Wouldn't it be great to look thinner, taller and younger? The good news is that you can! The secret? proper posture. Like so many other things our moms told us, as painful as it is to admit it, their advice to "stand up straight!" was spot on. You probably realize that it's true, but years of death-gripping the steering wheel as you battle traffic, hunching over your computer, and surrendering to the natural tendency to slouch, even as you're reading this article, chances are that your posture is less than perfect.
You might think that after years, or even decades, of bad posture, it's not going to be easy to fix. I wish that I could tell you that you are wrong. Unfortunately, when you walk around like Quasimodo for years, some muscles and tendons get tight and shortened, while others compensate, getting over-stretched and strained, so it does take some work to get things right. Still, fixing your posture is like any other problem. If you apply focus, commitment and proper corrective action, you will be successful, and you will be rewarded with fewer aches and pains, and the ability to carry out your daily routine with greater ease. Good posture is functional posture, and proper spinal alignment will make every physical task in your life easier.
Why is Bad Posture So Common?
The short answer is that gravity works. Throughout our lives, it's attempting to push us down and forward, which is why the muscles in the back of our bodies are much more important to life-long functionality than the ones in the front. Strong, flexible upper back, lower back and hamstring (back of the thighs) muscles are essential to be able to continue to move, which includes being able to get out of a chair. Our modern lifestyles involve a lot of sedentary living, working at computers and relaxing in front of screens watching videos or playing games. Even those of us who are physically active, often do almost all of our activity in one plane, moving laterally from front to back. As a result, our feet, ankles, hips and shoulders get ridiculously tight. Once bad posture becomes a habit, it is a vicious cycle of misalignment and compensation, so if you don't work to correct it, it will get worse over time.
Typical Posture Problems
Hangdog head aka "computer buzzard," where either the head hangs down, or the chin juts forward, often both
Collapsing rib cage, in which there is almost no space between the top of the hips and the bottom of the rib cage
Round Shoulders, with the chest concave and collapsing, rather than a lifted heart
Winging scapula, where rather than resting on the bag, the bottoms of the shoulder blades pop up like little peaks
Swayback, a condition in which the top of the pelvis tilts forward and the tailbone points up, rather than down
Collapsing Ankles, not strong pillars of support, but weak and buckling ones
Here are the hallmarks of good, functional posture.
- Head erect, as if it is floating on the top of the spinal column
- Shoulders pressed away from the ears and in line, or even behind, the spine
- Ribcage lifted so that there is space between it and the pelvis
- Belly engaged to keep pelvic "bowl" upright, not pouring forward
- Ankles straight, not collapsed
- Feet pointing forward
Simple Adjustments to Correct Bad Posture
Let's take it from the ground up. Focus on the goal of creating space and length in your spine. Address each of the following areas of your body one at a time.
Start with your base of support, your feet and ankles. Your feet should be pointing straight ahead, resembling the number 11 when viewed from above. Think of your big toes as the hands of an analog clock. They should be pointing at 12 o'clock. If the left foot is at 11 o'clock, or worse, 10 o'clock, and the right foot is at 1 or 2 o'clock, make that correction. Your ankles should be straight, not collapsing inward.
Next, turn your attention to your pelvis. Place your hands on your two hip bones to identify their place in space. They should be level with each other and pointing straight ahead like headlights, not pointing down toward the ground. If you suffer from a swayback, a condition that doctors call "lordosis," your pelvis will tilt forward and your tailbone will tilt up in back behind you. To correct this issue, imagine squeezing your two front hip bones together as if you were trying to zip up a pair of really tight jeans. This action should pull your tailbone down, so that it is pointing toward the ground, which is where you want it to be.
This is a good time to remember that your objective is to increase the space between your vertebrae, the 33 bones making up your spinal column. To make sure that your ribcage is properly aligned, take your hands with your fingers together and place them between your hip bones and bottom of your ribcage. If you don't have enough space to place all four fingers in that space, readjust, squeezing that natural corset in and lifting your rib cage up.
As noted above, one of the most common posture maladies is the round shouldered, hunched over bearing that makes a person look not only much older, but much less confident. To fix this issue, shrug your shoulders up toward your ears, as if you are saying "how should I know?" Really exaggerate this move. Then pull them straight down as far you can, trying to maximize the amount of space between your ears and shoulders Finally, and here's the million dollar secret to this move, pull your shoulders straight back, as you are not only trying to get your shoulder blades on your back, but if possible even a little bit behind your spinal column.
Finally, lift your chin and pull your palate back as if someone were pulling on your pony tail (if you had one.) Your chin should be directly over your collarbone, not hanging forward, buzzard-like, in front of it.
That's it. Since it's very easy to relapse into lousy posture, check in with these body landmarks throughout the day and reset and correct as needed. Your spine, and the rest of your body, will thank you.