By Mark Thiesmeyer Hook
Thanks to the combination of a month of eating holiday treats and the annual New Year resolution ritual, January is one of the busiest times of the year for fitness professionals. For the next few months, my fitness center will be bursting with people who have decided that this is the year they’re going to solve any number of things that they think are wrong with their bodies.
Most of those issues have to do with weight loss. Yes, most of us could benefit from improving our diets and dropping a few pounds. You may be tempted to make weight loss your 2018 mission. But this year, I have a different suggestion: make 2018 the year you stand taller.
The Importance of Posture
Posture is the position we hold our bodies in when we’re sitting or standing — and mainly thanks to modern life, most of us are doing it wrong. Just take a look around and you’ll see unhealthy postures everywhere. The necks of high school and college students carrying heavy backpacks look more like the necks of turtles peeking out of their shells. In coffeehouses and offices, people hunch their shoulders over keyboards. People also frequently sit with most of their weight on one hip, leaving their shoulders uneven. Men walking down the street have both their shoulders and their guts protruding ahead of them.
I’m not singling out posture because of how it makes us look, but because of how it can make us feel.
An unhealthy posture causes pain. The bones of our spine, our vertebrae, protect our spinal cord and the nerves that control every movement and sensation in our bodies. Improper posture causes our spines to twist and bend in unnatural ways called subluxations, and subluxations in turn lead to pinched nerves.
Pinched nerves cause sensations that range from extremely painful to disturbingly weird. For example, a subluxation in one of your lower vertebrae can cause tight, painful hips, shooting pains going down your leg, or even a burning sensation in your foot. My father once had a subluxation in his neck that made him feel as though he had bugs crawling on his face!
In addition to the pain from subluxations and pinched nerves, an unhealthy posture also causes unnecessary muscular strain, which can lead to muscle damage — both of which also lead to pain.
Posture impacts our overall physical and mental health. Slumping affects your mood and energy — in fact, several studies have linked rounded shoulder posture to depression and lethargy. This happens because slouching “squishes” our lungs, making it harder to breathe deeply. A slumping posture can actually result in losing up to 30 percent of the air that should be entering your body when you inhale, which leaves you with less oxygen for creating energy and fueling your brain.
Furthermore, posture affects our sense of ourselves. According to researcher Amy Cuddy, assuming certain “power poses” (think Wonder Woman’s famous stance) can actually increase confidence and lower anxiety levels by reducing the levels of cortisol in our bodies. Apparently, we have the power to change our body chemistry just by holding ourselves differently, including by keeping our spines erect. Granted, subsequent research has had mixed results replicating Cuddy’s study, but no one argues that great posture increases how people perceive you.
Three Steps to a Healthier Posture
If achieving and maintaining a healthy posture was easy, mom’s advice to stand up straight and hold your shoulders back would have done the trick. But we do have the power to re-train our bodies to hold a healthy posture, and here are three steps to help you do just that:
Awareness. Being aware of how we hold ourselves is the first step to doing a better job of protecting our posture and our health. Start noticing when and where you slump, round your back or shift your weight to one side. How does driving, sitting at your desk, watching TV in your favorite chair, or texting affect your posture? When you discover the areas that lead you to slumping or distributing your weight unevenly, put Post-It notes in those areas to remind you to watch and correct for healthy posture. Download an app for your smart phone or computer to remind you about your posture.
Stretch and strengthen the right muscles. Tightness in our front neck muscles, shoulders, chest and/or hip flexors can pull our spines out of alignment. Each of these muscle groups can tug your torso forward leaving you looking down at the ground. It is important to note that a tight muscle is often a weak muscle. Simply stretching these muscles may not get you dancer posture. If a muscle has an underlying weakness, it will often tighten back up in an effort to stabilize your body. So instead of stretching alone, the goal is to both stretch and strengthen the muscles responsible for holding our spines erect.
A good personal trainer — one who has been trained in proper body mechanics — can help you achieve the dual goals of stretching and strengthening your postural muscles. If your time or budget doesn’t allow for a trainer at this time, though, here are a few exercises you can do safely at home.
Exercises for a Healthy Posture
Exercises to stretch and release
My foam roller and exercise ball are my two favorite tools for stretching, and I use them at the beginning and the end of every day. Just lying on a foam roller that’s stretched from your head to your tail bone with your arms outstretched in a “T” can help straighten our spines and relax the muscles in our chests and necks.
If you’re ready for a more intense stretch, lie face-up on a well-inflated exercise ball, walking yourself forward until your neck and head are supported. Then, keeping the back of your head in contact with the ball, push slowly backwards, one inch at a time, working your head toward the floor.
Exercises to strengthen
- Chin tucks
This is an easy, effective exercise to strengthen the muscles in our necks and between our shoulders. To do chin tucks, stand with your butt and shoulders against a flat wall. Gently press your head into the wall, while simultaneously pulling your chin downwards toward your check. Hold for two seconds; release and repeat ten times
- Wall W’s
Stand with butt, shoulders, and head against the wall. Bring your arms in front of your shoulders with bent elbows. Simultaneously press your elbows and hands back to the wall maintaining the bend in your elbows. Try to touch your elbows and hands to wall at the same time. Repeat 15-20 times.
Lie face down with your elbows under your shoulders. Tighten your stomach and press your hips up holding yourself on your elbows and toes. Keep your back as straight as a board (thus a plank!). Use a mirror to monitor your posture. Hold for 10-60 seconds.
Mark Thiesmeyer Hook, M.S., M.P.H., R.D., is an author, exercise physiologist, and registered dietitian. He owns the Better Living Fitness Center, which offers personal training (including posture training), nutrition counseling, yoga, and cardio classes. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or (734) 747-0123.