Posture. Have you ever considered that the way you stand when waiting in the queue at the supermarket checkout contributes to your back pain? Or that your neck pain could be caused by continually looking down at your phone, for hours without a break, scrolling through your Facebook feed? We are creatures of habit, and the postural positions that we assume everyday when we stand, when we carry items, when we bend to spit out our toothpaste, when we slouch on the lounge at the end of a busy day have a huge influence on how we move and how our bodies are shaped.
What is Posture?
Posture refers to the position of our body in space. When your core muscles and mobiliser muscles are working together in balance you have ideal posture. When you have perfect posture, the forces on the body are evenly distributed throughout the body so that all the joints are weight bearing comfortably and the muscles are at optimal length.
But in reality there is actually no perfect posture. And we no longer consider posture to be good or bad. It depends on a lot of different factors (load, tolerance,capacity and time spent in a position). While poor posture can certainly contribute to pain, of more importance is regular movement. And changing positions often. Motion is lotion.
As physio’s we often analyse posture with an imaginary plumb line that must fall through certain areas of the body in order to have this ideal postural balance. See the figure below.
This proper alignment of your frame then allows your muscles will work minimally and your body to respond effortlessly to movement. Our bodies then could be compared to a machine. When movement is balanced, efficient and free flowing there are few problems. Introduce an imbalance or misalignment however, and there will more than likely be ‘wear and tear’ and damage.
If you work or exercise in poor postural alignment your form will adapt to that activity and your posture will begin to change; ie form will follow function.
For example, if you work on your computer all day, sitting at a desk, day in day out, using the same muscles and rarely moving in other patterns, your muscles will adapt to that positioning. Basically, your neck and chest muscles become shortened and tight, your back muscles lengthened and weak; you end up with a head forward posture, rounded shoulders and upper back and flattened low back and tight hips. It eventually leads to postural fatigue and pain.
How does our Core contribute to our Posture?
The “core” muscles are the muscles surrounding our trunk spine and pelvis muscles that helps us with stability. These core muscle groups work together to keep your spine stable while your limbs are active.
These core muscles need to be strong, coordinated in their firing and have good endurance to be able to maintain your posture throughout the day. When these core muscles are working well they allow the mobiliser muscles of the arms and legs to work efficiently. That is, you can transfer energy to do your task from your core out to the arms and legs.
A 6 month old child gives us a great example of this transfer of energy. He has just learned to sit up. But when reaching for a toy just out of his grasp, he topples over. His core strength or trunk stability is immature and as such he cannot transfer energy out to his limbs to grab the toy.
As adults, even with poor core muscles, we are not likely to fall over. Instead we substitute other muscle groups for our weak core. These substituted muscles, however, are often not capable of the new stabilising role they take on. Take a bricklayer with a weak core for example. He lifts and lays bricks repeatedly over a matter of hours, bending often and lifting and twisting. The muscles he has substituted for his weak core will eventually fatigue, become strained, tighten and cause pain.
How do we Improve Posture?
Assess your posture: examine yourself critically in a mirror. A better option is to have someone with an expert eye analyse your posture such as a physio. They are able to organise an individual assessment to identify the unhealthy strategies that your body has adopted.
Strengthen the correct muscles: a physio can teach you about the very precise, specific exercises that you can perform to improve your posture. It is worth noting that if you experience back or neck pain, motion is lotion. Move frequently and change positions often.
Rehabilitating the body post back pain then becomes more about rebooting the brain than building muscle. Similarly, some people with back pain have become rigid. Their muscles have tensed up as a protective response to pain. These individuals have to learn how to “let go“ , especially in static postural positions such as standing and sitting. Once they have learned to let go they can then build strength in their core. Failure to ‘let go’ may add to their chronic back pain problem.
Also, we often encounter people mistakenly training with “core rigidity” rather than core stability, bracing themselves whilst exercising.
An individual assessment can first identify the strategies that your body has adopted. You can then learn exercises to correct this. The foam roller in particular helps to work your core muscles whilst at the same time using your mobiliser muscles. This in turn will improve your postural balance.
Exercise: if you exercise with poor technique you can be setting yourself up for injury and pain. Your muscles and bones have developed to work and weight bear in certain positions. Wear and tear from exercising in poor positions will present itself as pain and inflammation in muscles, tendons, bursa’s, joints and cartilage.
Pay attention: It is all very well to focus on moving well for an hour or so in an exercise class each week. But it is the other 23 hours of each day where we have to focus and practice strong, healthy joint positions. We need to be mindful and concentrate and be aware. Changing your everyday postural habits is hard; many of us have spent years forming them and the repetitive nature of habits creates strong neural pathways in the brain.
New habits then take time.
It is often quoted that it takes at least 30 days to create a new habit. Imagine the impact on your body and exercise potential if you were able to focus a little more on moving regularly.