Updated: Aug 31
You are probably familiar with the notion of exercise being the elixir of youth. After all, the health benefits of exercise have been well documented, ranging from improved cardiovascular risk to better brain performance and dementia prevention. One of the ways in which exercise helps us to stay young is through posture.
When we think about the aging process, we are usually focused on features like grey hair and wrinkles. That’s typically because agist marketing messages want to sell us anti=aging cosmetic products. But it turns out that the tell-tale signs of aging often have more to do with how we hold our bodies and how we move.
Even from a distance, we equate stooped neck/back, rounded shoulders, and slow movements with age. Of course body shape and clothing play into appearance as well, but our brains are surprisingly good at discerning relative age just by posture alone. And while we can often reverse poor posture with a bit of effort even in midlife, it turns out that older muscles and joints conspire with gravity to create a “Use it or lose it” situation.
Posture can be harmful to your health in many ways beyond just making you look old. Kyphosis can lead to neck, jaw, shoulder and back pain, as well as exacerbation of hip and knee arthritis, Beyond musculoskeletal complaints, poor posture also contributes to dizziness, headaches, restricted lung volumes, chronic acid reflux, sleep apnea and incontinence.
Tell-tale signs of aging are how we hold our bodies and how we move
And in the internet era, we are all at risk for being increasingly glued to our screens - whether it’s phones, tablets or laptops. Regardless of age, we are all prone to conditions like “text neck”.
Did you know that your head weighs between 10-12lbs when held upright, but bending your neck by even 15 degrees to look down increases the weight by more than twice, to 27lbs? A casual glance around any public space shows us that at least half the crowd is focused on their phone at any given time and that most are inclining their heads at 45 degrees or more.
Postural changes usually begin with default positioning - in this case, leaning the head and neck forward, and rounding the shoulders. This leads to overdevelopment and tightness in muscles on the front of the torso, like the neck and chest muscles (pectorals), with corresponding weakness in the back.
Gradually over time, muscles in the upper back and shoulders can become so weak from underuse that they atrophy or die. Tendons, ligaments, and even joints and bones also adapt to the default slouching forward position, leading to the characteristic stooped posture that’s also known as kyphosis.
How’s your posture?
Most of us aren’t really conscious of posture, until someone mentions the word. And then an almost universal response is to straighten up and look around, as if our mothers might be hiding in a corner, ready to reprimand us.
I had always thought of myself as having pretty good posture, until I was properly assessed by my pilates instructor, who helped me work on my lordotic posture. One easy way to assess posture is to stand with both your heels up against the wall. Do your bottom, upper back and head rest easily against the wall?
Older muscles and joints conspire with gravity to create a “Use it or lose it” situation
If so, have someone measure the distance between the small of your back and the wall - if this distance is greater than 2 inches, you may have lordosis. If not, measure the distance between the back of your head and the wall, or whatever other parts aren’t touching. You can also have a personal trainer or physical therapy assess your posture.
What to do
The most important thing to recognize when it comes to posture is that because we humans live on this earth with gravitational pull, our bodies are constantly being pulled downward. So no matter what your mother says, and whatever posture you happen to have right now, it happened naturally without you really noticing. In other words, it’s NOT your fault.
Sometimes postural issues can be familial in nature, or caused by chronic conditions like scoliosis or old injuries. Women in particular also become more prone to osteoporotic fractures of the spine after the age of menopause. Such fractures can be silent, meaning that there are no symptoms, but the spine can eventually become irreversibly stooped.
So rather than blaming or shaming ourselves, we get to decide what we want to do about it. “Nothing” is a totally legitimate answer. Maybe you are fine with your posture and not bothered by health or appearance concerns. Excellent.
But if not, you get to choose how and what to work on. A gentle stretch and strengthening program such as Essentrics can be a good start, Yoga is also an excellent option, targeting core and back muscles.
If you have any kind of pain that you suspect may be related to posture, you would be well served to see someone who specializes in body work, like a physical therapist, osteopath or acupuncturist. You might also consider signing up for pilates or yoga. Many fitness instructors can help you work on increasing flexibility or core strengthening.
Most importantly, if you spend more than one hour on a screen at a time, you would be well served to reassess your work station. One of the best investments that you can make in your health is getting yourself properly set up with an ergonomically correct standing or adjustable height desk, correct alignment of ear, shoulder, elbow, hip and knees. Your body and brain will thank you for taking a load off, for now and for the future.
“Text Neck” is becoming an epidemic and could ruin your spine. By Lindsay Bever. Washington Post Nov 2014.
Book: Aging Backwards by Miranda Esmonde-White
Features Essentrics dynamic stretch and strengthen exercise program which combines elements of taichi, pilates, and dance. MIranda has been hosting PBS top=ranked fitness program Classical Stretch for 14 seasons.
Dr Em is an L3 Essentrics instructor but she receives neither commercial benefit nor financial gain from discussing Miranda Esmonde-White and the Essentrics program. She is just a diehard raving fan.