3 Strategies to help improve your posture.
“Don’t slouch”. “Stand-up straight”. These phrases may cause horrific anxiety inducing memories for some of you from your childhood. I will be perfectly honest, I didn’t hear this too often as a child. Not that my Mom didn’t care, more so that it wasn’t as important as keeping 3 neanderthal-like boys from killing each other. Also, I grew up at a time when personal screens weren’t in existence quite yet. However, today is a very different story, not only do we have 3 smartphones and 2 tablets in our house, I am married to a physiotherapist. It is an understatement that I hear a version of these two statements daily. On bad days, I hear them with statistics (I love you, honey…).
To add insult to injury, I know that she is absolutely right. (Yes, honey I admitted you’re right… this time!). I have a honours degree in kinesiology that focused on biomechanics. Not only do I know that poor posture is bad for you. I know how to calculate how bad it is for you. Now before you run away on me. This article is not a run through of the grueling mathematics of poor posture, nor is it intended to guilt you into acknowledging how bad your posture is (because of course, dear reader, your posture is perfect. You’re reading this article for someone else). This article simply contains a few quick tricks to help correct or at least minimize some of the common poor posture habits, and the pains that come with them that most of us (but not you) are prone to.
We are built to move
One of the easiest things to do to help your posture is to move. To put it another way, don’t stay in one position for an extended period of time. On average, you should be changing position every 30 to 45 minutes. And I don’t mean just a small position “shift”. It needs to be a relatively big movement. If you’re sitting, stand up. If you’re standing, sit down. If you can walk around for a few minutes, even better! There are numerous good reasons to do so, from aiding with blood flow to reducing ligament creep and muscle tightening. The main point is that the machine of your body is built to move around.
I want to take a moment to talk about sit-to-stand desks because I really think that they could be used better. Many people think, well “if I stand at a desk that is better, and I will sit when I start to feel tired”. But standing still is no better than sitting, if you don’t move. In fact, I would argue that it could be worse as you are more likely to fall out of good posture because you will tire quicker. The best way to use these devices is to change the height and thus your working position before you are tired. And as I mentioned about, about every 30 to 45 minutes.
Ok, let’s knock out 3 quick tips to help you move during the day (finally…). Number 1, set a timer. This is super straight forward. Set a time for 30 to 45 minutes. When it goes off, change your position or get up and do a few minutes of vigorous movement (personally like to stretch; I haven’t pulled a downward dog in the office yet, but I’ve come close; and trust me, no one cares). I also prefer an old fashioned egg timer as my phone alarm tends to lead to other distractions when the alarm goes off. Number 2, spread your office out. Set-up your work space so that you have to get up to get things done. Put your printer away from your computer. Set-up your filing cabinet and bookcase on the other side of the room as well. And number 3, stand while you're on the phone. Now, I understand that you may not talk on the phone a lot when you are at your workstation. But, for the times that you are on the phone, if you make a habit of standing if provides a couple of positives. First, it changes your position and posture (I think we’ve established this). Second, it helps you sound clearer and louder (it helps you project, in other words). Third, it makes you a more engaging conversationalist. Movement helps vocal expression. Everyone to some degree talks with their hands, when you allow yourself to move while you talk that energy comes through in your voice, and your listeners are naturally more engaged with your message.
Hold your phone up higher
One of the worst bad habits most people (but of course, not you) have is holding their phones down near their belly buttons. This habit causes serious troubles over time. The main reason for this is the increased force (or weight) that your head exerts on your neck joints and tissues. On average, your head is about 10lbs to 12lbs (or 5kg to 6kg for you good metric folk). Now, we have the ability to balance that head with our neck muscles such that there is minimal force required to keep your head up. But taking into account that we need to move our head around, let's say it requires about 10lbs of muscle force to control our head in an upright “good posture” position. Now, if you look down toward your belly button (or where you hold your phone with your shoulders relaxed and elbows bent), your chin will almost be touching your chest. You, now, require up to 60lbs of muscle force to hold your head in this position. Just to point out the obvious, that is 6 times as much as when you are in a normal “good posture” position.
Ok lift your head up, I’m sure that you are getting tired! Which is the exact problem, (I know, I’m tricky right), those tiny little muscles in the back of your neck tire quickly. When those little guys or gals are tuckered out, your body takes on a couple of strategies. The first is that it utilizes the static structures of your body. In other words, your head is left to literally hang off the ligaments on your neck. The problem is these ligaments are elastic and stretch (or creep) and lengthen. This causes an over extension of your joints and pain. The second is that you increase your range, to accomplish your goal (ie looking at your glowing belly button window) by bending another part of your body. In this case you bend your upper spine.
Here is the kicker to all of this, we are really adaptable, and in this case that adaptability is not a positive. As your body is required to hold one position either for a long time or repeatedly for moderate amounts of time. Some tissues will lengthen and stay lengthened while others will shorten and stay short. In the case of poor posture, this eventually can lead to the classic hutch position (or kyphosis if you want to impress your non-healthcare friends).
Ok so let’s get to a couple of tips (finally, again…). Number 1, think of engaging your shoulders when you hold your phone or tablet. Ideally your device should be about 10 to 20 degrees below your head for a good viewing position. In this position you should be able to just look down with your eyes slightly. Now this position can be tiring, so you’ll need to suck it up. I’m just kidding. The addition to this tip is to move around, hold the phone with one hand if you are reading, allowing the other arm to rest. If you need to lower the phone to type, do so, just don’t stay in that position for long. Number 2, use a pillow (or a stuffy if you prefer, my house seems to have them everywhere) on your lap while you are sitting and using your device. This will allow you to rest your arms on something and keep your device closer to eye level, quite comfortably.
Yup, I said it again. Stretching helps. (Mamma nooooo…. Not more stretching). I know, it can be a bitter pill; if my wife is reading this, she is likely calling me a hypocrite at the top of her lungs. But, it is a resolution for me every new year, birthday, anniversary, etc, because I know how important it is. One of the core issues with poor posture causing health problems is the shortening of tissues that cause your body to be ‘stuck’ in a poor posture position. Having a part of your body ‘stuck’ means that you will have to adapt with other body parts working at the edges of their normal range of motion, or finding alternatives to perform relatively simple tasks. By keeping tissues long and allowing your body to easily move through its ranges of natural motion, you set a foundation for good health and good posture.