Good posture is not only better for your health, but it’s also so much sexier than a hunchback! Did your mother tell you to stand up straight? Well, she had a point! Keeping good posture allows your body to be aligned and lets you use your muscles in the most effective ways. Good posture contributes to a healthy nervous system, internal organs, muscles, and joints. It prevents aches, pains, stiffness, fatigue, and myriad chronic health problems, and interestingly, good posture also improves self-esteem, and is good for your mood.
Back pain and other problems resulting from bad posture and poor body mechanics are more common in countries where chairs are preferred instead of squatting on the floor. One of the main challenges we face is the fact that whatever job we have or whatever activities we do, we spend hours stuck in the same position or doing the same kinds of repetitive movements throughout the day. This means some muscles are under constant tension and overused while others are underutilized, which leads to postural imbalance. Now add obesity and inactivity and things will only get worse.
Our bodies are designed to move often and to move in all kinds of different directions. To stay healthy we should use the full potential of our body’s ability and move in as many different ways as much as possible. This includes walking, running, jumping, bouncing, lifting, pulling, pushing, climbing, crawling, and stretching.
Interview On Posture With The Expert
Thom Paul was one of my teachers at the Swedish Institute and he has a great way of explaining things. He kindly agreed to be interviewed on the topic of postural issues in today’s western civilization. Thom Paul is a Licensed Massage Therapist, Clinic Director at the Swedish Institute College of Health Sciences, former personal trainer, former emergency medical technician and I secretly call him “the massage extraordinaire”.
bodono: Thom, is it the chair’s fault that we all have poor posture relative to our ancestors?
Thom Paul: “It’s not just the chair’s fault. There are a lot of things in modern society that lead to poor posture. Yes we sit, we sit to work, we sit to drive, we sit when we travel. And it’s not just the act of sitting itself that’s the problem. When we used to travel while sitting on a horseback or a canoe or something where we were sitting while using our bodies it was not the same as now, when we are basically static and under tension while we sit—like when we are driving or riding the subway. Muscle imbalance does happen because of sitting in a static position for an extended period of time, especially the hip flexors for example, the psoas muscle, tensor fascia latae, rectus femoris and sartorius. Those muscles wind up being shortened chronically.
The problem here is that these muscles are under constant moderate tension and that means they don’t get good circulation. A muscle that is being used is contracting and relaxing. During contraction it squeezes the blood out of the vessels that run through the muscle and during relaxation it lets new blood in. That provides healthy circulation in the muscle tissue. But when a muscle is constantly contracted, it’s not getting to do much of that contraction and relaxation interplay. When that continuous contraction happens and the muscle does not get to release, you get this traffic jam of waste products inside the tissue. So tissue that is supposed to be flushed with fresh blood and cleaned out of junk now winds up with kind of a swamp instead of a river. That swampiness is making things nice and sticky and we feel this as adhesions and trigger points and knots inside the hip flexors. Those deep hip flexors are sitting behind the gut and the viscera, and the food we are eating nowadays is messing with our abdominal state as well. We have now an unprecedented ability to sit and unprecedented access to food and there is no reason to go hungry or use the full ability of our digestive system to store and process foods, which makes the gut sluggish. All of that combined focused in one area has a big effect and leads to those muscles being stuck.
Also, we don’t use our hips to our full capacity. Most people don’t sprint anymore these days. So they don’t use the full capacity of their hip flexors and there is never that full contraction of the hip flexors and that squeezing out of waste products and flooding with fresh blood.
Most people don’t squat, and by that I don’t mean putting a bar on your back and going up and down. I mean getting into a full squat position. Most people nowadays can’t fully squat to a position where the calfs are touching the hamstrings while having their feet flat on the ground without holding on to something. If you don’t have the ability to use the hips, low back, knees, and ankle joints completely—and again you add these swampy muscles that never quite get to flush out their waste—and then you stick some bad food choices on top of that, you wind up with a perfect storm. Because if you have all 3 of these factors coming together you really are challenging the adaptive mechanism called posture.
Posture is an adaptive mechanism designed to keep us alive, and by that I mean able to see our surroundings by keeping our eyes on the horizon and keeping our head up while we walk, run, sprint, or move otherwise.
If our muscular system is not working properly then the skeletal system is not balanced because of that, and we are going to wind up with all kinds of the problems that we see in poor posture today.”
bodono: What about the upper body?
Thom Paul: “Working our way upwards in the body we get what we call a pattern of serial distortion—where the low back and lumbar spine, with poor quality of movement, with tension, with poor circulation—affect all the vertebrae above. The spine is an adaptive mechanism of its own. Instead of one great big point of leverage we have 24 individual little points of leverage, which allows us to adapt to all kinds of changes and circumstances and situations. But if there is imbalance in the low section closest to gravity then all the structures on top of that will be challenged. There is no way to make the shoulders and neck independent of the lower back. The only way to do that is with a saw, but that is not really conducive to human life.”
If you stand up and look at your body’s profile in the mirror, your ankle, knee, hip, shoulder, and ear should all be in a line. The spine should be slightly curved in a soft S-form. In addition, you should stand on both feet hip-width apart with weight distributed equally on heels and ball of the foot, toes spread apart. Your knees should be relaxed and not locked, abdomen moving in and out effortlessly with each breath, chest slightly up, head straight on top of the neck as if the crown of the head is hanging from an invisible string attached to the ceiling. Energy should be flowing from your pelvis down to your feet and into the ground, while spreading from your hips up through your spine into your head and out to the sky. When looking at yourself head-on in the mirror, your left and right shoulders should be at the same level, as should your hips. The spaces between your arms should be equal. Your kneecaps should point straight ahead, and your feet should be straight forward or turned slightly outwards.
When seated, it is important to position yourself so that your knees are lower than your hips and your feet are able to touch the floor. The pelvis should be upright and your spine should maintain the same slight S-form it did when you were standing. You should be able to draw a line through your hip, shoulder and ear. Feel the energy flowing both down and upwards and your head hanging from a string just as when standing. If you can, tilt the seat forward a bit so that it is easier to sit up straight. You could also try a kneeling chair without a backrest which helps to sit up straight more effortlessly.
If you are using a regular chair with a backrest make sure your buttocks and lumbar spine are positioned all the way back, allowing the spine to stack in alignment on top of the lower back. The shoulders should be relaxed and elbows bent between 75-90 degrees, wrists relaxed and straight. If working on a computer, make sure the screen is positioned straight in front of you, slightly lower than the head, keeping your head straight and moving your eyes instead of your head to read.
Lying posture is also important. Its best for our spine to lay on our back with a small pillow under the head. If you are a side sleeper, place a medium pillow under your head to keep the spine in neutral position and place another medium pillow between your knees to help the hips and spine be better aligned.
Thom Paul is a Licensed Massage Therapist, Clinic Director at the Swedish Institute College of Health Sciences, former personal trainer, former emergency medical technician and I secretly call him “the massage extraordinaire”.
Written by Eliane Baggenstos, owner of bodono, Registered Nurse, and Certified Health Coach with certification in Plant-Based Nutrition by the Cornell University and Evidence-based Health Coaching for Healthcare Providers by the National Society of Health Coaches, Licensed Massage Therapist with certifications in Advanced Sports Massage and Medical Massage, and Personal Trainer NASM CPT.