanity and welcome the village with open arms, prepared to act responsibly as both mentee and mentor.

3. Beta test perpetually. Stealing this from a recent interview with Elon Musk, he said that being constantly focused on improving your product or craft is essential to remaining relevant. With the increasing amount of time we are spending interacting with screens, and with what devices, perpetual beta testing is just a part of the program. The evidence that belies the most current best-practices must come from the most relevant of user behaviors. WIth the speed of light with which everyone’s industries are morphing right now, I could see this being relevant to so many reading this right now.

4. Work-life balance matters. This is about the art of time management for the entrepreneur. Burnout is very real and can sneak up, at any time, seemingly out of nowhere. But it’s not out of nowhere, it comes from not spending enough time on non-work-related activities. With kids at home during a lockdown, the reminders are built in. But I had both of my sons in my forties, and fully remember an adulthood devoid of those reminders. I could see having a much tougher time with this one if I was on this journey a decade sooner, especially during a pandemic. Research shows that we spend over 70% of our life indoors and, of that time, we spend much of it interacting with electronics, and that was data gathered pre-COVID. Remember that there’s a world out there and to safely go outside at least twice a day. A dog really helps

5. Invest in a good lawyer. As a plaque hanging in our local Jimmy John’s sub shop states, “Honesty is not only morally right, it is also highly efficient.” As a PT, I fully acknowledge I am not schooled in these skills and, as I venture out into the world with real innovation, I have found that the input of a good lawyer and contract writer has helped me dodge many bullets. Again, prevention is the cheapest remedy!

Sustainability, veganism, mental health and environmental changes are big topics at the moment. Which one of these causes is dearest to you, and why?

Environmental changes that are evidence-based to improve health is in our DNA at ErgoRX. Most people spend nearly 90% of their days indoors and a significant percent of that time is interacting with electronics. The profound impacts on physical and mental health that the built environment of our working and learning spaces can have, from cradle to grave, cannot be underestimated in these unprecedented times. With prevention being the eternally sensible remedy, best-practices must be established through a combination of science and common sense. Hurt people hurt people, legend has it, and nothing leads to hurt quicker than being in unsafe conditions most of your waking day. An affordable and evidence-based built environment that leads to a lessening of exposure to unhealthy physical and mental repetitive stresses wherever we live, learn, and work is the cause most dearest to us and the one enthusiastically working towards every day.

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media? You can follow me on LinkedIn:

https://www.linkedin.com/in/jeannie-koulizakis-physical-therapist/

Thank you for these fantastic insights!

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