Why you can’t improve your own posture …
There are so many varied perceptions regarding the solution and treatment to poor posture. At this point, I want to take some time to dispel some of the most commonly held beliefs about posture to enable you to understand what it is that can truly help your posture to become more aligned. At the end of the chapter, I’ll give a few simple tips that you can use yourself to keep your posture from becoming more forward so that you can be at your best.
Myth #1: Exercise will fix my posture
Contrary to popular belief, committing to a posture exercise routine won’t bring predictable, consistent improvement. There are certain functions your body can’t self-correct. A forward posture is one of those functions that can’t self-correct because your body has no muscles behind the spine to pull the vertebrae back into place. So in reality, a few hours of exercise per week can’t undo a full week’s worth of the damage caused by sitting, sleeping or standing incorrectly. I’ll explain why this is so in-depth in chapter six. We’ll discuss how you can sit, sleep and stand to support your posture in chapter seven, but for now, I want to explain why exercises alone aren’t effective in fixing your posture.
Stretching programs are usually too general to address individual postures. Strength-building machines, like abdominal workouts, often create muscle bulk that can actually worsen posture. The majority of my clients don’t need additional back strength and for those experiencing back pain, the muscles will contract and strengthen by themselves in a bid to support the back.
Many books, videos and websites also claim to hold a magical, three-step solution to fix posture. Maybe you’ve seen or even tried some of these exercises in the past? Generally, they’ll go something along these lines:
• Pull your shoulder blades back, towards your spine and relax your arms
• Stand with your feet hip-width apart, without locking your knees
• Pull the front of your rib cage towards the ceiling and away from your hip
• Pull your abdominal muscles in, with your belly towards the spine
• Pull the top of your head towards the ceiling, as if a string were pulling you up.
• Buy this posture correction device that you will be bored with in no time!
Realistically though, before, during or even after a busy day at the office, not everyone has ten minutes to spare. And ten minutes to herself is a rare luxury for a busy, stay-at-home mum or busy executive. Truthfully, regardless of whether or not you have the time to do posture exercises, they won’t actually create real and lasting change.
Sometimes, exercise can cause you to slouch more. Let’s take as an example a common exercise routine at the gym. I recently had a patient who, after a period of time being treated by me, was making a great improvement. However, her exercise routine was pushing her body forward, which became apparent the longer we worked together.
As an example, here’s what she’d been doing, which is really common for most busy gym members:
• Start with a lot of cardio, then
• Move onto weight machines and free weights to exercise her chest, arms and legs, and
• Finish off with abs.
Whilst it seemed like a comprehensive gym routine, it was not comprehensive, because it didn’t exercise the whole body, and she was missing exercising the muscles in her back and spine.
What is interesting to note is that this is actually an improved version to the workouts that many men would do, which include squats, chest builders, biceps and very little else. Clearly, exercising only part of the body means that it’s going to be out of balance, which can create postural deviations and lead to further injury.
Many people believe that strenuous exercise will improve posture, but this is just not the case.
I believe that an overall workout should include: shoulders; chest; upper back; upper and lower abs; spinal muscles; quads and hamstrings; buttocks; muscles in the inner thigh and outer legs and, biceps, triceps and calves. These muscles should be exercised not just by themselves, but also by combining the movements and exercising the muscles in groups, together.
Do bodyweight exercises help you avoid ruining your posture?
While pushups are a great exercise and use around nine muscle groups, if you have a forward posture and a forward neck, you’ll feel the strain on those areas after completing just a few pushups. Squats engage most of the lower body and back muscles, though if your lower back curve is deeper than usual, you’ll find that squatting exercises will place extra strain on this area and restrict your range of movement. This also means that you won’t get the full benefit of the movement that you’re trying to do, either.
A carefully thought-out gym plan that doesn’t miss out any muscle groups, and actively works the groups that most need strengthening, both singly and together, is the ideal that I strive to get my clients to do, otherwise, unbalanced exercise can do more harm than good.
Myth #2: I’ll just pull my shoulders back
“Don’t slouch! Pull your shoulders back!”
Growing up, how many times did you hear this from your mum or grandmother (or other well-meaning but misguided nagging person)?
As well as not being able to create permanent, lasting change, trying to remember to keep your shoulders back and your head up straight when your posture is ‘bad,’ is unachievable because once your attention is diverted, you’ll forget about it and return to your regular posture. While being mindful of your posture is a good thing, this alone won’t be a catalyst for the mechanical changes needed to create permanent, postural change.
Myth #3: Breathing exercises will fix my posture
Many breathing techniques and exercises claim to improve your posture, ranging from deep relaxation techniques to yoga and pilates. While these exercises are useful, they only address the posture at the top half of your body, while for most people good posture starts in the lower back. Hence, these exercises will be neither an effective nor a reliable solution to the problem.
Myth #4: Pain and posture is purely physical
Most people believe that problems with their posture have arisen due to physical damage. In actual fact, mental and emotional stress is one of the biggest contributors to poor posture. I estimate that roughly 80% of the clients who visit my clinic have posture problems that have arisen due to some mental stress. In the previous chapter, I discussed research which links posture to our state of mind and vice versa.
When you have new stress added to your life, take note of how your body responds for I’m certain that there will be a corresponding difference in how your physical body feels.
Myth #5: I don’t need fixing
Many people try to talk themselves out of health care treatment – both conventional and alternative. Whether this is fear-based, a financial constraint, or comes down to ignorance, convincing yourself that you don’t need health care to treat a particular set of symptoms, is a dangerous belief.
Some of the most common justifications people make to avoid taking control of their health include:
• I’m too young to have problems
• I’d rather focus on my children
• I’ll get healthy later
• My symptoms will go away
• I’m too old to bother
• Everyone has this, I don’t need to worry
• What I have can’t be fixed
• I’d rather not find out
• I have no time for this stuff
The truth is all symptoms you experience are a message from your body that something isn’t quite right. In most cases, the underlying cause is both small and easily corrected, however,
when ignored for periods of time, or if there happens to be a greater underlying issue, not giving yourself the opportunity to heal and correct your condition as soon as you’re able, can lead to further troubles later. So, if you let a niggle go, it builds into a much more complex problem, and one that will take much more time and effort to fix later.
Myth #6: I’ll get a better chair
Most jobs require a lot of sitting, which isn’t ideal for your back. Sitting puts twice as much pressure on your lower back than standing does. When our posture is poor, the pressure is even worse. Sitting for long periods can also decrease blood flow to the muscles that are trying to hold us upright which makes the muscles tired, leading to a slouching posture.
Essentially, the longer you sit, the worse the problem becomes. Sitting on ergonomic chairs with a lumbar support or an exercise ball can actually increase the pressure on your lower back. So you’re just as likely to slump while sitting on a ball as you are on a chair. It’s actually worse because you don’t have the support of the back of a chair.
There is a tipping point for a lot of my clients that may be familiar to you. Your body feels fine and you are not aware of any body problems, then slowly the hours of being sedentary at a desk build up and gradually push your body forward, which causes it to compensate by twisting to counteract the forward movement. Once the body can’t compensate any more, symptoms start appearing, sometimes very suddenly. “I didn’t do anything, I just bent over and my back went into spasm!” This is a very common presentation in my practice.
Research has shown that the number of muscles that work when you sit on a ball is not so much different from when you’re sitting on a stool. While I recommend ball exercises for some people, I don’t for those who have balance issues or existing lower back pain. The best thing you can do for your lower back is to move away from your desk as often as possible and I will detail this in Chapter 6.
Myth #7: Tight sports bras support you best
Most sportswear companies advertise the benefits to women of wearing a tight-fitting sports bra for comfort and support. However, I’ve noticed that tight back straps in sports bras can push your spine off its regular line, which can affect your overall posture and breathing. Test this for yourself, by trying a bra with a softer back strap, or try loosening the strap of one of your existing sports bras. Loosening it just a bit will still give you the support you need, but will also look after the needs of your spine.
What to do?
Here are some ideas to help you assess the health of your own posture, and solutions you can use to try to improve it.
Stand and deliver: Many companies are now thinking about allowing their staff to sit less and move more. People roam around buildings with wireless access, switching from couches, to conference tables, to standing desks, to private booths, depending on the work they need to prepare and deliver. This activity-based working style has been linked to increased productivity along with health benefits, such as lower blood sugar levels, as explained by Professor David Dunstan of the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute. It also allows for increased periods of lower-back-strain relief from sitting, which I further explore later.
Focus on your front, not your back: Regular exercise routines aren’t as valuable as exercises for your chest, forearms, biceps and quads, which essentially open and lengthen the front of your body. Pull-ups, standing rows and seated rows are some of the exercises that can help your posture.
Use your entire Foot: Most people stand with their weight over their heel. My advice is to walk on sand or uneven surfaces when possible, or wear shoes with a thin sole. This improves the connection between your brain, foot and the nervous system, which allows for greater coordination and smoother movement overall. Chapter 6 suggests how you can reduce stress on the rest of your body through correct use of your feet.
Take a picture: Ask someone to take a picture of you in profile, in a neutral position, so you can see how far forward your posture is. Notice whether or not your head appears in front of your body. Notice also how far forward your shoulders are, compared to your body, and whether your chest is caved in, or whether it has space, and is letting your lungs take in as much air as possible. Then take a look at your lower back. How far in is your lower back positioned – is it “swaying” in a great deal? All of these are the postural ‘tells’ that let me know – and now let you know – that you have places where your spine is in a forward position.
Now that I’ve explained some of the posture myths, and you’ve understood what can help you be more aware of your posture, I will explore in the next chapter the reasons why posture is the key to overall health.