In an effort to improve our health, we often focus on adding exercise and following a more nutritious diet. Few people realize how important proper posture is in maintaining good health.
How many times were you told to "stand up straight" or "sit up", especially during those teenage years? Good posture not only makes you look better, it can make you feel better also.
Once observed mostly in the elderly or those with osteoporosis, "hump back" and other postural deviations have become prevalent among all age groups as we spend more and more time sitting, and even more time looking down at our cellphones, tablets, and laptops. I am sure you recognize "text neck":
How about the forward head position that often occurs while driving:
or working at your desk?
It's no wonder we end up looking like this:
Physically, poor posture can have many negative effects on our health. Our muscles, tendons, and ligaments are structured to provide support to our skeleton and allow our joints to move through a proper range of motion. Poor posture requires some muscles to overstretch while others must contract to accommodate the change in alignment. Those overstretched muscles become weak over time, while the contracted muscles become fatigued and impede proper movement.
Correct posture helps us to keep bones and joints in a healthy alignment, reducing unnecessary strain on tendons and ligaments and allowing the muscles to work properly and efficiently. Not only do we look better, but we feel better.
The forward head positions above causes many problems for the body, including neck and shoulder pain and migraines, and can eventually lead to arthritis in the cervical spine. The human head generally weighs between 10 and 12 pounds. Each inch the head moves past the shoulders and out of proper alignment adds approximately 10 extra pounds of pressure on the muscles that must now support the head! Imagine a head moving just 2 inches out of alignment - now those muscles must support an extra 20 pounds! No wonder those muscles get stiff, achy, and painful.
Poor posture also contributes to many other health problems. When we slouch, our internal organs are compressed, often slowing digestion, impeding proper circulation, and limiting lung function. According to the American Journal of Pain Management “Posture effects and moderates every physiological function from breathing to hormonal production. Spinal pain, headache, mood, blood pressure, pulse, and lung capacity are among the functions most easily influenced by posture.” (http://blog.nasm.org/uncategorized/5-exercises-to-combat-the-negative-effects-of-bad-posture/)
Poor posture tends to sneak up on us - we often don't notice it until we see a picture of ourselves or get a glimpse of our reflection. Fortunately, it is often correctable.
Strengthening and stretching exercises can help you regain proper alignment. The forward head position tends to tighten the muscles in the chest, as well as the muscles in the front of the neck and shoulders while stretching and weakening the muscles of the upper- and mid-back, resulting in the tell-tale "hunchback". While those are the primary muscles involved, we must remember the fact that everything in our body is connected in some way. Keeping that in mind, it is important to understand and to recognize that a muscle imbalance in the upper body will lead to adaptations in the rest of the body.
The thoracic spine is a sort of bridge between the neck and the lower back. A forward head and rounded upper back will surely create issues with your lower back and hips as your center of gravity changes and your body adapts and attempts to keep you balanced. Mobility and range of motion are reduced, your gait will change, and your body will continue to alter its normal alignment to adjust to your postural changes. Suddenly, (though all of these things happened slowly in most cases), you experience pain, have difficulty turning your neck, may feel chronic discomfort in your upper back, and may notice your shoulder mobility has become limited.
Constipation, depression, poor lung function, nerve issues, and impaired circulation can also occur as a result of poor posture. Organs are compressed, nerves may become impinged, and circulation becomes impeded. Depressed organs can limit digestion and possibly effect your metabolism. If nerves become entrapped, you may experience pain in areas of your body that are seemingly unconnected from your posture. Those who spend a lot of time sitting, often with poor posture, experience decreased circulation that may lead to issues such as varicose veins.
Poor posture not only impacts our physical health, but may be related to our mental health as well. While depression is a multi-faceted illness, poor posture often contributes to the feelings of sadness and low-energy. There appears to be a cyclical relationship between posture and depression. Fatigue and/or sadness may change our posture - as we feel "down in the dumps", we allow our body to display those feelings; which, in turn suppresses circulation, changes some hormone levels, and drains energy contributing to poor posture. And on and on the cycle goes.
Have you ever noticed how much more confident you feel when you stand up straight? Maybe, maybe not. If not, give it a try. Whether or not you have noticed it in yourself, I bet you have noticed it in others. First impressions form our initial impressions of others (often unfairly, but that is another topic!). How would you describe the person in the picture above compared to the person in the picture below?
Or, how about these two images?
Which one would you rather have lunch with? Who do you think is having a bad day? Which one is seemingly ready to conquer the world?
Whether or not our first impressions are correct, they provide an initial foundation on which we base our thoughts, feelings, and actions.
This poor woman looks ill, unhappy, and completely unapproachable.
Now look at the woman below.
Notice how her head is up and her shoulders are back. She appears confident, friendly, and ready to meet any challenges that may come her way.
The first impressions of others often dictate how they initially react to you, which seems so unfair. Yet, we also do it to ourselves.
Compare how you feel when you sit around in old sweats all day; unshowered, hair still a mess, and a bit of last night's makeup under your eyes, to how you feel when you get ready for date night, a girls' night out, or a special presentation.
Those old sweats days (and there is nothing wrong with them once in awhile) leave you feeling lethargic and unmotivated. Yet, when it's time to "get ready" for a special event, we often feel energized and ready to go.
Good posture makes us feel better physically, mentally, and emotionally. So why not take a few minutes each day to improve yours?
A good way to start is by stretching the muscles of the front of the upper body. Tightness in these muscles will pull your shoulders and chest inward, causing your upper back to round. There are many effective stretches you can do; below are a few to get you started.
Figure 1: Interlace fingers behind head with elbows pointing out to the side. Squeeze your shoulder blades together until you feel a stretch across the front of your shoulders and chest. Hold for 30 seconds; repeat 3 times.
Figure 2: Roll shoulders back and interlace fingers behind you. Hold there, or increase the stretch by squeezing your shoulder blades together and raising your arms up away from your body. Hold for 30 seconds; repeat 3 times.
Figure 3: Stand in a door way and place the palm of your left hand against the door frame at a level slightly above your head, keeping left elbow bent at about 90 degrees. Step forward with your left foot and gently lean forward until you feel a stretch. Hold for 30 seconds; repeat 3 times.
And, my favorite:
A properly designed exercise program can improve the muscle imbalances through the use of targeted stretching and correct strengthening exercises to bring the body back into alignment.
Stand Tall - Stand Strong - "For the Health of It!"