It happens to many of us as we get older. We catch a glimpse of our reflection in a mirror and suddenly realize we have a hunched posture. The image could inspire thoughts of ringing bells in Parisian churches or moving to the back of the line in that famous image of man's evolution.
Musculoskeletal science confirms what your mother always told you: You shouldn't slouch. When our body slumps, it is not as efficient at performing tasks as when it's straight. We lose both range of motion and strength.
Fortunately, slouching is not a natural consequence of aging, nor is it irreversible. It's a posture problem — and for both your appearance and your health, you should take action to correct it.
Why You Should Be Concerned About Slouching
Standing up, look at your side profile in the mirror. If your shoulders and head appear to be pushed forward, and your upper back appears rounded, you may be showing signs of hunching in your thoracic spine, the upper middle section of the back. When the natural curve of the spine becomes too pronounced, it is known an excessive thoracic kyphosis. Cosmetically, it is not flattering. Structurally, it can wreak havoc.
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"When the kyphosis increases, it puts undue strain on the ligaments, spinal joints and other soft tissue structures of the spinal region," says Dr. David Gentile, an osteopathic physician in Long Island, N.Y. "This can lead to strain injuries, osteoarthritic changes, rib and breathing abnormalities and neurological changes."
As curvature increases, the spine loses its ability to distribute shock evenly, causing stress on vertebrae. This stress can eat away at the discs positioned between vertebrae. A person with osteoporosis is susceptible to even further injury from prolonged slouching, such as wedge-shaped fractures, Gentile says.
The Causes of Poor Posture
Some experts believe one's posture is psychological, a reflection of your attitude toward the world. Others see it as a byproduct of prolonged time in spine-unfriendly positions, such as sitting at a computer. Mechanically, poor posture is the result of a strained balancing act involving your muscles, spine and nervous system. Imagine your spine as a tent pole, and the muscles attached to it as the ropes that support it. When one string is tighter than its opposite number (or antagonist), a tug-of-war ensues. One string, or muscle, stretches and weakens as its antagonist tightens. The tent pole begins to lean toward the tight string, and the other muscle is not strong enough to counteract the pull.
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The late Dr. Vladimir Janda, an authority on musculoskeletal pain, found that certain muscles become inhibited when their antagonist muscles tighten. Middle-back muscles weaken when the pectorals are clenched; the front muscles of the neck weaken when posterior neck muscles stiffen. This imbalance throws off the curve of the spine, which grows worse as we move through middle age.
If you notice a hunch, it's a sign that muscles such as the rhomboids, the mid-back's lower and middle trapezius and the neck's front muscles are weakened because their antagonists — such as the pectorals, the upper trapezius and the levator scapulae — have tightened. As a result, you may find your tense shoulders crying out for a massage. You may also find it tiring to maintain an upright posture.
How to Start Straightening Up
No matter your age, there is plenty you can do to improve your posture. "This process is reversible if caught early enough, before permanent changes have taken place,” Gentile says. “Stretching, strengthening, treatment and proper ergonomics can be helpful.”
An exercise regimen based on a stretching program for the tightened pectorals, levator scapulae and upper trapezius muscles, and a strengthening routine for the mid-back muscles, could help reduce a hunched profile. A physical therapist or certified personal trainer can give you direction. Enrolling in a targeted exercise program focused on resistance training might also pay dividends. As always, consult your doctor before beginning a new or more intensive exercise routine. You may also want to ask your doctor if you should consider a daily or increased dose of Vitamin D, which has been shown to promote muscle health and function, among many other benefits.
Take Action With Posture Exercises at Home
You don’t have to hit the gym. One key to improved posture is consistent movement and stretching; try to change positions regularly throughout the day. And do the following toning exercises, designed to address your muscle imbalances, at home three or four times a week:
- The Doorway Stretch. Stand in a doorway with your arms resting on the doorway frame, bent at right angles. Only gentle pressure should be felt on your arms. Then, keeping a straight back posture, gently lean into the doorway. You should feel a slight stretch in the front of your chest and shoulders. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds. Repeat.
- The Prone T. This exercise engages the middle-back muscles. Lie facedown on the floor with a pillow under your abdomen and a folded towel under your forehead. Engage the shoulder blades by squeezing them toward each other, slowly raise your arms slightly off the ground and hold them out straight, forming a T. Hold for three seconds. Do five sets of five stretches each.
- The Prone Y. This also works the mid-back muscles. Lie facedown and cushioned, just as you would for the prone T. Raise your arms slightly off the ground and extend them over your head with your elbows slightly bent, forming a Y, and engaging the shoulder blades by squeezing them toward each other. Hold for three seconds. Do five sets of five stretches each.
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