Stand Straight - Proper posture goes a long way.
As kids, we all remember being told to "stand up straight." People value good posture for aesthetic reasons -- it certainly looks better -- but it has many more benefits than meets the eye. To get the inside story on good posture, I spoke with Boston chiropractor Peter A. Hill, DC, MPA, a former "Chiropractor of the Year" in Massachusetts.
CLOSED CHANNELS OF COMMUNICATION
Dr. Hill explains that the nerves emanate from the spine, and if it is not in proper alignment -- as is the case when a person slouches or stoops, or even after a long-ago accident -- the nerves may become irritated, causing pain. This of course is behind many of the complaints concerning neck and back pain. But unseen and often un-felt problems can result as well.
Because the nerves carry messages to the body's vital organs, for example the kidneys, liver and stomach, it is possible, says Dr. Hill, for poor posture to intrude on those messages and compromise the efficiency of the organs. Without proper alignment -- the definition of good posture -- your muscles, joints and ligaments can't work optimally, either. Furthermore, if your chest is sunken, your lungs can't fill properly -- limiting the amount of oxygen that gets into your system.
People with osteoarthritis, especially in the hips and spine, often slouch, hoping it will ease the pain caused by pressure in their joints. But Dr. Hill explains that they are actually working against themselves by doing this. Bones are not static, they are constantly changing. The body tries to protect joints that have lost protective soft tissue lining (synovium), as happens in arthritis, by building new bone in the joint. When a person with arthritis slouches, it actually puts more pressure on the joint (from being out of alignment), and the body tries to "correct" the situation by laying down yet more bone. The result: More arthritis in the joint and greater pain. Dr. Hill says it is crucial for people with arthritis to regain as normal a posture as possible to keep from getting caught in this cycle.
ACHIEVING GOOD POSTURE
The challenge, though, is achieving good posture. The problem starts early, according to physical therapists, when children cease being active creatures and instead sit in school much of the day. As the children grow and spend more time in front of a computer or TV, the problem is exacerbated. The reason: Good posture requires strong muscles -- especially the large core muscles of the back and abdomen -- and these weaken without regular vigorous exercise. Exercise types that are particularly recommended for posture improvement include yoga, Pilates, Feldenkrais and the Alexander technique, but, as Dr. Hill says, any kind that will get you moving -- including bicycling, swimming or walking -- beats sitting on the couch.
In addition, Dr. Hill says that it's key to develop awareness of
how you are holding yourself at any given time. He advises
visualizing an imaginary line from your earlobe to your shoulder
and on to your hip joint and the ball on the ankle. When you're in
proper posture, that line is a straight one -- when it's not, you
need to make adjustments. Note: Be aware that no one actually has a
perfect alignment and that we should aspire toward it and not force
ourselves, which may in fact create muscle tightness and nerve
compression. (Checking yourself periodically in a full-length
mirror will help you stay in line.)
When sitting, keep your shoulders in line with your hips.
ACHIEVING THE NEUTRAL SPINE
With all that talk of stand up straight, people sometimes assume a
straight spine is correct -- but that's way off the mark. The
correct position and the one you should maintain in all of your
movement is called the "neutral spine." This has three natural
curves: inward at the top (cervical spine), outward in the middle
(thoracic spine) and inward again in the lower part (lumbar spine).
An important way to protect the neutral spine is to avoid
habitually sleeping on your stomach. Stomach sleeping, Dr. Hill
says, works over time against the neutral spine by forcing an
exaggerated curve toward the front. Additionally, stomach sleeping
involves keeping your head turned throughout the night, which may
further stress the cervical spine.
Watch out for the little daily things you might be doing that
compromise your posture. Don't slouch by putting your weight onto
one side, as many tall women do. Men should not put their wallets
in a back pocket that they then sit on. Both of these habits may
eventually lead to alignment problems, says Dr. Hill. Do hold your
chin in an even line without jutting it or your head forward --
ears over shoulders, remember? And speaking of shoulders, you can
keep them in place rather than creeping up if you occasionally
raise them high to your ears and then shrug them down to their
natural position. When sitting, keep your shoulders in line with
the hips. Be sure to carry your weight balanced on your entire
foot, not just the sides, heel or ball of the foot. You will know
you're not using your whole foot if you feel like you are walking
on the beach and not on a hard, pitched surface.
It might seem like a lot of rules to remember, but many experts
call good posture the fourth rule of good health, after exercise,
proper nutrition and sleep. You don't have to be perfect -- and in
fact forcing yourself to be unnaturally straight can be damaging as
well. By getting more conscious of good posture and avoiding bad
habits, you can both look better and feel better.