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QUALITIES OF LIFE

The scoop on eliminating your droop

Good posture is a healthy habit, and here's how to get it

Julie Deardorff
 
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June 25, 2006

Good posture--chin lifted, shoulders back--not only conveys confidence and authority but also can trim your belly, eliminate chronic neck, shoulder or back pain and keep essential organs from getting squished.

Once simply a matter of good etiquette, posture now is considered a critical part of staying healthy.

It's so important to Rita DiPietro, who teaches a posture-enhancing class called Callanetics, that she has no qualms about using her "magical" index finger on class members, family, friends and bewildered strangers. Though it's different on each person, when the finger is applied lightly to exactly the right spot, "their spine straightens and their shoulders roll back," said DiPietro, who teaches Callantics at the Chicago Athletic Association. "Inevitably, if they're at a computer all day, their chin juts out. I simply place my finger on their chin to neutralize the positioning of the neck. "

And these days, eliminating both the dreaded slouch and swayback is easier than balancing a book on your head.

Dancers have long used Pilates classes, which involve strengthening abdominal and back muscles, to improve posture, balance and core strength. But similar strength and flexibility programs, such as yoga and Callanetics, also have shown benefits.

When pain is a factor, the body can be structurally realigned through bodywork called Rolfing or injections of cement into the spine. Massage and chiropractic work can get the body back into its original alignment. And some say Botox, used to relax muscles, can be inserted just under the breasts or in trigger points to relieve neck and headache pain.

For those who need gadgets, posture can be improved by the shoes on your feet, a special type of hat on your head or a mirror at your desk. Some physical therapists recommend replacing your chair with an exercise ball.

"Posture communicates how you feel about yourself and how open you are to others," said Debbie Mandel, a fitness and stress-management expert in New York who incorporates posture training into her stress workshops. "It relieves stress physically, because your body is in alignment, and mentally, because oxygen travels more directly to the brain."

Here are ways to do what Mom has always urged: Stand up straight!

Sit on an exercise ball: It looks funny, but you can strengthen your core body muscles (and thus your posture) by replacing your desk chair with an exercise ball. Many "postural" exercises ignore the abdominal muscles and target the low back. But the key to symmetrically stabilizing the spine is strengthening both, said Frank Shen, assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Virginia.

Sitting on an exercise ball instead of a chair helps because you are forced to engage the abs while balancing on the ball. The ball also allows you to bounce, which might improve circulation in the legs and help relieve stress, Shen said.

Get vain and horizontal: Place a large mirror at your desk, dinner table or near the television, so you can see a reflection of how you sit, suggests Joan Breibart, author of "Standing Pilates" (John Wiley & Sons, $18.95), which includes a chapter on posture. She also tells Pilates teachers to wear a horizontal-striped T-shirt. "If any of the stripes are not straight (because one shoulder is higher than the other, for example), you can see where you need to focus your attention to improve your alignment," she said. "Changing posture is more about the mind than the body."

Think tall: Another mind trick. By imagining reaching the crown of your head to the ceiling, "you contract your back musculature and therefore raise your chest, which allows you to breathe through your diaphragm," said Stefan Aschan, president of the New York-based company Strength 123 (strength123.com), which provides fitness and lifestyle coaching services.

"The result? Increased oxygen intake." And more energy.

Do the couch potato workout: Brush your teeth for two minutes while standing on one leg. Write out the alphabet with your toes. Or do neck circles while washing dishes, says Joel Press, author of "The Couch Potato Workout: 101 Exercises You Can Do at Home" (North American Spine Society, $14.95).

Press, the medical director at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago's Spine and Sports Center, uses deliberately simple and small moves, such as strengthening the core and back muscles to improve overall musculoskeletal health. Many of the therapies in the book are used at the institute.

Levelheaded hat: A modern, more practical version of the "book on the head" technique. The hat gives you a soft, audible reminder--like a BB sliding down a tube--when you lose your form. It's supposed to be like having a personal trainer on hand 24-7.

It takes three weeks to change your habits, but Levelheaded promises you'll be feeling better within days. The hat comes with a 20-minute instructional DVD that includes four posture-enhancing exercises. After wearing it around the office, we're not convinced it's effective, but like any baseball hat, it doubles as sun protection. For more info: levelheadedhat.com.

Rolfing: Also called structural integration, rolfing is a form of bodywork that targets fascia, the fibrous layer that covers the muscles. The idea is that gravity, daily stress and injuries shorten and tighten the fascia, or connective tissue, which pulls the body out of alignment. Rolfing balances the body by lengthening and repositioning the fascia so the muscles move more efficiently.

After assessing the way you sit, stand and walk, Rolfers use an aggressive (some might say painful), hands-on technique to apply deep pressure to the muscles of the neck, head, back, pelvis and legs. A complete treatment usually requires 10 sessions of 60 to 90 minutes each. Illinois Rolfers can be found on the Rolf Institute Web site (rolf.org) or the Rolf Guild for Structural Integration (rolfguild.org).

Change your shoes: High heels and ill-fitting shoes can have disastrous effects on body mechanics and posture, but several companies offer alternatives. Earth Shoes (earthshoes.com) are designed with "negative heel technology," which positions the heel below the toe and supposedly creates natural body alignment. The effect is similar to walking in sand or walking on a treadmill at an incline, according to the company.

The Chung Shi fitness and training shoe has a special curved sole that angles 15 to 25 degrees at the toe and heel. Theoretically, this angle helps improve posture because it forces a normal biomechanical gait. Another fitness and training shoe, the MTB, which stands for Masai Barefoot Technology, simulates barefoot walking on natural surfaces. Both Chung Shi and MBT, which retail for about $235, depending on the model, are available at local Foot Solutions stores (footsolutions.com).

Cure your pain: Millions of Americans can't maintain good posture because they suffer from chronic pain. What caused the pain in the first place? Poor posture. For people hunched over as a result of fractures--often caused by osteoporosis--kyphoplasty is one of several alternatives that can offer relief.

The minimally invasive procedure is performed by injecting a cementlike material inside a fractured vertebra, using an inflated balloon. The procedure not only treats the fractured vertebra but also restores height to the bone, which reduces deformity of the spine, according to Maunak Rana, an interventional pain physician at the Illinois Pain Institute (illinoispain.com).

In other cases, targeted injections can be used to deliver anti-inflammatory medications to tender spots on the body, called "trigger points." Or accupressure can be used to massage trigger points by hand.

Botox: One of the newer possible applications for Botox involves injecting it into the "inferior aspect of the pectoralis major muscle" situated just below the breast, according to Vancouver cosmetic surgeon Jean Carruthers, clinical professor of ophthalmology at the University of British Columbia.

The injections, which cause a local paralysis of muscle, lift the breasts and reverse the "stoop" that results from bad posture. Carruthers, who has tried this only with slender, physically active subjects, said the study participants reported that their posture was normalized for three to four months.

Botox also can be used for migraine and severe spasms in the neck and back muscles if trigger-point injections don't work, said Maunak Rana, an interventional pain physician at the Illinois Pain Institute. It relieves muscle tightness and keeps the neck in a better position so there is less referred pain.

Callanetics: An overall core-muscle workout popularized in the 1980s, Callanetics integrates elements of ballet, tai-chi and yoga. Despite competition from Pilates and yoga, it's alive and well at the Chicago Callanetics studio, in the Chicago Athletic Association.

"After several classes, many women experience the phenomenon of a smaller pants size but a larger blouse or jacket size," instructor Rita DiPietro said. "They're confused until I explain that when the spine is aligned and the core postural muscles are engaged, the breadth going shoulder to shoulder actually increases, which is a very good thing." For information on Callantics call DiPietro at 312-236-7500, extension 2012, or go to callanetics.com.

Yoga: Through physical poses and breathing, yoga helps release stress and tension that cause bad posture. It also helps increase body awareness. Though any regular yoga practice can help, try 20 rounds of yogic sun salutation exercises six days a week, says Subodh Gupta, a London-based corporate yoga expert with the Indian Foundation for Scientific Yoga and Stress Management.

Chicago yoga instructor Lourdes Paredes recommends clasping your hands behind your back and stretching them up toward the ceiling. "Most people need that directional pull because we're usually going the other way," she said. Her personal favorite involves using a doorway. Simply place your hands in the frame and lean forward for a great chest opener.

Ten-hut! Quick fix for slouchers

If your own form has gotten so bad that you resemble a question mark, there's no time to waste. Try our favorite quick-fix posture tip for sitting and standing, compliments of Debbie Mandel, a fitness and stress-management expert. It's easy, free and an effective reminder to throw those shoulders back.

"When you are standing, stand `at attention,' which means grasping your thumb with the other hand behind your back," she said. "When sitting, keep your shoulders back and down."


--J.D.

Copyright 2006, Chicago Tribune