Marcia Polas observes patterns in restaurant work: the lifting, twisting, shaking and scooping with the “force of a battering ram” that cause industry-specific harm. Her mission? Reversing the damage.
Marcia Polas
Credit: Cyrus McCrimmon/Getty Images

Marcia Polas is 4 feet 11 inches of moving muscle on a mission. From her New York City base, she crosses the country teaching Pilates to chefs, bartenders and baristas. But don’t call Polas’ Pilates “exercise.” Rather, her practice is redefining the entire conversation surrounding health in the hospitality industry.

"Wellness does not necessarily mean working out,” Polas says. “Wellness is using your body in an organized fashion and allowing it to do the job it was designed to do.”

A body designed for hospitality is a bizarre concept for most who work it. Chronic feet, back and joint pains pervade. They exacerbate with time and an establishment’s success. Holding tongs for over twenty years left AvroKo Hospitality Group executive chef Brad Farmerie with incurable forearm stress disorder. Lilia executive chef Missy Robbins has shoulder tears, bone spurs and arthritis not fixable without surgery. Austin executive chef Sarah Heard of Foreign & Domestic gets stress migraines regularly.

Polas says, “If not the fear, this is the knowledge: You're only going to last so long. That’s the story that we're telling because no one knows another story.”

With her “Occupational Pilates,” Polas observes patterns in hospitality work: the lifting, twisting, shaking and scooping with the “force of a battering ram” that cause industry-specific harm. She consistently sees feet too widely planted—the result of false information about core stability and power-posing confidence—which forces imbalanced pressure to knees, hips and lower back. In bartenders, regular “tapping at the tin makes for pressed, crunched, jammed bones and wrist mobility problems.” After also assessing individual habits, she gets to work reversing the damage.

Boston bartender Misty Kalfoken’s wrist pain had brought her to a breaking point. “It became obvious that pain was going to prohibit me from continuing, which was sad because I loved bartending,” she says. By the time she met Polas through the Speed Rack Competition, she had crammed hand bones tightly bound by fascia—connective tissue that turns rock hard through injury, limiting mobility and causing intense pain. “If we release the fascia, then we’ve got it,” Polas says. In several hour-long sessions, she massaged and manipulated Kalfoken’s fascia from fingertip to elbow. “In the moment it can definitely be painful,” Kalfoken admits. “But you feel relief in the space created.” With time, her hand bones will progressively move back into place.

With all students, Polas gets fascia to a “juicy” point, then teaches proper alignment: when standing with feet fist-width apart and weight equally distributed, muscles hold the pelvis, hips, torso and shoulders naturally in place. At home, students spend twenty-minutes in the morning doing breath work and using balls and dowels to continue softening fascia. Then, the strength building happens at work. “Those in hospitality change faster than anyone else because they are ridiculously strong just surviving in their jobs,” she says. At night, they reset, and may soothe themselves with an Epsom salt bath. Blood flow increases, the need to self-medicate decreases and, even if getting only four hours of rest, they don’t wake up feeling like they were run over by a truck, then dragged down the highway for a mile.

Additional exercise happens by choice. “You do it because you love using your body, you feel good and you have access to it,” Polas adds. “Not because you have to in order to get going.”

Polas meets resistance at that idea. The industry draws in people seeking adrenaline highs. Intense workouts in social settings provide instant gratification, like serving customers at a restaurant. “If you tell me I’m going to feel better in a year, it goes against that immediacy,” says Farmerie. Robbins points out that most cooks can’t commit the money to a gym membership or Pilates classes. Heard says she can’t prioritize the time; as Foreign & Domestic’s most expensive employee, it would take “something pretty detrimental” to invest in her health rather than cover another cook’s dropped shift.

In response to this reality, Polas streamlined her practice. “Even if it's for a few minutes, you feel better,” she says. “What if that becomes your norm? And what if you know how to do that for yourself? That's all I want.” Rather than traditional classes, she runs workshops at large-scale events, in bars and kitchens and in studios. Those in extreme pain can also take one-on-one sessions. The home practice requires thirty minutes, plus daily awareness of when something doesn’t feel right. When healthful habits become routine, Polas is largely out; she doesn’t want to be a regular player.

“I thought I was broken for good,” says Tyler Hudgens. Eighty-hour weeks as bar director ofThe Dabney in D.C. caused flaring pain in her knees, ankles, wrists and elbows. At thirty-three, she contemplated transitioning away from a career “where there isn’t such thing as retirement.” Just touching her feet to the floor in the morning hurt. “Marcia fixed that in one session,” she says. Hudgens now continues her daily practice and considers Polas to be the best-kept secret in the industry.

“Bodies are amazing,” Polas says. “They will heal, and they are capable of miraculous things.” So she continues crossing the country, massaging fascia and realigning bodies. “Because it shouldn’t hurt to do your job.”