021: Dr. Heidi Roberts, The Sitting Disease and Motion Therapy

“The more we’re moving, the better we’re feeling, the more focused, the more energized we generally are… It affects our digestion, it affects our brain focus, it affects everything.”  Dr. Heidi Roberts

Heidi Roberts received her doctorate in physical therapy degree from Loma Linda University in southern California. And different from most PTs, she pursued an orthopedic physical therapy residency in Seattle.

Early on, Heidi recognized a tremendous lack of body awareness as an underlying cause of people’s pain. In 2012 she founded Motion Therapy, which enabled her to bring physical therapy, injury prevention, and wellness services to athletes, professionals, and businesses, enabling her to broaden the reach of this work.

In September, she published The Sitting Disease, which reached #1 At Amazon/Kindle in 8 categories! The more we’re moving, the better we’re feeling, the more focused, the more energized we generally are.

You can learn more about Heidi’s work at her website: http://www.motiontherapy.net

Join our conversation above – press play –  or below (edited version).

ERH  Welcome, Heidi.

Heidi Roberts:  Thank you, Elizabeth. So happy to connect.

ERH:  How did you get into physical therapy, and how did you become passionate about it?

Heidi Roberts:  It really started for me in my first job, fresh out of college in a leadership development program with General Electric. One thing I knew about myself is that I am a lifelong learner, and I needed to be learning, and growing, and also supported on my intellectual curiosity journey, so to speak.

And right away, I was surprised that I was not happy on any level: not my mind, not my body, not my spirit. I was sitting in a cubicle working well over 50, 60 hours a week, and I was not thriving. I knew there must be another way and something that would be more in alignment with my core. I left my job and retooled in physical therapy and found that by learning the principles of human movement and how to take care of my own physical body, that I was on a more healthy, holistic and aligned path.

So that’s how I got into the science and the basics of healthy living, it was the beginning of learning to listen to my body, and listening to my deep inner knowing and intuition.  

ERH: It is powerful that you were able to find that in yourself and discover what you love. Because a lot of us are sitting in these cubicles, and we can’t find that strength.

What are some of the things that you’ve seen in others, and how do you help them make choices for themselves to do things differently?

Heidi Roberts: What I’ve found is that, like anything, there is a level of commitment that we all have. Once we get clear on who we are, like for me, part of starting my own business was really getting clear on my values. Starting with my values, I realized that freedom, flexibility, adventure, continuous learning, and collaborating were core to my work needs.  Once I got clear on that, starting my own business; became my school of inner work and inner knowing. I had the responsibility and ownership of my life and my business, and by finding it for myself I was then able to recognize if other people had that same level of awareness and commitment to their own path and their own inner knowing.

I started to attract a lot more clients that were extremely motivated. They knew what they wanted, when they wanted it, and they wanted it from me. There’s motivation, but that comes and goes. It was really someone who was committed to their own journey, and their own health and wellness.

Working with others energized me, inspired me, and give me confidence.  it took a lot of time… and that’s really what The Sitting Disease is, my own journey and realizing that so many things that seem complicated can become very simple. Not that I have that all figured out, but I’m a lot further than I was in my mid-20s. Right?

ERH:  Right.

Heidi Roberts:  So the clients that I started working with had the commitment, and when people came to me with commitment, where my strengths came into play was helping them be consistent. I was able to make their strategies, techniques, and tools very convenient. Then they experience results that are lasting, and quick, because of what I call the Three Cs: commitment, convenience, and consistency.

ERH: Can you talk about that a little bit … maybe share a real-story without the name and how you go about working with them?

Heidi Roberts:  Great question, and that helps me. Currently, I am working with people in their home or at their job. One individual is an artist and creative, and she spends hours designing, and drawing, and painting. What was really holding her back in her physical body was neck and shoulder tightness, and pain that came with spending a lot of hours at the computer or a lot of hours painting.

What we did was redesign her workstation. We created a sit/stand workstation out of the desktop that she already had, and brought in a simple set of tools that are portable and very effective. She was able to use, for example, one of them, the Thera Cane, which I’m not sure if you’re familiar with, but it looks like a giant candy cane. And she uses it to simulate the same manual techniques that I use when working with clients to relieve trigger points or simple knots that cause or complicate aches and pains in the body.

Those long hours of sitting were at the root, Elizabeth, and we all know, if you stay in one position for too long your body starts screaming at you. Things start to act out.

What happens is these simple tools simulate the same work that I do and people are motivated to keep using the tool. Who doesn’t want to feel good and have access to something they can use anytime, anywhere? I teach people how to help themselves, and give them ownership of their body.

Simple tools, simple stretching techniques that people can do anytime, in any space. They don’t need expensive equipment or a gym membership. It is about their level of awareness. Getting into somebody’s brain, and if they are willing to absorb information, their body follows suit. It’s all connected: mind, body, spirit.

The other thing is just listening to people, because when people are in pain, or they’re hurting, or they’re not able to do something that’s vital and critical to them, they have the answers. This particular woman that’s an artist, it’s her livelihood and her outlet. That’s how she communicates and shares her work with the world.

I don’t think it’s that complicated. It’s just that many times busy offices, busy healthcare providers don’t always have the time to spend the time in that education [with patients], and also, sometimes people don’t want to hear it. They just want a quick fix.

ERH:  Like a pill, right?

Heidi Roberts:   Exactly. The magic pill. But if we get to the root cause of what the imbalance is that’s causing somebody’s pain and really educate them around that, then they can actually embody the transformation real time.

The things that I’m talking about aren’t traditional injuries. Right? So many people think that physical therapy is after a knee replacement, or a hip replacement, or a motor vehicle accident. But really, it’s so far over on the preventative and proactive side of things, rather than the reactive side of things.

In the last 10+ years of doing what I do with people in their home, and then with teams and groups on-site at businesses, there are patterns of imbalances in the body.  People who sit all day in front of the computer have these similar patterns and presentation of symptoms. After we work together, they will say, “Why didn’t somebody tell me this?” Or, “How come someone didn’t show me how to use this spiky ball, or a Thera Cane, or one of these tools that basically simulate what my physical therapist, chiropractor, and massage therapist are doing?”

Not that it replaces those people, that’s not at all what I’m saying. It’s what can we do to sustain the gains that are made when someone makes that investment in working with a healthcare provider?  How do we empower them and shift the responsibility back to them so that they’re owning their own health and wellness, and truly listening to their own body? It’s truly a unique situation for each person, but there are these patterns that can be managed for someone who wants to spend as little as 10 minutes a day helping themselves.

ERH:  Well, I find that, too, that meaningful progress doesn’t take long… I lead stretches all the time as part of the work I do through BreakTogether, and it’s just two minutes. People are amazed at the positive impact.

I think what gets in people’s way is that we are being measured. Most of us are sitting in an office with a supervisor nearby, or we are being measured by the manager in our head. We think that if we take a pause for self-care that we’ll miss a deadline, or we’re not going to get as much work done.  Yet in the same amount of time as getting a glass of water and taking an Advil, you could be applying pressure somewhere, or moving your arms around, or standing up from your desk, and you would feel better.

 I love the points that you made around making it simple for people.

Heidi Roberts: Oh, simple. Yes.

ERH: A great lead-in to ask you to talk about The Sitting Disease. Tell me about your new book – you just reached number one on Amazon, right? Woo-hoo!

Heidi Roberts:  You know, thank you, Elizabeth. Yes, with a lot of support. Friends, community, clients, the whole bit. On Amazon Kindle, we had a free five-day promotion where people could download it. There were nearly 7,000 downloads in those five days that pushed us up to number one in eight categories on Amazon Kindle.

ERH:  That’s fantastic. Good for you.

Heidi Roberts:  It was a community effort, and a client effort. It’s also timely information. The Sitting Disease, and all the research, linked with sitting is the new smoking that hit mainstream media in 2013.

At that time, a local publisher approached me about creating a guidebook and making an eBook out of the things I was teaching at businesses here in Oregon. And so that’s a story for another time, but I would not have stuck with creating this guidebook if I didn’t know that every day the simple and specific tools and techniques from designing and creating an active workstation helps people.

I did not set out to write a book. That’s never been on my professional bucket list. However, I did and still believe that the simple, specific tools and techniques in the book are validated real-time every day. That interaction with clients, and with the community, and with businesses is really what fueled me to keep pushing through it for 3 years and bring on experts, like, pretty much every six months to get the book out there.

The illustrator that I worked with, the writer, that whole team, I learned so much. For me, being that lifelong learner, to take what I do in person with people and what I do in workshops, and then transition it into a book has been a really steep learning curve. I’m really proud that it’s out there in the world, and I’m excited that people will have a guide and an affordable option for people that either can’t afford a healthcare professional, or to maintain work they have done with a professional.

For employees, and communities, and companies, they can inspire a shift to more proactive and preventative practices, rather than the reactive and rehabilitative spectrum for aches and pains for their people.

ERH: Hallelujah. I agree with that. A lot of people have asked at many companies for stand-up desks. Someone might be listening who isn’t able to make that investment on their own, or their company is unable to afford that right now. What affordable preventive solutions do you recommend?

Heidi Roberts:  Absolutely. Right now, my desk and workstation move around frequently. I have an Ikea table that has a converted crate that’s my shelf with my laptop on top. I’ve been in the kitchen, I’ve been in coffee shops, I’m upstairs, I’m moving around constantly. And that’s something in the guidebook too. Do-it-yourself is a great option. It doesn’t take a lot of money or a big investment to stack some books up and get things into alignment and support your body.

The big thing is it’s really about not bringing your body to your workstation but bringing your workstation to you. So people get that backward. That’s where you see the person that’s hunched over, and slouching, and grabbing their neck and their low back, because gravity’s winning and they are conforming to their desk. It’s about alignment, and getting the body stacked correctly. Another thing is to bring in a headset. We’re talking right now. I’m on the headset instead of pinching the phone or cell phone between my ear and my shoulder, right? This kind of thing.

Generally, what I find for people is if we can get their workstation designed to support their body and proper alignment, then that transitions to how they sit and how they move about in the rest of their life. They start realizing their shoulders are hunched and their head is bent over, and again gravity winning … After a long day, I’m tired too. It’s about adding more motion. Like you said, if you’re answering a phone call, why not stand up and take the phone call? Why not have that walk-and-talk meeting, or take a two-minute break and grab a glass of water?

What I like to emphasize is that it’s not just about your posture, it’s more about your alignment and realizing (one of my favorite quotes) that, “The best posture is your next posture, and it’s staying in motion.”

ERH:  Nice.

Heidi Roberts:  It’s not like the nurse that’s had a 12-hour shift that she’s been standing all day. That person is just as sore as someone who’s been sitting all day in front of the computer. It’s keeping the body in motion and realizing that the body was designed to move. So the more we’re moving, the better we’re feeling, the more focused, the more energized we generally are. It affects our digestion, it affects our brain focus, it affects everything.

With all of the chronic diseases: diabetes, heart disease, obesity, all of those things that we’ve all heard about that’s related to too much time sitting and being sedentary, there are small things we can do, and a lot of it comes to those behavior changes. And bringing that awareness so that people can see there are possibilities using simple tools or simple stretching techniques to feel better.

They see the possibility and take responsibility and ownership for their body.

ERH:  Yes. That’s what I love: that it’s not complicated.

Heidi Roberts:  Yes, and that’s probably the nuts and bolts of the book. There is a 10-minute system that integrates these five simple tools, and these 10 head-to-toe stretching techniques that can be done anytime, anywhere.

ERH:  I love it. So, before we head out, what is your favorite method of taking a pause and breaking from the norm of your day?

Heidi Roberts:  Oh my goodness. I’m very fortunate, Elizabeth. I live in a little adventure town here in Hood River, and right out the back door there are trails. There’s not one day that I’m not super grateful to either go for a trail run, or a hike, or mountain bike, or ski, depending on the season. I’m designing my lifestyle around my values, and getting out and being mobile. So I’m fortunate to literally go outside in the backyard and play on the rivers, and the mountains, and the trails.

If I had to say a favorite right now, it depends on the season. I don’t have a favorite.

ERH:  They all sound fantastic.

Heidi Roberts: I just like to get outside; be outside and move.

ERH: That is beautiful. Well, Heidi, I truly appreciate you being part of the Art of the Break and sharing ways of working differently with us. You can learn more about Heidi’s work at her website: http://www.motiontherapy.net