Chances are when you were growing up, your mother reminded you to stand up straight. Turns out, she was right. The importance of posture as it relates to health and well-being can’t be overstated. In the short term, good posture contributes to a better appearance. Long term, good posture is beneficial to your health in ways you might not expect—from improving oxygen consumption to maintaining good strong bones.
Posture starts developing at an early age. When an infant lifts his head up, while lying on his stomach, he starts strengthening the extensor systems (muscles that pull them away from fetal position). This helps strengthen back muscles, so they can start opposing gravitational fields and get their spines strong enough for ambulation. As a baby starts crawling, she uses opposite arm, opposite leg known as a “cross-crawl.” The cross-crawl creates further strengthening of the postural muscles. Then as they start walking as toddlers, they continue to grow stronger as physical activity continues.
The teenage years tend to play havoc with posture, especially in the modern-day world, and it affects the way we oppose gravity for the rest of our lives. In our tech-driven society, everything we do requires us to look down or hunch forward—whether we’re checking our cell phones, working at a computer, sitting for long hours at a desk, or driving long distances. We’ve spent so many years developing good posture only to throw it away within a few years of poor habits.
The detrimental impact of a forward-head posture and rounded shoulders is more profound than you might guess. To keep our oxygen levels high, keep your head up, shoulders back. Breathe through your diaphragm, not using secondary respiratory (neck muscles) to breath. Why is this important? First, it ensures that your tissues and vital organs get the oxygen they need. Second, good posture puts stress on bone, which will prevent or postpone osteoporosis. As Julian Wolff, M.D., a German anatomist and surgeon once said, “The more you stress bone, the more bone you build.” This is known as “Wolff’s Law” and that’s why weight-bearing exercises such as walking and running are so critical in maintaining bone health.
What can you do now to develop good posture? There are a number of activities you can do to develop good posture using exercise devices such as a Bosu ball, Wobble board or vestibular disc that demand you stand up straight. Using exercise devices such as these develop balance and strengthen deep postural muscles, and they’re “non-volitional,” which means they’re working without conscious thought.
Deep postural muscles are also “slow-twitch,” which means they’re designed to be under load for long durations like opposing gravity all day. When working your back muscles, focus on less weight or resistance and add more repetitions. For example, if you’re using a lat pull-down machine at the gym, ease up on the usual amount of weight and add additional repetitions. Another great tool for posture is a foam roller, which I highly recommend to my patients. (I suggest using one that’s 6 inches in diameter x 36 inches in length.) Lie on your back with the roller running vertical along the spine, then extend your arms out straight, which creates an opening of the shoulders and stretches pectoral muscles. Moving your arms up and down, mimicking “snow-angels” stretches tight anterior pectoral muscles that cause internal shoulder rotation, allowing proper postural integration and also helps with deep breathing.
Other active therapies that help develop good postural habits include yoga and Pilates.
To develop good habits as you navigate the high-tech world, be sure to elevate your computers (or invest in stand-up desks), so you’re looking slightly up, not down when you’re working at your computer.
When you’re using your cell phone to text or check emails, elevate it to head level to prevent the stretching of neck and back muscles (which become weaker over time) and prevents forward-head posture and rounded shoulders.
Awareness of your own posture, plus awareness of proper posture is key to developing good habits. The more aware you are of your posture and proper positioning, the better muscle memory you develop to stay in that position. If you’re experiencing back problems, see a chiropractor every four to six weeks to ensure proper joint mechanics. Chiropractic care can also be a part of maintaining strength and mobilization of the spine, which will help maintain good posture for years to come. In the meantime, stand tall, shoulders back, tuck your stomach in, don’t push your head forward, and remind your teenagers to do the same.
Matt Bernd, D.C., is a second-generation chiropractor with more than 21 years of experience. His office is located in Santa Rosa. For more information, visit berndchiropractic.com, or call his office at (707) 544-6975.
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