Be Fit For Life

with Ellen Cohen-Kaplan

Why you should care about your posture, and what you can do to improve it

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Gone are the days when the reminder to stand or sit up straight came directly from your teacher or parent. What will take the place of those all important cues to improve your posture and reap the many benefits? In the 1950s and 60s, it was actually part of the school curriculum to practice good posture by walking with shoulders back, head held high, and eyes gazing straight ahead. I wonder how doomed this generation, and the rest of us, who use smartphones and hunch over computers for many hours a day will be when we have to deal with the aftermath of these bad habits.  I see people staring at their devices while crossing busy streets, their heads at right angles to their necks, and worry for both driver and pedestrian. Beyond the dangers of the oblivion that too much attention to devices cause, lie the problems of neck, shoulder and back pain that are a frequent result of these positions.

You’ve all heard that good posture makes you look better, younger, and slimmer (as if that’s not enough motivation) but did you know that it also can improve mood, self-perception and energy? A multitude of experiments have been done that examine how posture affects quality of life. One study out of San Francisco State and Kaohsiung Medical University in Taiwan concluded that subjects who assumed slouched postures reported a drop in energy levels.  Another experiment looked at the interplay of posture and success at job interviews.  Amy Cuddy, the “power posture” guru, and Northwestern University’s Adam Galinsky and Li Huang, found that the effect of good posture superseded the effect of role, work experience or qualifications when interviewing for jobs. Another positive effect of good posture is that it improves breathing capacity. Pulmonary function is least restricted in the upright posture, and better in standing than sitting. When you lean against a seat back, your low back is in a flexed position, which also reduces lung function.

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Finally, when researchers at Ohio State University and the Autonomous University of Madrid  asked students to write their best and worst attributes while they assumed either a slumped or upright posture, the slouched students rated themselves lower and expressed less confidence than the upright ones. This has interesting implications for which comes first, – reduced confidence, then slouching, or does slouching lead to feelings of less confidence?

Poor posture is caused by the convergence of several factors: tight pectoral (chest) muscles, weakened and overstretched upper back and posterior neck muscles, rounded shoulders and upper back muscles (which causes tightness and weakness), and tight hip flexor muscles.

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But, fear not! Some simple exercises can make a difference in reducing tightness and improving strength in all the right places. All of these are best done standing, except when otherwise indicated.

  • Chest muscle massage – Stretch out tight chest muscles by rolling your shoulders back and down,  make a fist with your right hand and press your knuckles into the pectoral muscle which is just to the right of the your left armpit and to the left of your right armpit. Use a circular motion to find any soreness in that muscle, covering an area of about 4 inches. If you feel soreness in this area, it means your pectoral muscles need the stretch and massage.

  • Shoulder external rotation – Roll your shoulders back and down, try to keep your back neutral position, and move the wrists until your palms face forward  and your thumbs point away from your body. Hold for 5 seconds, release and repeat.

  • Chin tuck – stand up against a wall with hips and shoulders touching the wall, allowing your natural spinal curves to remain in place (low back and back of neck will not touch the wall). With heels 2-3 inches from the wall, lift through the top of your head, while bringing your chin down toward the throat, simultaneously pressing the back of your head against the wall for just a few seconds. If you need to use a pillow for the back of your head so it reaches the wall, do so,  and don’t strain. Limit this exercise to repetitions of 3, and don’t press for too long against the wall, as neck muscles can be delicate.

  • Kneeling hip flexor stretch – Get in a kneeling lunge position, with one knee cushioned on the floor and the other knee bent 90 degrees in front of you with foot flat on the floor. Be sure to lift the crown of your head toward the ceiling and keep your spine long and upright, driving the hip of the kneeling leg forward to achieve the stretch. You can also gently move the back leg further back to intensify the stretch, and repeat several times as needed.

  • Hip hinge- Bend from the hips, placed outstretched arms on a back of a chair to make a 90 degree angle with your body. Make your back as flat as possible, by lifting your tailbone, moving your hips back, and keeping your arms in your shoulder sockets. If you can, remove your arms from the chair, and bring them out to the side, maintaining your flat back. If this is too stressful, do one arm at a time, and lift and lower, squeezing your shoulder blades together as you lift slightly.

One of the primary causes of poor posture is increased use of technology. However, technology also offers some solutions. Below are some technological posture aids to remind you when you’re slouching.

  1.  Lumo lift- This is a small wearable device on which you set your target position. It vibrates gently when you slouch, and can connect to a smartphone via a free app. It can log posture hours, steps taken and calories burned. Check it out at lumobodytech.com .

  2.  The Work Break Timer- Stand Up! – This free app through your smartphone allows you to set alarms that remind you to take breaks throughout the day. Go to the app store and find www.raisedsquare.com/standup .

  3. Alex Posture- Alex hooks onto the ears and rests on the neck at the base of the skull to assess head and neck position. The device vibrates if the head droops out of its optimal position – based on user setting – for longer than 2 minutes. You can also track your progress through the Alex App. Go to alexposture.com .

  4. UPRIGHT – this device attaches to the small of the back to help you train the back muscles to hold proper alignment for extended periods of time. It will also vibrate if you slouch. Check out uprightpose.com .

  5. ZIKTO – Worn on the wrist, ZIKTO walk helps maintain good posture when walking. Through a series of motion sensors, the device analyzes your walking patterns and vibrates gently if the wrist moves out of predetermined alignment parameters. See zikto.com .

The above exercises and tech tools are excerpts from the IDEA fitness journal, April 2017. See http://www.cnn.com/2017/03/30/health/posture-teching-care-of-health-crane/index.html  for some more reading on the subject.

A few caveats of using these postural aids is that even if you use them regularly, it’s best to try to tune in to your body, and be aware of where your own body is in space. Your muscle memory will kick in after you improve your postural habits if you remain conscious of your slouching, and soon, it will become easier to stand and sit up straight.

With help from equipment-free exercises and the above technological aids, you can improve not only posture, but your overall sense of wellbeing. And, just think, wouldn’t your parents be proud!

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