“Sit up straight.” “Lengthen your spine” These are old phrases that we might have heard growing up from a loved one, coach, or instructor. We might have thought then that they only cared about the aesthetics of how the bad posture looks to others, but it is much more than that. The pose we hold for hours at a time will dictate the length of our muscles. Yes, it’s similar to the old phrase we would hear telling us that if we made that face our faces would stay stuck that way. Which in essence, means that if we sit at our desk for hours on end with a flexed & rounded spine, then the muscles surrounding the bone begin to change to make holding a flexed spine easier to do.
Improving your posture even slightly can reduce the likelihood of getting injured because it all starts from the ground up. The way you stand, walk, run or sit down can affect all the muscles going up the body, in a concept known as muscular chains. This means that foot or lower leg issues can lead to imbalances and injuries in the hips, the core, the shoulders, arms, or even neck. Even something as simple as sitting down while having your wallet in your back pocket can lead to problems in the spine, head, or neck. This minor change in posture could even affect the neck just enough to start triggering headaches based on nearby muscles being out of balance.
Many imbalances exist from holding any one position/pose for too long of a period of time. Some imbalances we might be born with, many more are acquired because of our posture. The ones we are born with are called structural imbalances and usually involve a deformity of the bones, or ligaments. These imbalances are hard to correct without something invasive like surgery. The rest of our postural imbalances come from holding positions too long.
One example that could be either structural or functional would be flat feet. Flat feet can occur as a result of the bones of the foot not developing correctly during our formative years in life. When flat feet develop as a result of posture, it usually comes from a person rolling or overstretching the ankle into a position called inversion. Inversion is when the sole of your foot turns away from the other foot, and your arch now touches the ground. You could be doing it right now while sitting down reading this. Holding any position for long periods as a habit will change the muscle’s resting length at the same time. A second way flat feet can occur after the bones have developed would be due to injury of the foot or lower leg. As a person is in recovery and can’t put all their weight on one foot, they might shift their weight for the entire time they are recovering, and this can lead to flat feet or a flat foot. Flat feet can alter all the bones in the foot and lower leg leading to knee and hip pain, eventually leading to new injuries. It’s like if a building sunk into the ground after an earthquake, not only will the ground floor be affected, but so will everything else going up.
If you are lucky enough to be born without any deformed bones, then make sure you are consistently taking care of and trying to improve your posture. The three best ways to improve your posture are to:
(1) Be mindful of your posture at all times. This can be very hard to do alone because we must remember to avoid harmful patterns at all times. This method is the one you can practice at any time, but on the other hand, it can also be the easiest method to forget. No coach to help you, no appointment to remember, and no one for feedback makes this one tough. If you have been creating a harmful movement pattern for months or years, it can be challenging to catch and correct yourself when using harmful form. This method takes a lot of mindfulness to be on top of, but it can be made easier by utilizing the other two ways to improve your posture at the same time as being mindful of your posture. You can also strength train the muscles along the posterior of your body to help create a connection to your muscles with your mind. This would, in turn, help with your muscular mindfulness, making it easier to be aware of and use good posture.
(2) Stretch by yourself or with the help of a professional. Either choice will help you begin to see results, yet working with a professional will help you stretch the muscles out in the way they should be stretched. How we stretch is just as important as making sure we stretch with a regular frequency. The first time anyone tries to stretch on their own, they won’t necessarily have a good sense of where their body is as they move into and out of the stretch. Using a professional’s help at the start of a new stretching routine is important because you want to make sure your body learns the proper form the first time. As Vince Lombardi once said, “Practice does not make perfect, only perfect practice makes perfect.” Words to live by when learning something new and not just when learning a new stretching routine.
Nothing is harder than unlearning harmful movement patterns to create new and improved movement patterns. Doing something over and over again will give your muscles the knowledge of how to move, thus leading to what is known as ‘muscle memory.’ Muscle memory doesn’t just mean your muscles know how to grow in size, but they also know how to move. After receiving the help of a professional, you can then attempt to do it on your own with the correct form.
As you attempt to learn how to properly stretch with the help of a professional, make sure that you know these helpful tips made to help you find the right person. First, know that there are many types of qualified professionals who can help you stretch, and a certain portion of these people will sometimes tell you they are the only type of practitioner qualified to stretch you. This is not true and happens enough that I feel the need to mention it. This usually will happen because the practitioner is determined that you see them and only them, a very self-centered marketing method. Let this serve as a red flag because if they try to scam you by telling you this, tell will more than likely try to scam you again when the opportunity arises. As far as choices go, you can easily choose from a personal trainer, athletic trainer, physical therapist, massage therapist, occupational therapist, & even practitioners in the new stretching studios that seem to be popping up these days.
Avoid concepts like taking a yoga class, or a group fitness class to learn to stretch correctly. “Why so,” you may ask when reading this. Well, when learning how to stretch your body with proper form, these two mediums do not focus on the individual or quality. Those are the downfalls of large group instruction. Yet even with a 1-on-1 Yoga session, the limitations of the stretches/poses will not stretch every muscle in every direction, and even sometimes overstretching what is already overstretched. For example, the poses are known as Chaturanga(low plank), Bakasana(crow), Bhujangasana (Cobra), and Adho Mukha Shvanasana (downward dog) all focus on contracting the anterior part of the shoulder while stretching the back of the shoulder. This doesn’t help when we sit at a desk all day with our anterior shoulders contracted and our posterior shoulder stretched out. We need to stretch out the muscles that have been short all day; otherwise, dysfunction will build up, and repeated dysfunction given time leads to injury.
Doing the stretch the right way and knowing which muscles to stretch can help elongate shortened muscles, which prevent you from having good posture. Every muscle can be stretched, and if you do not know how to do it, then talk to a qualified professional.
(3) Receive massage therapy treatments at a frequent to semi-frequent basis. This one will create the most significant change as massage therapy will reset the muscles with both pressure and stretching, while communicating with the nervous system to improve posture. Muscles will get short in length, and that is typically taken care of with stretching, but when those muscles stay short and dehydrate, parts of the muscle fiber shrivel up like raisins. Those shriveled up points in the muscle fibers are known as adhesions or ‘knots’ as some of you may call it. Knots are the points of tension that when you are receiving a massage, you’ll feel its specific tightness your muscle. Some of those points will radiate pain, and others will only hurt when they are found during a session, yet all of them will contribute to shortening the muscle and contribute to creating an unhealthy posture. Knots do not release from stretching alone and will often appear as a limited range of motion during the stretch. Knots need to be compressed or kneaded to realign the muscle fibers.
Receiving regular massage sessions also helps identify and release muscular tension before it has a chance of creating pain and limiting your movement. Sixty-five percent of injuries occur from the overuse of the muscles; the rest happens because of acute trauma. Aside from preventing injury, there are other positive side effects of massage, such as helping reduce mental anxiety and improve the quality of one’s sleep, which in the end can enhance the quality of one’s life.
Bad posture will eventually lead to aches, aches will lead to pains, and pains can lead to more pain, injury, and new sites of pain. Take care of your posture before it leads to pain and suffering. Remember, if you are in pain and think it's from bad posture, remember you can work with professionals to rehabilitate yourself. It won’t be a ‘quick fix’ or an ‘instant cure’ but rather a journey to rehabilitate yourself and no longer have those old patterns. No matter who we are, we should be mindful of our posture and remember every muscle is affected by another one. Build good movement patterns today to create a healthier tomorrow with minimal pains.