What is good posture? Do I have good posture? Why does it matter?
Posture does matter. Poor positioning of your spine means that your head, arms and legs all have to be held in a position they weren’t designed for. Muscles have to work under strain. The joints are held on stretch for hours. Your head which weighs about 8kg is held out away from the body like a crane: the muscles holding it up have to work at a disadvantage the whole day and sooner or later their blood supply becomes compromised, the nerves become irritated and the soft tissues begin to cry out for some relief. If this continues, a pattern forms. Some tissues get tighter and stiffer, others are held in a strain having to work considerably harder than usual. Over some months, you develop achy neck and shoulders, discomfort in your mid-back, maybe an uncomfortable lumbar spine and a strained feeling in your arms. And it doesn’t seem to go away. Poor posture seems to be a factor in nearly every presentation of muscle and joint pain that has come on gradually without any known trauma.
So apart from looking more confident, your lungs expanding better and improved organ function in your abdominal cavity, postural correction can help relieve achy pains that seem to have become imbedded in your body and have been passed off as a ‘chronic pain’ from hurried healthcare workers. Admittedly, all pain needs to be thoroughly assessed by an expert, such as a GP or chartered physiotherapist, but there is a lot that individuals can do to help themselves.
Here are our top ten tips:
- Sit well. Seating has a lot to do with how you hold your body. Have a look at your seat. Are you comfortable in it? Are your forearms comfortably resting at 90 degree angles and supported or are the big triangular-shaped trapezius muscles trying to hold on to your arms up in mid air? If there’s tension in the side of your neck, these muscles may be working too hard and getting tired. Give them a break and allow your forearms to be supported at the correct height.
- Low backs and seats. Do your feet dangle? Supported feet means your back muscles can turn off and relax. Does your seat support your low back? If you have a gentle inward curve in your back, it should be supported by a cushion – a straighter low back raises up the neck and head into the optimal position and stops your chin from poking forwards and your shoulders from becoming stooped.
- Computer height. Lots of us use computers now – they’re vital to modern life. But we’re not all the same height so your monitor should be adjustable. An easy rule of thumb is that the middle of the screen should be at eye level and it shouldn’t be further away than a stretched out arm. Any further than this or lower and over time, you collapse into a slumped spinal position and a protruding head posture – a recipe for nagging shoulder and neck pain.
- Get strong. Strong abdominals and backs can last the day and keep you sitting up. It’s not the sort of strength involving bulging muscles but endurance. Think like a marathon runner rather than a sprinter – you have to last the distance rather than 10 seconds.
- Be neutral. Sit up tall? How tall? Every person’s body is different. Try to slump down into a C-shape then sit up very tall into an exaggerated military position then release gently into about 50% of the range. It should feel different, comfortable and maintainable. That is called your spinal neutral.
- Breathe. Slouched postures squash the bases of your lungs and reduce the efficiency of oxygen-exchange which is vital for the functioning of muscles and organs. It means you overuse your neck and shoulder muscles to try and pull more air into the lungs. When you sit up comfortably taller, place your hand on your upper part of your stomach where your rib cage splits. If this area is gently moving on gentle breathing, then you’re engaging your diaphragm. This improves the intake of oxygen, gently opens up the lungs and because it attaches to your back from the inside, supports it. Breathing properly is an easy way to hold your spine securely.
- Move. Be smart – if you have to sit for a living, take mini-breaks from prolonged positions. Even standing up every hour, rolling your shoulders back and then sitting down won’t decrease your productivity and will make you feel comfortable. Offer to make the tea for colleagues. Keep often used documents a little way from your desk so you have to get up and down to retrieve them.
- Stand tall. The same process occurs for other positions other than sitting. Look at yourself when passing a shop window. Are your shoulders slumped forward? Are you leaning slightly forward? Gently lift your chest up; your shoulder blades should be comfortably pulled back. Your head should be effortlessly held above your trunk not out in front. Change your habits – keep re-addressing your posture and soon new positions will replace old ones. Your brain learns this through repetition. So stand tall then keep checking. Soon, it will be automatic.
- Backs bend but legs lift. The joints in your back are designed to move but in the case of lifting loads, we’re more efficient at moving heavy objects by using the strong leg muscles and bracing the back. Everyone knows to bend their knees before a lift but it’s easy to forget to do it. Plan the lift briefly first. Can you manage it? Do you need help? Who gives the instructions if more than one person is involved? Remember muscles will work harder if the load is close to you rather than held out at arms’ length. If at all possible, slide objects or use lifting aids. If you are unsure about a lift or lifting, avoid it and get trained properly. Lots of injuries occur in the absence of training or an ill-advised lift.
- Be sensible. Carry back packs across two shoulders. Women should have a reasonable amount in hand bags but be open to switching sides in terms of carrying it. Women also have improved posture from wearing appropriately fitted brassieres – get checked and measured especially if your size has fluctuated with weight changes. Move often – active sporty people have less problems than sedentary people. If the problems don’t go away, seek professional help – pain is becoming more treatable these days.