Not just for finishing school… The benefits of improving your posture
GOOD POSTURE NOT ONLY HELPS YOU LOOK TALLER AND SLIMMER, BUT IT CAN IMPROVE EVERYTHING FROM YOUR BREATHING TO DIGESTION. AND IT’S EASIER THAN YOU THINK, SAYS SARA BUNNY
Posture. It’s the sort of thing you might not have thought about since you were told off at school for slouching, but when it comes to health benefits, paying more attention to your alignment can have a big impact on both body and mind.
And if you believe it’s just about standing up straight or balancing a book on your head, biomechanics expert Dell-Maree Day says think again. “There’s that classic line we heard from our grandmothers, ‘Sit straight, pull your shoulders back’,” she says. “But immediately when we hear the word ‘straight’, we overcorrect, and this is why a lot of people who try to improve their posture end up feeling like they are exacerbating aches and pains, as they are pulling themselves up with the wrong muscles.”
So instead of getting stuck on the word ‘straight’, Day recommends thinking ‘tall’ for an instant posture boost. “Focus on being tall and relaxed, and you’ll immediately notice that your body will start to stack the vertebrae of the spine,” she says. “As soon as that happens, your shoulder blades know to instantly slide into the correct position. This isn’t really about exercise; it’s about working with all of the natural, innate intelligence that’s in our bodies.”
Muscle and bone basics
When it comes to working the right muscles for posture, Day says it’s the ones you can’t see that make all the difference, rather than the main muscles we typically try to tone with exercise. Out of the 639 muscles that work hard to get us through the day, more than three quarters are part of an invisible network that keep our skeleton in place.
“The muscles we can see make up less than 10 per cent of our total musculature,” says Day. “We’re all so distracted by the obvious ones, but for many people, we are unable to get them evenly working and toned, as the underlying structure is wrong. When this happens the body can’t send information to these muscles properly.”
When things are out of whack, the flow-on effects of poor posture can mean anything from hunched shoulders to shallow breathing, and Day says the problems become amplified as we age.
“For a lot of women the pelvis can roll forward and they develop what’s called a ‘sway back’, where the lumbar curve becomes too generous. This causes back pain, it makes the bottom look bigger than it is, and it makes it harder to tone the hips and butt. As men age, the lumbar curve becomes too flat, which can make weight gather around the abdominal wall.”
So how do we get back into alignment? According to Day, who owned a Pilates studio and worked as an instructor before training in biomechanics, with practice we can learn to hold our bones in the right place, which is the best way to fire up underused muscles.
‘IT’S ABOUT WORKING WITH ALL OF THE NATURAL, INNATE INTELLIGENCE THAT’S IN OUR BODIES’
“To transform posture we need to think about every bone in the body, and placing bones back in a healthy anatomical position,” she explains. “This draws muscle back on to the bone, and those muscles reboot themselves, a bit like a computer rebooting. The muscles switch back on, and I’m not talking about the big powerful muscles, but your ‘everyday’ muscles.”
The bad posture pandemic
With our desk-bound jobs and hectic schedules, it’s little wonder so many of us are carrying around a muscular skeletal system that isn’t working as well as it should. What’s surprising, however, is how younger people are increasingly affected by posture issues, a problem that has a clear link to future health woes.
“When you first sit up as a baby, at about six months of age, every muscle is working as a team to produce that, and every muscle is fulfilling its purpose,” says Day. “But over time, some muscles are starting to switch off at an increasingly earlier age. This could be a combination of kids looking at screens so young, having a desk that perhaps isn’t the right height for them, and for a lot of people, it’s getting involved with big, dynamic exercises before they have a healthy skeletal system.”
The biomechanics expert, who teaches posture techniques through her programme The Invisible Exercise, says it’s common for teenage growth spurts to lead to muscle issues.
“In the teenage years, some people will grow fast and the soft tissue can’t keep up with their bones. For most people, there is a muscle imbalance by the time they are 20, and exercise can exacerbate the underlying problem.”
For adults, stress and lifestyle factors are the key culprits, and Day believes it’s feeding into a problem of mass proportions. “I work with both elite athletes and ordinary people. You can be 16, 80, it doesn’t matter − we have a pandemic of poor posture.”
A world of difference
While grandma may have missed the mark with her sit up straight advice, the age-old idea that good posture makes you appear more confident still holds true. Then there’s what Day refers to as the “optical illusion of body shape”, where good posture has been proven to give other people the impression that you’re not only lighter, but younger than you really are.
“When your posture is better you do feel 10 years younger,” says the former PE teacher. “It promotes a strong and painfree body, gives you more energy and allows you to move well. When we get back to a healthy skeletal system, most people barely recognise themselves. Not just in terms of general health but also their body shape and muscle tone.”
But if you’re thinking it all sounds a bit far-fetched, Day can understand the scepticism. Part of the problem, she believes, is a culture that puts too much emphasis on the idea that intense exercise is the key to health.
“We can exercise until the cows come home, but for most people, it’s like placing icing on a fundamentally poor cake, which is our skeletal system. We’re on this downward spiral of trying too hard. We’ve all bought this story that you have to move more, try harder, use fancy equipment. But all of the time we’re doing that, we’re still only speaking to such a small percentage of our muscles. Then add in some stress, our overworked adrenals, and it all gets very complicated. Meanwhile, we’ve forgotten the art of tapping in to all of these muscles that are dying to work for us.”
See opposite for Day’s exercises
for improving your posture.
As a self-confessed serial sloucher, Good
Health Choices writer Sara decided to try Upright Go, a wearable posture improving
“To get started, I downloaded the app and attached the nifty little gadget, a bit smaller than a matchbox and about half as thick, to my upper back. While in ‘training mode’, the device vibrates and makes a mosquito like buzzing behind me every time I sink into my familiar hunch, to gently remind me to
stay straighter. ‘Training’ sessions start with 10-minute bursts and at first, that was all it took to leave my underused shoulder muscles feeling achey. But by day three,
I was getting the hang of it, enjoying tracking my progress, and finding myself automatically sitting taller. A week later, I’ve still got my training wheels on, but I think I’m now well on my way to making good posture
more of a habit.”
‘When your posture is better, It promotes a strong and pain-free
‘We can exercise until the cows come home, but for most people it’s like placing icing on a fundamentally poor cake’