Good Health tip of the month
As kids, we all remember being told to "stand up straight." People
value good posture for aesthetic reasons -- it certainly looks
better -- but it has many more benefits than meets the eye.
To get the inside story on good posture, I spoke with Boston
chiropractor Peter A. Hill, DC, MPA, a former "Chiropractor of the
Year" in Massachusetts.
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Dr. Hill explains that the nerves emanate from the spine, and if it
is not in proper alignment -- as is the case when a person slouches
or stoops, or even after a long-ago accident -- the nerves may
become irritated, causing pain. This of course is behind many of
the complaints concerning neck and back pain. But unseen and often
un-felt problems can result as well.
Because the nerves carry messages to the body's vital organs, for
example the kidneys, liver and stomach, it is possible, says Dr.
Hill, for poor posture to intrude on those messages and compromise
the efficiency of the organs. Without proper alignment -- the
definition of good posture -- your muscles, joints and ligaments
can't work optimally, either. Furthermore, if your chest is sunken,
your lungs can't fill properly -- limiting the amount of oxygen
that gets into your system.
People with osteoarthritis, especially in the hips and spine, often
slouch, hoping it will ease the pain caused by pressure in their
joints. But Dr. Hill explains that they are actually working
against themselves by doing this. Bones are not static, they are
constantly changing. The body tries to protect joints that have
lost protective soft tissue lining (synovium), as happens in
arthritis, by building new bone in the joint. When a person with
arthritis slouches, it actually puts more pressure on the joint
(from being out of alignment), and the body tries to "correct" the
situation by laying down yet more bone. The result: More arthritis
in the joint and greater pain. Dr. Hill says it is crucial for
people with arthritis to regain as normal a posture as possible to
keep from getting caught in this cycle.
ACHIEVING GOOD POSTURE
The challenge, though, is achieving good posture. The problem
starts early, according to physical therapists, when children cease
being active creatures and instead sit in school much of the day.
As the children grow and spend more time in front of a computer or
TV, the problem is exacerbated. The reason: Good posture requires
strong muscles -- especially the large core muscles of the back and
abdomen -- and these weaken without regular vigorous exercise.
Exercise types that are particularly recommended for posture
improvement include yoga, Pilates, Feldenkrais and the Alexander
technique, but, as Dr. Hill says, any kind that will get you moving
-- including bicycling, swimming or walking -- beats sitting on the
In addition, Dr. Hill says that it's key to develop awareness of
how you are holding yourself at any given time. He advises
visualizing an imaginary line from your earlobe to your shoulder
and on to your hip joint and the ball on the ankle. When you're in
proper posture, that line is a straight one -- when it's not, you
need to make adjustments. Note: Be aware that no one actually has a
perfect alignment and that we should aspire toward it and not force
ourselves, which may in fact create muscle tightness and nerve
compression. (Checking yourself periodically in a full-length
mirror will help you stay in line.)
When sitting, keep your shoulders in line with your hips.
ACHIEVING THE NEUTRAL SPINE
With all that talk of stand up straight, people sometimes assume a
straight spine is correct -- but that's way off the mark. The
correct position and the one you should maintain in all of your
movement is called the "neutral spine." This has three natural
curves: inward at the top (cervical spine), outward in the middle
(thoracic spine) and inward again in the lower part (lumbar spine).
An important way to protect the neutral spine is to avoid
habitually sleeping on your stomach. Stomach sleeping, Dr. Hill
says, works over time against the neutral spine by forcing an
exaggerated curve toward the front. Additionally, stomach sleeping
involves keeping your head turned throughout the night, which may
further stress the cervical spine.
Watch out for the little daily things you might be doing that
compromise your posture. Don't slouch by putting your weight onto
one side, as many tall women do. Men should not put their wallets
in a back pocket that they then sit on. Both of these habits may
eventually lead to alignment problems, says Dr. Hill. Do hold your
chin in an even line without jutting it or your head forward --
ears over shoulders, remember? And speaking of shoulders, you can
keep them in place rather than creeping up if you occasionally
raise them high to your ears and then shrug them down to their
natural position. When sitting, keep your shoulders in line with
the hips. Be sure to carry your weight balanced on your entire
foot, not just the sides, heel or ball of the foot. You will know
you're not using your whole foot if you feel like you are walking
on the beach and not on a hard, pitched surface.
It might seem like a lot of rules to remember, but many experts
call good posture the fourth rule of good health, after exercise,
proper nutrition and sleep. You don't have to be perfect -- and in
fact forcing yourself to be unnaturally straight can be damaging as
well. By getting more conscious of good posture and avoiding bad
habits, you can both look better and feel better.