Your Mother Was Right: Good Posture Counts

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Most of us don't connect poor posture with poor health. But think about it, when you're sick or in pain, how do you hold yourself? Head up, chest out, shoulders back? More likely your shoulders are slumped forward, back is rounded, tail bone is tucked between your legs like an injured animal. It's the body's natural response to pain and illness. The problem is that sustaining this defensive stance for any length of time may make it harder for your body to heal.

You're probably not surprised when your foot goes to sleep after you've been sitting for an hour with it tucked underneath you. You're not shocked when you try a new activity and end up the next day with sore muscles. Why then is it so hard to imagine that sitting slouched over a desk for eight hours might make your back hurt? Or that lying on your back in bed with your head propped up trying to read might contribute to that stiff neck? In all instances nerve and blood supply is affected; muscles are being over stressed.

You can't see it, you can't feel it, yet gravity is one of the most destructive forces on earth. Twenty four hours a day gravity is bearing down on you. By the time we die, most of us are several inches shorter. Take your spine for example. When you are lying flat on your back there are 24 pounds of pressure exerted on the spine. Standing erect the pressure increases to 100 pounds. Sitting bent forward in the slouched position causes almost twice the amount of pressure, 190 pounds, brought to bear on the spine. Over the years, the cushions between the vertebrae called the discs actually wear down causing pressure on nerves and, more seriously, on the spinal cord itself.

Between each pair of vertebrae are two small openings through which the left and right spinal nerves exit. Among other things, these nerves empower the muscles and give sensation to the skin. It is through the spinal nerves that you can move and can feel temperature, pressure and pain.

When each vertebra is lined up properly, for that matter, when every set of bones in every joint of your body are lined up properly, then your body is in harmony with gravity, and is functioning the way it was designed to.

In a recent study at Duke University, researchers found that just three degrees of malalignment of the knee joint can lead to serious cartilage damage. It more than doubled the pressures on the middle of the knee joint and increased peak contact pressures by 68 percent. Such uneven pressure within the joint can cause uneven wear and tear, leading to painful and potentially debilitating osteoarthritis.

Yes, good posture is vitally important. But what does it look like? And how do you get it? If you were to drop a plumb line from the ceiling along the gravity axis, it should bisect you perfectly. Turn sideways and ask someone to look at your posture. Ideally your ear should line up with your shoulder bone which lines up with your hip bone which lines up with your ankle bone. From the front view, your head should be straight, not tilted or turned to one side. Shoulders should be even and hips even.

What? You're not perfect? Don't worry, no one is. However, working toward perfect posture will help you feel better in the long run.

Notice where your head is in relation to the rest of you. It's position is best predictor of posture imbalance. Heads weigh in at about 10-12 pounds--the weight of an average bowling ball. To use the bowling analogy, when you get ready to bowl, you hold the ball in front of your chest with both hands. The ball doesn't feel too heavy because the bones of your forearms support it. However, when you begin your approach, you have to use your muscles--your biceps and triceps--to hold and swing the ball. Now you can feel its full 12 pounds. When your head is supported by the bones of your spine, all is well. When it's held up by your muscles, most likely the trapezius in particular, you're causing stress. Holding your head just one inch forward of that plumb line I spoke of puts 30 pounds more pressure on the back of your neck. You're asking those muscles to do more than they're supposed to. Over time those over-stressed muscles get sore. Over time the pressure on the cervical nerves can make your hands go to sleep, just like your foot does when you sit on it.

Here's how to start reacquainting your body with alignment. To stand and walk correctly, begin by making sure your toes point forward, not out and not inward. Next, lengthen the space between your navel and your collar bone by lifting your breast bone up toward the ceiling. This action lets your head naturally come back on top of your spine and gives you a natural curve in your lower back. Keep your chin parallel with the floor, not tipped up. When you walk always put your heel down first, and imagine leading with your heart not your head.

To sit correctly, start by placing your feet flat on the floor. Your thighs should be parallel to the floor and your knees and hips on the same level. Your weight should be over your pelvic bones, sometimes called sit-bones. When your feet, legs and pelvis are positioned correctly, lift that breast bone again so as to position your head and shoulders correctly. You should have a pillow to support your lower back only. Don't lean back. Leaning back stresses your neck and all the muscles of your back. If you must recline, use a reclining chair with proper support for your lower back and neck. That way you remain in alignment when resting. Don't try to work or read in a reclining position.

Good posture is just one of the tools of a healthier life. Add it to exercise, nutrition, emotional honesty, meditation, and prayer. Find your balance in body, mind and spirit.

About the Author:

Copyright (c) 2002. Pamela Adams D.C. Holistic Health Coach and ergononics expert Dr. Pamela Adams is author of "Dr. Adams' Painless Guide to Computing; How to Use Your Computer Without Hurting Yourself." For the book and your complimentary Self Health Newsletter, visit

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