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Dental Fitness: The secret to a long career

Published: June 26, 2024 by Dylan Allen

Two dentists in their white coats flexing their biceps.
Drs. Ralph A. Cooley (left) and Joe C. Ontiveros, two UTHealth Houston School of Dentistry faculty members, are ambassadors of healthy living as it pertains to practicing dentistry. Photo by Dylan Allen.
Man poses for picture at powerlifting competition while wearing first-place medal.
Dr. Joe C. Ontiveros won first place with a state-record-setting 519-pound deadlift in his age group. Photo courtesy of Dr. Ontiveros.

In the fast-paced world of being a dental professional, where endurance and precision are key elements in the day-to-day functions, the significance of physical fitness is often an overlooked aspect of the job.

Maintaining a high fitness level is crucial for dentists and hygienists alike, impacting not only their overall health but also their performance and career longevity. Consistent exercise can combat the physical demands of long procedures to prevent common musculoskeletal disorders.

Exploring the vital role that physical fitness plays in the field of dentistry, two UTHealth Houston School of Dentistry faculty use their personal experience and expertise on the current research to tell others about how a fit and active lifestyle can benefit both dental practitioners and their patients.

Over the last eight years, one elective course at the School of Dentistry has aimed to bring awareness to the importance of healthy living and bodily function as it pertains to the field. Assistant Dean of Admissions and Student Services Ralph Cooley, DDS, leads the Dental Fitness elective that gives students the knowledge and courses of action to maintain the bodily function the profession demands over the length of their career.

“Seventy percent of dental students complain about a pain they’re experiencing by only their third year of school,” Cooley said. “People think it’s easy because you’re just sitting and utilizing fine motor functions, but it’s actually very damaging to your body.”

Alongside the pain students can encompass shortly after they begin treating patients, 30 percent of the dentists who retire early do so as a response to a musculoskeletal injury. For careers that have individuals sitting for the majority of the day, eventual neck and back issues can often be linked to prolonged static postures (more commonly referred to as PSP) as a result of keeping the body still for long periods of time to perform fine dentistry.

“I’ve had colleagues that can’t practice anymore or are experiencing physical challenges because of dentistry,” Cooley said. “I believe that if our students are proactive from the beginning and practice good ergonomics, they won’t be destined for the same fate that previous generations of dentists have had to deal with.”

In both the elective course and multiple continuing education courses, Cooley points out six areas of focus when it comes to physical management: cardio/aerobic exercise, strength training, flexibility, ergonomics, sleep, and pain management. He gives his students and colleagues implementations to make in their life and career to curb the toll of long-term dental practice, including range-of-motion exercises, the proper positions one should take when performing certain procedures, and when/where to seek help to manage any pain.

“As dentists, we sit a lot, so we talk about ways in which you can stand, including certain procedures you can complete standing up,” he said. “A lot of students are also seasoned athletes, but we discuss that as a dentist you need to have a specific plan to know what muscles to target and what muscles to be cautious of over-strengthening.”

One faculty member who can attest to the relationship between muscle-strengthening and dentistry is Professor Joe C. Ontiveros, DDS, MS, who has participated in weight-lifting competitions in tandem with being a professional dentist.

“For me, dental fitness is one dimension of living a harmonious life of excellence,” Ontiveros said. “It’s about striving for balance in all areas of life — the spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical dimensions. For example, there is quite a bit of evidence that resistance training in particular is good for your mental health, both in the short term and the long term.”

Recently setting the deadlift state record in his age group at 519 lbs., Ontiveros believes that a healthy resistance regime that refines the core, spine, and grip has helped in his long-term success and minimal work-related injuries.

Poor grip strength in particular often goes under the radar as it is associated with an increased risk of all-cause premature mortality in healthy and middle-aged adults.

“One of the best exercises for a dentist to learn how to do properly is the barbell deadlift,” he said. “It is one of the great overall body strength builders. It fortifies the core, spine, legs, and grip strength.”

Whether it’s visiting the gym more often, or taking it up a step to begin competing with the best weight-lifters in the state, being conscientious about the physical demands of the profession can be vital in continuing the career for as long as possible.

“Throughout all of the technological advancements we’ve had recently, we teach that the most valuable piece of equipment you’re ever going to have is you and your body,” Cooley said. “Health care professionals have a responsibility to take care of themselves so they can take better care of others.”

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