How’s your back treating you these days? How about your feet and legs? Feeling stiff and sore? Got chronic shoulder or neck tension? What about your head? Aching a lot? Pain and discomfort in your body can be due to various stress-related conditions, nutritional deficiencies, sedentary living, inadequate rest or inefficient workout routines. Tight, achy muscles and joints can also be the result of poor posture.
If the building blocks of your body’s posture are regularly misaligned, the body will tell you about it. The message you get often comes in the form of pain. The good news: your posture is something within your control. In fact, good posture is all about gaining control over your body by the power of your will and awareness. I sometimes think we should go back to the practice of sending young people to “finishing schools” where they have to walk around with books on their heads to learn sound postural habits. Our “pants-on-the-ground” pop culture is certainly no help to anyone’s spinal health, but I suppose it’s awfully good business for chiropractors and orthopedists.
Good posture is as important to your physical wellness as any other aspect of your health and fitness. Holding your body in awkward or imbalanced positions for too long puts undue stress on your frame, making your muscles compensate, twisting and warping your body over time. Aligning your body correctly and developing sound postural habits can mitigate physical discomfort but it isn’t always clear how to fix what you’ve gotten used to carrying a certain way. Laying a new foundation for how you hold your body is a powerful first step to making yourself feel better. Attention to good posture allows for stronger, more dynamic workouts with less discomfort. Training with posture in mind has been a lifesaver to me and my clients for years. It can greatly enhance your fitness and wellness, too.
The human body moves through various planes when standing, sitting, reclining, walking or performing strenuous activity. People, unlike animal species, have the unique stress of standing upright on two limbs. This requires specialized alignment of the joints to fight the effects of gravity, stave off improper muscular tension and keep the body balanced and pain-free. The following tips are proposed for maintaining an aligned erect standing posture and suggestions for developing appropriate seated positions, especially in regards to ergonomic workstation seated posture. Following these tips will also help you with your standing balance and strength to prevent slips, falls and resulting injuries.
While standing, think of your body as a house. If your feet are misaligned it’s like having an uneven foundation or a basement that’s caving in. Following that analogy, the ground floor is like your legs and pelvis. The legs represent the walls and the pelvis is the ground floor ceiling. You want everything level or the ground floor will collapse under the weight of the second floor. The spine and abdominal muscles represent the next floor up. Again, they’re like walls supporting the second floor’s structure. The ribcage and shoulder girdle represent the second floor’s ceiling or roof with the arms like eaves, hanging off the sides of the roof. Finally, the head is like the attic or third floor, sitting high on the spine’s metaphoric supporting buttress. If any of the building blocks of your body are habitually out of line or tipped too far in any direction, your analogous house will eventually cave in and collapse.
MAJOR INDICATIONS OF POOR POSTURE:
Side sleeping can create a laterally tipped pelvis and spine. The side you sleep on becomes longer than the side facing the ceiling. Well-placed pillows can help, but if you don’t correct this upon waking with regular stretches and re-alignment, the habit leads to muscular imbalances and weakness in the lower back and hips.
Contrapposto stance, or standing while leaning into one hip, can also create muscle imbalances over time. It causes the spine to sway, tipping the shoulders sideways, stiffening half the back and weakening the other half. One hip has to brace, leading to locked and twisted knees and ankles. The pose is usually employed when the body becomes fatigued (the main challenge to good physical form and alignment). When tired, try just sitting down or leaning against a wall – butt first!
Carrying a book bag, purse or heavy shopping bag on one side of the body or over the back can lead to a tipped spine, causing the pelvic and shoulder muscles to compensate and tip the rest of body in opposition. Bags or any weighty items should be carried in the hands and never over the shoulders unless evenly set across both.
Check your footwear. If you notice obvious wearing on your shoes or sneakers in one particular area that is an indication of poor posture and overuse of certain muscles. Wearing high-heels eventually causes the body to tip forward and creates pressure on the toes and balls of the feet and leads to foot disorders like bunions, heel spurs and ankle tension. Knee, hip and lower back dysfunction soon follow.
If you notice numbness or tingling in your legs, without having other known medical issues, you may be pinching nerves because of poor posture. A common related ailment is sciatic nerve pain. Joint tension and nerve or muscle pain on one side of the legs, spine or shoulders is often a sign of misalignment, too. A swayed or flat back or combined lordosis and kyphosis of the spine also have their roots in bad postural habits. Scoliosis and compressive disc disorders will eventually lead to imbalanced posture. Habitually misaligned joints may even be the original cause of such conditions. A craned neck, rolled shoulders, bowed legs, knocked-knees and foot and ankle disorders can also be indications of needing to correct one’s carriage.
7 BUILDING BLOCKS TO FIX YOUR POSTURE:
1. Foot tripod/ Two-thirds Rule – The balls of the feet must be properly grounded when standing. If you draw a triangle on the sole of your foot from the heel to the big toe knuckle to the little toe knuckle and back to the heel an obvious tripod of three arches is revealed. Keeping two-thirds of your weight distributed over the front of the feet is essential to foot alignment, laying the foundation for good posture. A good way to tell if your feet are properly aligned is to raise up onto the balls of the feet while standing. If your weight is correctly spread into the front of the feet you can always lift your heels and balance. Lightly set your heels back down and let no more than a third of your weight reside in them. When standing, feet should also be set hip-flexor distance apart or separated by the width of one foot. This allows the center of the kneecap to align with the second toe on each side for best leg posture and freedom of lower body movement.
2. Soft knees – slightly bent. The knees should never be locked or braced. Check in with them while your standing in line or waiting for a bus. If you notice they’re locked or one is braced, soften them so they are slightly bent, allowing the muscles of the legs to relax around your knees. This also prevents the hamstrings from pulling and stiffening, allowing for more supple leg muscles and freer leg joints.
3. Loose hips with a balanced pelvis. The hips should “swing” from the pelvis, like pendulums when walking or running. Hips should never be braced forward or backward. The pelvic girdle should “float” or sit like a bowl, flat on a table. The tailbone is meant to point directly downward, perpendicular to the floor. Contrapposto, the leaning into one hip while standing, should be avoided as this sways the spine and puts pressure on the muscles that connect the back, hip and pelvis.
4. Absolute support in the Abs. The lumbar spine is the only skeletal support for the body’s mid-section and not designed to bear much weight or strain. The abdominal muscles are the key support structure of the lower torso and support everything higher up, allowing the muscles of the back, shoulders and neck to settle and relax. The abdominal musculature is exceptionally resilient and can be conditioned daily unless otherwise prescribed due to injury or dysfunction. The more you work them, the more work they can take, the better they support your upper body posture and take pressure off the hips and lower back. Remember this trick: Your bellybutton is a button! You have to sew your bellybutton in, all the way up to your heart. This causes you to lift your ribs away from your hips, giving you a long, lithe, trim and convex abdominal appearance and sound spinal posture.
5. Raise the breastbone! Lifting the center of your sternum, without swaying the back or standing at stiff “military attention,” relaxes the shoulder blades in toward and down the back. The scapula should feel like two flat plates lying or hanging on your back, not wings ready to take flight. Raising the breastbone also lengthens the upper spine (thoracic vertebrae) and helps to suspend the ribcage, encouraging greater abdominal contraction and support of the torso.
6. Chin in! Tuck your chin, inward or slightly down and backward, almost giving yourself a “double chin.” Notice the back of your neck lengthen. Then make sure to relax your jaw. This is a quick fix for most cervical spinal tension and helps to align and loosen the neck. Make adjustments to this exercise until you notice your neck feeling freer and then tilt the head from side to side, as if setting your ears toward your shoulders. This stretch should prevent the lower neck muscles from overworking, especially the large trapezius muscle between the shoulders and neck, allowing the skull to sit tall on the spine.
7. Eye alignment. Wherever you look your spine follows. Look outward widely at something eye level when upright, standing, sitting or walking. Never look down when standing up or walking; it tilts the head and spine downward, causing the shoulders and upper back to round. It also promotes shuffling and missing obstructions in your path. Tired eyes also lead to a tired spine. Resting the eyes from strain, such as staring at a computer screen or hand-held device for long durations, can help your spine – especially your neck – from feeling stiff and sore.
SEATED POSTURE and ERGONOMICS:
The term “ergonomics” refers to the study of people’s efficiency in their working environment. In regards to postural alignment this has much to do with sitting at a desk and using equipment efficiently. The main postural issue we face when sitting for long hours in an office environment is “chair-to-desk-ratio.” If the chair is too low or the desk too high, or vice versa, our posture gets thrown and habitual tension or repetitive stress becomes the norm. When seated, the best posture comes from establishing right angle alignments. Sit with the hips spreading apart and backward and the tailbone pointed down at the seat so your “sitz” (ischial tuberosity) bones are planted squarely. The feet should be flat on the floor, the ankles and knees forming right angles and the thigh (femur) bones parallel to the floor, forming a right angle at the hip joint. The spine is then naturally elevated by abdominal support with shoulders relaxed and the head held high. Sitting at a desk, workstation or in a car seat should not require excessive leaning backwards or forwards or slumping to one side. Leaning over a desk or steering wheel causes the shoulders to roll forward and the neck to crane. Arms should also have a relaxed, draped shape – not overly extended or tense. Your mouse and keyboard should be well within reach so that the elbow can remain bent, pointing toward the floor or your thigh. If you have trouble seeing the computer screen at your desk or the road when driving, adjust your seat or have your eyes checked. Laptops can cause further slumping or rounding of the spine and should be placed at a level at approximately the height of your navel. Please see diagrams for further information about workstation ergonomics.
MORE TIPS for BALANCE:
Floating head. Imagine a string attached to the center of your crown suspending you upward. This should make you feel like your head is floating and winds up making your ears more level, helping to stabilize your orientation and equilibrium.
When balancing on one leg, the “eyes have it!” Stare at one spot, a focal point, to stay oriented and keep your balance. Try looking at a spot that’s at eye-level or slightly below where the tip of your nose points out. This keeps you from tipping forward and prevents the spine and shoulders from rounding.
Feel your toes and stay over them. We have ten toes for a reason – balance! Feeling your toes on the floor or ground helps keep your weight over the balls of the feet, recalling the Tripod/Two-thirds rule from above. Try gripping the floor or inside of your shoes with your toes when you need to feel more balanced.
Keep your abs in control of your center of gravity. Disciples of the Joseph Pilates method of core muscle conditioning have quoted him as saying that “keeping tension centered in the abdomen means the rest of the body is supported and can remain loose and balanced.” When attempting to balance or catching yourself from a trip or slip, keep your abdomen contracted to brace the spine and provide support for the limbs.
Balancing in a squat. When performing a squat or when moving the knee into a forward or bent position – especially when balancing on one foot – align your second toe, the center of your kneecap and your hip flexor (front of hip that bends to form the lap) into one straight line. The back should sway as you push backwards through your hips. Keep your sternum lifted and face forward with eyes level.
When balancing with the arms relaxed, the palms of your hands should face your thighs. This tells you that your shoulders are relaxed and aligned.
Your ears should ideally sit behind your collarbones at all times when balancing, aligned with the outside of the shoulders. This means the back of your next is long and your equilibrium is more reliable, both keys to good balance.
Make sure your tailbone points down, perpendicular to floor. The crown of your head points at the ceiling. Feel them stretching apart in opposition, downward and upward, respectively. Everything should be stretched and lengthened between them, keeping the abdomen tight and your spine tall.
FINAL RECOMMENDATIONS for GOOD POSTURE and BALANCE:
1. YOGA – Get into a regular yoga practice to balance, align and loosen your muscles and joints. There are so many kinds of yoga classes out there: gentle, restorative styles; power and fitness forms; and yoga for special populations. Keep trying new classes until you find one that works for you. Start off with a beginner class and work your way up. Don’t be intimidated or think it’s too difficult. It takes practice, yes, but its well worth the strength, flexibility and physical control you’ll gain. The mind-body focus and relaxation benefits are countless, as well. Click the “Yoga” link for a chart to help you choose what yoga would suit your body best.
2. PILATES – Pilates mat exercise strengthens the body’s core musculature, frees the spine and pelvis of unnecessary tension, opens peripheral joints, lengthens the back and limbs and gives you a feeling of balance, grace and control over your body’s movements. Again, begin slowly with basic level classes and allow your practice to evolve over time. Like yoga, Pilates exercise can be therapeutic, rehabilitative and rejuvenating. Joseph H. Pilates once said, “you’re only as old as your spine feels.” I concur!
3. ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE – Frederick M. Alexander designed a postural alignment technique based on the body’s building blocks as indicated in my suggestions above. His method of postural alignment, reduction of harmful physical tension and “mindful movement” has been employed by many performers, athletes and orators to free their bodies of pain and strain due to poor physical habits and to open dynamic potential. See link for local classes and self-study options.
4. PERSONAL TRAINING and BODYWORK – Developing your physical fitness through strength, flexibility and endurance training or weight loss programming can certainly help you improve your posture and balance and minimize pain and discomfort in your body. Finding a qualified trainer you can work with is a great way to learn how. Physical therapists, massage therapists, chiropractors and other bodywork practitioners can also help you to unwind tight muscles, realign joints, relieve pain and learn how to balance your body.
5. DANCE – Dancing is one of the best, most fun ways enhance your posture and develop graceful movement and balance in your body. You can find local classes in Jazz, Ballet, Modern, Salsa and Ballroom or join the Zumba Latin dance craze! Find out which form your body likes most. If dance sounds like it’s out of your comfort zone, you should probably try it! Remember: having two left feet is better than having none!
I hope this primer on improving your posture proves useful to you. I’d love to hear how these tips may have helped you and appreciate your comments, questions and any information you may wish to share on this subject and other wellness topics. “In all things worth doing, work wisely, remain calm, stay focused and stand tall.” ~DJ