Stand Up Straight

The world is moving forward. Whether you are in the car, working at your desk or eating, the majority of your day is spent with your shoulders and spine rounded forward. Hours spent this way lead to an overloading of the tissues, a shortening of the musculature on the front of your body and a lengthening of the muscles along the back of the body. Even your workouts can exacerbate the problems if you focus on exercises (bench press, military press and stomach crunches, for example), which enhance the tightness of the same anterior muscles. Meanwhile, your lower back is sore, your shoulders and neck hurt and your hip flexors are so tight it is painful to get up from your chair. When you stand with optimal posture, your ear lobe is aligned vertically with your shoulder and, then your hip, your knee and ankle. This does not change for the torso when you are sitting, but fatigue, tight hip flexors and shortened abdominal and chest muscles can pull your upper body forward into a “c” shape. The consequences of days and years spent in this position are numerous.

In Sesame Street terms, “C is for chronic (back pain) or compression (of the spine).” Maybe that’s not very catchy, but poor posture may contribute to low back pain, in part because of disc compression in the spine. Another factor is a weakening of the gluteus maximus and a shortening of the hamstrings. In layman’s terms, if you sit on your butt all day, it will be inactive and weak. The hamstrings shorten after long periods of time in a seated position, but have to overcompensate for weak glutes (they extend the hips), which adds to their tightness. Some studies suggest tight hamstrings contribute to 80 percent of all low back pain.

Poor sitting posture also shortens of the hip flexors, such as the iliopsoas (that’s pronounced so as, with an emphasis on the so, as in my hips are soooo tight.) A tight psoas inhibits the glutes, which allows for greater compression in the lower spine. When you do move away from your computer screen, a tight psoas will inhibit the stability of the lumbo pelvic hip complex (basically your core, for those of you taking notes), so twisting to grab a piece of paper from the edge of your desk may leave you in “sudden” low back pain.

Excessive rounding of the back is another common postural trait seen in offices. A rounded back is a weakened back as the musculature of the middle and upper back are lengthened by poor habitual posture. And lengthened muscles are weaker muscles as the lower and middle back muscles are dominated by the upper ones (such as the upper trapezius), which may lead to neck pain. Dominant upper back muscles also elevate the shoulder blades, which may contribute to rotator cuff problems and even carpal tunnel syndrome.

The good news is you can help prevent forest fires…I mean, here are five tips to improve your posture and prevent bad stuff from happening up and down the kinetic chain:

  1. Work at an ergonomically correct desk. Briefly, make sure your eye line is at the top of the computer screen. Your upper arms should fall by your sides and your forearms should rest parallel to the floor. A wrist support will help you maintain a straight line from your elbow to your knuckles. Hopefully, your chair has lumbar support to reduce flexion in your lower back.
  2. When you notice yourself rounding your back, roll your shoulders back and down to help maintain proper posture.
  3. Stretch the front of your body and you will reduce the tightness of the muscles which are pulling you forward. Your chest, your hip flexors and (I know they’re not on the front) your hamstrings all tighten as you sit during the day. Google stretches for these three areas and do them several times a day.
  4. Shore up your core. Words to live by because a strong core will help maintain great posture.
  5. Remember to pay equal attention to the muscles on the back side of your body when you workout. Sure the bar muscles are important, but the muscles along the back support optimal alignment of your spine and good posture.