When I was a young boy, I recall lots of advice (read: harping!) from my grandmother. Most of it was helpful; some of it was forgotten as outdated or not very useful. However, there were two things that stayed with me to this day and I’ll bet your grandma told you the same thing. Even more amazing is the fact that after 27 years practicing physical therapy (including my own health exploration), I know now that this advice/wisdom was, and is still genius. In fact, I’d venture to say that if I could just get everyone I treat to do these two things daily, I would have been infinitely more helpful to all those I have counseled over the years.
“Sit up straight and eat your vegetables,” Grandma would say. I can still hear her voice because she said it over and over (or at least it seemed like it to an active little boy.) Now it seems as if I’m the one saying it every day to as many people as I can. (I also repeat it constantly to my loved ones; just ask my daughter.)
Let’s break it down to the basics as to why this advice is so important and life changing. First, “eat your vegetables” – the average American diet is sorely lacking (sometimes completely devoid) of vegetables. Also, many people who claim to be eating them aren’t getting enough variety to take advantage of the glorious array of nutrients that will protect and renew the body for a lifetime. However, I will let you explore the rest of this wonderful website and Christina can tell you the infinite reasons as to why “eat your vegetables!” is such a smart mantra.
I want to focus on my expertise, the musculoskeletal system. “Sit up straight” (and the closely related “stand up straight”) on the surface sounds like a reprimand. But when you dig deeper, it really is one of the most loving reminders you can give to anyone. That’s because posture (means position) is so important to how efficient your musculoskeletal system works. The human body is capable of incredible feats of flexibility, strength and endurance (ever see Cirque de Soleil, Olympic gymnasts or International Ballroom Dancing Championships?). To perform any movement you need a starting point. The closer you are to what we would call perfect posture, the better your body can perform with the smallest risk of injury.
You may be saying, “but I’m not trying to win a Gold Medal or dance championship.” Like most of us, you probably just want to get through your daily work and fun activities without feeling sore at the end of the day. And some of you forward thinkers want to be standing tall in your eighties (and beyond). Good posture is the key to both.
But how do you know when you’re using good posture? Without getting too detailed, look for these simple clues. Your head should be over shoulders, not jutting forward in what we call forward head position.
- Your shoulder blades should be back and down, not rounded forward and hiked up around your ears.
- Your low back should be pulled into neutral by your abdominals, not swayed forward causing your belly to stick out.
To improve your posture, you must first make a conscious effort to remind yourself (unless Grandma is there!) to sit up straight by assuming the above mentioned position. These self reminders will result in better spinal alignment and brand new habits. This can actually help you avoid both acute injury and (especially) repetitive strain injuries. Good posture will protect you now and more importantly in the future as we battle the forces of gravity through out our lives.
All of my patients get posture exercises whether they come in for headaches or ankle pain. This is easily justified by the fact that everything works better you are in relaxed good posture (not forced military posture).
Try these exercises and you will be on your way to more efficient movement (including better athletic performance), less pain from accumulated strain and a lifetime of protecting your spine from the harmful effects of gravity.
- Axial extension (chin tuck): standing looking straight ahead, pull your head straight back over your shoulders not looking up or down. Your chin will tuck slightly backward. Hold this straight 3 seconds and repeat 10 times. (Note: this movement is very small; don’t try to overdo it.)
- Pelvic neutral - abdominal stabilization: lie on the floor face up with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Tighten your abdominals creating a slight flattening of your back toward the floor as your ribs pull slightly toward your pubic bone. (Exactly the contraction that would happen if you did a curl sit-up but without your head coming off the floor.) Hold the contraction for 3 seconds, then relax. Repeat 10-20 times.
- Scapular neutral stabilization: standing in good posture (head over shoulders), hold your elbows close to your body, bent at a 90 degree angle. Your hands will be in front of you, palms facing the ceiling (or the sky, depending on where you are.) Now rotate your hands away from each other like you’re sliding them on an imaginary table (keeping your elbows at your side.) You should then feel your shoulder blades gently approximating each other. Return to starting position and repeat 10-20 times.
Do these exercise daily and you will create a new, more efficient posture that will benefit you all of your life. Mostly, it will help you gain a new body awareness so you will always be able to feel when you are in good posture and correct it when Grandma is not there to lovingly remind you to “sit up straight and eat your vegetables.” Genius.