I used to suffer from chronic lower back pain in my twenties, which was mostly due to my terrible seating position at work. My chair and monitor were far too low, and I always slouched back into my chair, stretching forwards at the mouse and keyboard. It didn’t help that my car at the time was a Mark 1 MR2, and I had to drive it with the seat reclined at 45 degrees to give me some headroom!
Technology and industrial design is slowly regressing us into the fetal position, hunched over and rotated inwards. For some people the visible signs are obvious, with the unfortunate end result being forced to use a zimmer frame in later life. However, misalignments are usually subtle, but still damaging. It can takes years of invisible abuse to suddenly show itself after pulling your back from something as innocent as vacuuming or tying a shoelace...
Head, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes
From the side view, poor posture and joint alignment is obvious. Head jutting forwards, shoulders rounded, elbows, hips and knees bent out of their neutral positions. Evidence has shown that maintaining good posture not only prevents pain and improves our ability to perform everyday tasks, it actually reduces stress, improves mood, and burns more body fat through the stimulation of beneficial hormones!
The classic response when someone asks “show me your muscles” is to flex the upper arms and show the biceps. This act of flexion is the joint hinging to shorten the space between two points.
Humans were designed to have an upright, neutral posture for optimal joint and muscle alignment. We now live in a society that is biased towards permanent flexion, and it’s turning us into C-shapes! This causes everything around the spine to lose its range of motion, putting uneven pressure on the discs, particularly in the neck and lower back.
There aren’t many activities that place our bodies into the opposite pattern of extension, to redress the balance. The image below shows an example of extension. The older we get, the more the connective tissues harden, as they set around flexed joints. Don’t try this pose if you suspect that you’re already C-shaped! It has to be undone gradually.
The following tips give an idea of what you can do to remould your posture, to reduce and prevent chronic pain, build your confidence, and remain ‘functional’.
Tip 1 – Reduce the time spent sitting
I covered the dangers of excessive sitting in a separate blog post here. The spoiler filled conclusion is that you need to break up 30 minute bouts of sitting by standing up, or having a couple of minutes of restorative movement.
Dr Kelly Starrett is a highly respected functional movement specialist, who has provided novel methods for fixing typical postural problems. His motto is “your best position is your next position”. In other words, if you remain static for too long, particularly when sitting, you will adapt to it with negative consequences.
Tip 2 – Practice standing!
It may sound bizarre to think about how to stand properly, but practicing the following steps will train your brain to engage the right muscles, and achieve lasting control and tone. The more you do this, the more it will become natural, without having to think about it.
Please note that if practicing the following movements causes any pain, numbness or tingling in the shoulders or arms, you may have a particular issue or prior injury causing nerve impingement, and you should stop and seek assistance from a professional that specialises in the spine.
Stand with your feet hip width apart with your weight evenly balanced. Without actually moving them, try to rotate them outwards, so that your hips open up slightly, like the wings of a butterfly. You may feel slight tension around the thighs and knees, and a minor contraction in your glutes (the buttock muscles).
Next, brace your tummy muscles as hard as you can for a couple of seconds (imagine you’re about to be punched in the stomach) and then ease off to about a 20% contraction. Hold this position.
Tuck your chin in slightly to make a pronounced double-chin, so that your head slides back and is not jutting forwards.
Finally, extend your spine upwards, as if you’re trying to grow an inch taller, keeping your shoulders down and back (don’t shrug them upwards or roll them forwards).
There’s a lot to remember, and it will seem tiring to maintain this at first. Try 30 second holds, taking a break to move about and relax.
Practice this as much as you can, every single day. You could do it in your 2 minute sit-to-stand breaks, while standing in a queue, or waiting for a bus. You need to burn this stance into your subconscious, to the point that slouching feels strange!
Tip 3 – Get a sports massage
A sports massage is not intended to be a relaxing experience, but they are highly recommended, and the benefits can be felt extremely quickly. Sports massage targets areas of soft tissue that have become knotted or brittle, by stimulating blood flow that flushes nutrients in, and the toxins out.
It also ‘unglues’ areas of fascia, which is a fibrous matrix that can stick like cling film to muscles and restrict their movement. Sports massage will not fix the habits of adopting poor positions, but it will certainly allow you to build from a more mobile starting point. Find out more here.
Tip 4 – Target the right muscles
I’ve personally found that a regular routine of a few of the Foundation Training exercises, as a fantastic way to improve my own posture. It combines stretching overly tight muscles such as the chest and shoulders, with strengthening the ‘posterior chain’ along the whole length of the neck, back, hips and hamstrings. It’s been described as Yoga updated for the 21st century, and here's their TED talk to explain more:
Tip 5 – Increase your bone density
Bone density decreases with age, especially for women after the menopause. This increases the risks of poor posture, as supportive muscles get weaker and brittle bones can’t withstand minor falls. What isn’t widely known, is that the best way to slow down bone loss (osteoporosis) and even reverse it – is resistance training!
When you contract your muscles against a resistance, you are also providing compression forces to your bones. This sends a signal to deposit more minerals there, to increase their strength and density. You can’t really get this benefit from traditional cardio-based exercises such as cycling or swimming.
Where you do you stand?
Our Body MOT includes a static posture assessment where photographs are taken from front, side and rear view, and placed over a grid for analysis. Bear in mind that no-one is perfectly symmetrical (unless you’re an android!) so minor deviations are often nothing to worry about.
When combined with the dynamic movement assessment, it forms the foundation of a resistance training programme designed specifically for you. This includes targeting muscles you can’t see in the mirror, which is one of the reasons important areas are often neglected when people lift weights without a coach!
If you have any questions about these tips, or would like to chat about your particular health and fitness goals, then please don’t hesitate to get in touch.