If you’re slouching as you’re reading this, you’re not alone. Most Americans suffer from improper body alignment, otherwise known as poor posture. Years of driving cars, sitting at computers and carrying heavy bags (or children) can exact a toll on your skeleton. And the problem is more than aesthetic – poor posture can trigger a chain reaction of health issues, including breathing difficulties, back injuries and chronic tension headaches.
It’s especially dangerous during workouts, says Janice Novak, MS, a wellness consultant and the author of Posture, Get It Straight! (Expert Publishing, 2006). “Poor body alignment leads to joint instability, movement restriction, overuse injuries, and unnecessary wear and tear on joint tissue,” she says. In other words, anytime you lift a weight, hit a ball or place other demands on your off-center body, you risk causing serious damage.
Fortunately, poor posture is relatively easy to fix, and you can feel the benefits throughout your body. A 2004 study published in the American Medical Athletic Association Journal followed the performance of a high school track athlete who complained of occasional knee pain, tightness in his lower back, sore hamstrings and unusually difficult breathing after running. After five weeks of doing postural repositioning exercises, though, his pain diminished and his performance improved. Similarly, a 2005 study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology revealed that maintaining a more upright posture while biking allowed cyclists to sustain high-intensity riding for longer periods of time.
The key is determining your own postural weaknesses (see “Assess Your Posture,” below) and correcting them so your spine is neutral. “It has been my experience that many body-alignment problems can improve with a regular exercise regimen that includes targeted exercises for specific postural problems,” says Sara Hannum, MS, an exercise physiologist in the Division of Preventive Medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
The most common posture problems Novak encounters are head protrusion, rounded shoulders and weak abdominals. These can all lead to lower back, hip and knee discomfort. To address these symptoms, we borrowed suggestions from Hannum and Novak, as well as from the Feldenkrais Method. Follow these suggestions and you’ll be standing up straight (as well as sitting, lifting and running) in no time.
The average human head weighs between 6 and 9 pounds. When your noggin hangs forward, the weight is offset on your neck and shoulders, increasing pressure on the discs in your neck and decreasing blood supply to your head.
Coaxing your head back into alignment with your spine requires conscious effort, but applying principles from the Feldenkrais Method, an educational tool designed to create a greater functional awareness of the body, can help.
Fix It: “Head protrusion usually is a result of a slouched or slumped upper back [thoracic spine],” notes Antoinette Vastenburg, a physical therapist and certified Feldenkrais Method practitioner based in Boulder, Colo. “By relearning how to extend and straighten this part of the spine, the head aligns itself naturally.” Vastenburg suggests practicing Feldenkrais under a certified instructor and making a conscious effort to reeducate your body. If you normally crane your neck forward while sitting at a computer, for example, you should instead assume an upright posture, and move your chest forward while keeping your shoulders, neck and head relaxed (make sure not to arch your lower back).
In time, correct head position will become second nature. “I have seen good, long-lasting results with my patients who have relearned this thoracic-extension movement,” she notes.
Posture Problems: Rounded Shoulders
“It is difficult to breathe deeply when shoulders are slumped or rounded forward,” notes Hannum. “And since deeper breathing is essential in bringing energy into the body, it’s important to do exercises that strengthen the shoulders and upper back.”
Fix It: To open your chest, you must strengthen the oft-overlooked muscles in the back of your shoulders, which help pull your upper body into alignment. One helpful move is the Swiss-ball T. Using a Swiss ball and lightweight dumbbells (2 to 5 pounds), lie facedown on the ball with your back flat, arms hanging down and hands gripping the dumbbells. The ball should support your lower abs and pelvis so your chest is free to move, and your toes should rest on the floor. Squeeze your shoulder blades together, like you’re pinching a quarter between them, as you extend your arms outward, creating a T-shape with your torso and arms. Slowly return to the start position. Perform five reps, three times per week. (For more chest-opening exercises, see “Office Imbalance” in the March 2007 archives.)
Posture Problems: Weak Abs
Your abdominal muscles work in tandem with the muscles in your back. If your abs are weak, it’s more difficult to support your torso. The result is a hunched-over stance and lower-back pain. With a strong core, however, sitting upright and holding your shoulders back is much simpler.
Fix It: Crunches are one way to work your outer abdominal muscles, but to really gain strength you’ll need to work those deep abs. Pilates or yoga can help; or, try adding proprioceptive exercises to your workout. They involve using Swiss balls, BOSU Balance Trainers and wobble boards, all of which challenge your balance and force you to tap into core strength. Add core exercises to your workout routine at least two days per week. (For six different proprioceptive exercises, read “A Balanced Approach” in the November 2006 archives.)
Posture Problems: Tight Hamstrings
Common among runners and cyclists, tight hamstrings trigger a chain reaction in the musculoskeletal system, pulling the lower back and hips out of whack. “With poor posture, it’s common to have tightened or inflexible tissues along with opposing overstretched and elongated muscles and tendons,” notes Cynthia Bauer, PT, director of musculoskeletal outpatient services at Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network in Allentown, Pa. When your hamstrings are more flexible, she says, your body is better able to stay aligned, and you avoid pain and injury.
Fix It: To loosen tight hamstrings, lie down with one leg straight up in the air, the other bent with your foot flat on the ground. Loop a towel or elastic band over the arch of the lifted foot and, holding onto the ends, gently pull as you push against the loop with your foot, contracting your quadriceps. Hold for 15 seconds and then repeat with the other leg. (To learn other effective ways to loosen your hamstrings, refer to “Loosening Tight Strings,” available in the December 2006 archives.)
Before you can correct your alignment, you first need to diagnose your own unique posture problems. Try this step-by-step plan commonly used by physical therapists.
1. Find a full-length mirror or recruit a friend to observe how you naturally stand.
2. Draw an imaginary line from your head to your ankle. “From a side view, your ear, shoulder, hip, knee and ankle should be in a straight line,” says Janice Novak, MS, author of Posture, Get It Straight! (Expert Publishing, 2006).
3. Make notes about where your body doesn’t fall directly in line. Your head should be directly over your shoulders, your upper back straight and your shoulder blades should lie flat on your back.
4. If you have a camera, ask someone to take a photo of your standing posture from the side. Then, as you continue to do the exercises described above, you can measure your improvement over time.