By Susan Brady
As children, we were always told to stand up tall, hold your head high, pull your shoulders back, don’t slouch—and for good reason. Though you may have perceived it as your parents nagging, proper posture keeps your body and bones healthy. Poor posture is obviously bad for your spine, but can also impact your digestion, mood, breathing, circulation and create pain throughout the body. Habitual bad posture leads to a body that not only doesn’t function right in the present but can also lead to devastating effects later in life as well.
Pain and function
Our current addiction to computers and handheld devices promotes prolonged flexion of the spine and rounding of our shoulders that can lead to pain in your back, neck, shoulders and even contribute to headaches. Slouching weakens and stretches out the back muscles and shortens and tightens the muscles in the neck and chest.
Tight muscles in the neck can compromise the natural cervical curve leading to neck pain and headaches. Forward head posturing can inflame cervical nerves, resulting in radiating pain into the arms, often misdiagnosed as tendonitis of the elbow or wrist. Tight chest muscles cause rounding of the shoulders and mis-alignment of the joint that can lead to shoulder pain. Poor posture also leads to malalignment of your lumbar spine increasing stress on your spinal discs, ligaments and vertebral joints, eventually leading to pain in your back and again potential radiating pain into your legs.
There is no doubt that any one of the postural changes described above can lead to loss of function and disability, but they can also contribute to digestive issues. Slouching can cause mild digestive symptoms—from annoying gas and bloating to more severe issues like acid reflux, constipation and hernias. When you sit in a slumped position, your intestines can get constricted which can compromise digestion and make for a more “sluggish” system. We all know that optimal health begins with eating nutrient-rich food, but if you can’t properly digest, nutrients can’t get absorbed into the system. Although many things can affect healthy digestion, don’t forget to consider your posture.
Poor posture resulting in tight chest muscles and flexed spine interferes with our ability to breathe deeply. These tight muscles limit the expansion of the rib cage, preventing the ability to take a deep breath and a forward flexed spine restricts the space in which the diaphragm has to expand. To breathe properly, your chest and diaphragm need to be able to inflate so your lungs can adequately fill with oxygen-rich air. The quality of breath is important because oxygen is needed to for the repair and function of our cells and rhythmical deep breathing aids in stress reduction and relaxation.
Your posture can also play a role in how your mood and how you feel. Several studies have found that people who slumped behind a desk or walked in a slouch position exhibited lower self-esteem, depression and lower energy levels. On the other hand, those who sit up straight and hold their head high, felt more confident, upbeat and energetic.
Beyond looking poised and dignified, maintaining good posture can help protect you against osteoporotic fractures as you age. Osteoporosis is associated with the familiar forward slumped posture of elderly adults. This forward rounding of the upper back is called kyphosis.
Kyphosis is caused by poor posture that results in wear and tear on the spine and can lead to vertebral fractures due to osteoporosis. The prolonged rounding of the upper back places unnatural stress through the front of the vertebra. Weakened by bone loss, these vertebrate can fracture under this excessive stress. Each time a vertebra fractures, the spine begins to round progressively more forward, further compounding all of the above health issues. Exercises to strengthen your back muscles can help prevent and correct kyphosis and allow you to maintain a normal alignment, reducing your risk for vertebral fractures.
Changing your posture can be challenging, especially if you have been sitting and standing in a slouched position for a long time. When retraining postural muscles, you need to focus on endurance over strength, so focusing on maintaining proper posture throughout the day is necessary.
Incorporate these posture practices into your daily routines:
- Make sure you have an ergonomic chair and work space that supports the natural curves of your spine.
- Avoid the smartphone slump and practice good posture while sitting at your desk and put away your phone while walking.
- Practice daily postural exercises to stretch the tight muscles of the chest and strengthen the weak muscles of the upper back and abdomen.
Establishing good postures not only looks better aesthetically, but it can also improve your health in many ways.
Susan Brady, MPT, nutrition consultant and doctor of Integrative Medicine, has developed her BONES Method, a five-step approach aimed at addressing bone loss by optimizing nutrition, enhancing digestion, incorporating bone healthy lifestyle habits, learning how to exercise effectively and taking appropriate supplements. To see her favorite posture exercises to strengthen and align the spine, visit NurturedBones.com/PostureExercises.