Good posture is a healthy habit, and here's how to get it
June 25, 2006
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
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
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.
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
Here are ways to do what Mom has always urged: Stand up
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
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
"The result? Increased oxygen intake." And more
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,
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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."