November 5, 2015

Improved Posture for Better Health

Reviewing the archives, I found an article I’d saved from titled “Posture Tips to Help You Feel Younger: Pay attention to your body's alignment to avoid serious health problems.”

In the past several weeks, the subject of posture has taken on a new significance for me since I’ve been experimenting with John Pepper’s “conscious walking.” Posture, of course, is a key element in Pepper’s recommendations. With any luck, maybe some measure of improved posture will result for me… if I can just create the time to get outside during these fine Indian summers days in Washington.

Why Posture Matters
According to Mary Ann Wilmarth, Chief of Physical Therapy for Harvard University Health Services, poor posture can create problems and exacerbate a variety of existing physical problems, including:
  • Osteoarthritis or compression issues, putting you at increased risk of fracture
  • Headaches
  • Diminished breathing ability
  • Back and neck pain
  • Fatigue
  • Heightened risk of athletic injury
What Does It Mean to “Stand Up Straight”?
There’s a common perception that good posture means “chest out, shoulders and head back.” The article is quick to correct that misimpression.

Good posture means that our three “postural curves” are balanced and in proper alignment, both front to back and side to side. What are those “curves”?
  1. cervical/neck
  2. thoracic/ribs
  3. lumbar/low back/sacrum into the coccyx
Harvard’s Wilmarth explained it this way: “If you look from the side, if your ear, shoulder, hip, knee and ankle are in a pretty straight line, give or take, then your curves are most likely in the right positions.”

I read somewhere about a woman with Parkinson's who had been a professional dancer and was now trying to use her version of "conscious walking" to overcome her PD symptoms. She's found it helpful to envision the way models come down the ramp in fashion shows with their feet well out in front and their shoulders thrown back, so that they walk with their bodies slanted back. I've tried using that image at times on my "conscious walks." I find that I'm still in the recommended "pretty straight line," but it's a bit of a slanted line.

What About Sitting Posture?
Wilmarth described what correct sitting posture looks like:
  • Your ear, shoulder and hip should be in a straight line; your elbow, hips and knees should be at 90 degrees.
  • You should have good lumbar support.
  • Sit as close to the desk as you can.
  • Your computer should be 24 inches ahead of you so you don’t put your head too far forward.
  • Looking straight across, your vision should focus almost to the top of the computer screen.
  • Take stretching breaks every half hour.
While skeletal issues like scoliosis certainly affect posture, most people’s issues with posture are a simple function of bad habits. Maybe we slouch, because it “seems easier” than sitting or standing up straight. But in time, muscles that support the spine weaken. In turn, we begin accommodating those weakened muscles, a natural reaction that only exacerbates the problem.

Once Again… Exercise
Here’s the good part: As is the case with all bad habits, we can change our behavior if we want to. It’s all about exercise.

According to Dr. Melanie Kinchen, an orthopaedic surgeon and spokesperson for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, “Doing exercises daily, just a few minutes at time, is all it takes to have an effect."

Here are some of the exercises that Kinchen recommends:
  • Throughout the day, do backwards shoulder circles and shoulder blade squeezes for a few minutes at a time.
  • Try rowing exercises with elastic tubing or weights.
  • Do alphabet exercises with your stomach on an exercise ball: Letter I: Bring your arms to the ceiling, squeeze shoulder blades. Letter M: Bring your arms in rowing position, elbows up to the ceiling. Letter T: Arms out to the side, bring up to the ceiling. Letter Y: Arms up by your ears, thumbs up, lift up. “If you don’t have a ball, do it over the corner of the bed. Gradually add in arm weights,” says Wilmarth. 
  • Work the abdominals to improve core strength — planks, sit ups, back stretches. “The stronger your core is, the better your spine can support you. Your back muscles help that tower stay in place, putting less strain on the discs and joints that are starting to wear out,” says Kinchen.
Braces for Better Posture?
Kinchen advises her patients not to use support devices unless they have structural – spinal – problems to begin with. Braces will actually make muscles weaker because the wearer is depending on the brace, not the muscles. Said Kinchen: "Bras and shirts may make you look better temporarily, but they don’t help in the long run. There are no quick fixes."

New Brace for Parkinson's Posture
AbiliLife, a Pittsburgh-based company dedicated to improving the quality of life for people with Parkinson’s, is raising money with an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to fund the manufacture of its Calibrace Parkinson’s balance brace product.

The company says the new Calibrace is proven to improve posture, using a front-to-back tensioning system that lifts the shoulders up and back, thereby improving the feeling of support, maintaining upright posture, and enabling wearers to go about their business in a dignified manner.

I was invited to try this product gratis when it was nearing the end of the development process. But by the time I got  around to this offer in my "to do" folder, I had missed the deadline. The jury's out on whether it will prove effective.


JM said...

Excellent post, as usual. As I think you know, John, I've become a huge proponent of Alexander Technique, an approach to "good posture" that is part of the curriculum at most professional acting schools, ballet companies and schools, as well as training programs for professional musicians. I've been taking Alexander Technique lessons for a couple of years now and my lower back pain, neck pain and sciatica are pretty much things of the past. And I've run across a couple of research articles showing its efficacy specifically with Parkinson's patients. I was only able to find one this morningL

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