Correct Posture Month may call to mind visions of schoolchildren, spines erect with books balanced on their heads, but that picture is more of an illusion. Years of being told to stand up straight can take their toll on a person’s body, especially if that instruction is taken literally. The spine is a graceful, flowing column that connects the upper and lower body. It is not meant to be straight. There is a natural curve in the three places that correspond to the different parts of the spine: the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar.
The low back is a delicate part of the body in that it is held up only by the lumbar spine and the large muscles on either side in the back. Additional support is provided by abdominal muscles. Weakness or pain in any of these muscle groups can contribute to poor posture and low back pain.
Common problems in posture include the following:
- Kyphosis: Kyphosis is rounding of the upper back. This condition is most commonly seen in older women when osteoporosis is present, but the forward-oriented postures that are common when looking at computer screens and driving can also be contributing factors.
- Lordosis: Also known as swayback, lordosis is characterized by an extreme inward curve of the lower spine. The causes the buttocks to be pronounced and can cause a constant, low-back pain. Children may exhibit this curve and then grow out of it.
- Scoliosis: Scoliosis is a lateral (sideways) curve in the spine that is often accompanied by mild cases of both kyphosis and lordosis. This condition is largely genetic but can be caused by injury as well. Generally diagnosed during the teen years, scoliosis, when caught early, can usually be treated with strengthening exercises and, in some cases, braces.
So what does correct posture look like?
Correct posture is when head and shoulders are in line with hips and ankles. The shoulders are back (not hunched over), and the low back has a slight curve to it. Thighs are not thrust forward of the ankles, and chest is not spilling forward. Every body type is capable of correct posture, and its importance cannot be underestimated. Correct posture is the foundation upon which all of our daily activities are built. It helps us to carry out physical tasks and also helps us feel more confident.
On a very basic level, correct posture helps us use our bodies correctly. Uneven distribution of weight or exaggerated curves in our spine make things difficult in other parts of our bodies, like hips and knees. This can cause uneven wearing of the joints, stress and strain in the muscles, and fatigue. Additionally, parts of the body that should be engaged for correct posture, such as the abdomen, may become weak, contributing to a vicious cycle of misalignment and poor posture.
Along with practicing correct spinal alignment, there are simple exercises to strengthen both abdominal and low back muscles to help improve posture. A few simple lifestyle changes can also help.
Stand up and stretch
Many people spend their eight-hour days hunched over a computer, then drive with their shoulders hunched over to slouch into the couch for a night of TV watching at home. While you cannot change your job to correct your posture, you can correct your posture at work. Make sure you are sitting in a chair that has proper lumbar support, or bring a pillow. Every hour or so, stand up and stretch your arms overhead and back behind you.
A simple shoulder stretch that gets your blood moving and calms the mind is to clasp your hands behind your back (straight arms). Take a deep breath in, then as you breathe out, fold at the hips to bend down, bringing your clasped hands up and over your head as you fold. Bend your knees to make it more comfortable, and reach your clasped hands away from your body. Hold for several breaths, then on an inhale imagine your clasped hands are pulling you up to standing.
Work that abdomen
The only thing holding up the vast expanse of your low back from your hipbones to your lower ribs is the muscles of your abdomen and low back. More than just aiming for a six-pack, abdominal exercises take some of the pressure off your low back. Try planks, partial crunches, and wall sits to strengthen the deep muscles of the abdomen. Any time you move through a series of exercises, go slowly. If you feel pinching in your low back it means that you are not using your core to complete the exercise.
Also, as one of our Twitter followers, @, mentioned good posture and abdomen work can lead to better breathing! It’s just another great benefit of focusing on better posture.
Don’t neglect the full expanse of your back
Finally, stand and sit well
When you are standing, balance your weight evenly between all four corners of your feet: inner and outer toes and inner and outer heel. Keep shoulders back (your collar bones will be less pronounced when your shoulders are back), your lower ribs tucked down and in (not splayed forward), and your lower belly lightly engaged as your tailbone moves down toward the floor (but not tucked under). When sitting, keep feet flat on the floor or use a stool if they don’t reach. Pad your lumbar region with a pillow for support, or sit towards the front edge of your chair.
For Correct Posture Month, you needn’t start grueling daily workouts for good results. With a little conscious attention and a few simple exercises, you’ll be standing proudly (and correctly) in no time!
Quick check: how’s your posture right now? What changes do you need to make?
Image by Double-M via Flickr