Do you sit/stand like this?
Look at how my chin has poked out as my head thrusts forwards, my back is rounded, my ribs collapsed and my belly poofed out. Attractive, isn’t it? But holding your head and neck in poor alignment isn’t only bad for your vanity. The forward head posture has a whole host of negative ramifications for the health of the body. First of all the head tends to drag the upper spine with it, reducing the space in the torso, leading to reduced lung volume (less oxygen for your body) and a sluggish digestive tract (poor elimination, build up of toxins). It also places a lot of strain on the actual spine, putting your discs and vertebrae at risk of damage and degeneration, and changing the alignment of the neck so that the space required for the arteries that take oxygenated blood to the brain is reduced – definitely not a good thing! Think headaches, poor vision, tiredness…The pull of gravity on the head is also altered– changing the weight of the head from about 5 kilos in proper alignment to up to 19 kilos when the head thrusts forwards. The back of the body struggles to hold up this tremendous weight, so extra connective tissue gets laid down at the top of the back to form a strap, almost like reins, to keep ahold of the head: the classic dowager’s hump. Hmm, seems we’re back to vanity….
To feel the alignment of your neck yourself, try this chicken exercise (not the most elegant exercise!)
Feel how when the head is forwards the lower part of the neck lengthens and slides forwards and the top part of the neck (right under the skull) is shortened. And how when you draw the head back and the chin in, the top of the neck lengthens and the lower part of the neck draws back, lining itself up over a long, tall spine.
If it feels hard to get your head back and your chin in, try a stretch for the top of the neck, which should feel good:
Unfortunately modern life encourages the forward head posture as we spend so much time sitting down and looking intently at screens and books. So not only do we need to learn how to hold ourselves better, we need to learn to be vigilant about regularly asking ourselves where our chins are. One possibility is to write ‘where is my chin?’ on one of those thick rubber bands and wear it on your wrist – every time you look at it you will be reminded to draw your chin back and in and realign your spine. An excellent alternative is to get someone who loves you to buy you an expensive bracelet as a reminder…. A third possibility is to use a regular prompt, such as every time you get a text or an email, as a reminder to check your alignment. If you can add helping your eyes by looking into the distance for a moment or two, so much the better (a post on eyes might be coming soon)
In the meantime I’m still hoping for the bracelet option, as I just realised my chin was sticking out….
In my last post, Sitting – the New Smoking?, I talked about how to sit well. As I pointed out, the very best thing is to change position as often as you can. Our bodies are not designed to be stationary they way modern life leads us to be. Standing up, moving around, changing your sitting position, these are all really important for keeping the body mobile and healthy. Look back at that post for ideas on how to make changing your position part of your daily routine.
Another good idea is to give your spine some movement in all planes of motion, so a little routine that you can practise in your chair may be helpful. If you are on a train or in a plane you will need to sit towards the front edge of your seat, as the seats are usually in a bucket shape that makes sitting up well virtually impossible. And if you are unsure how to sit well in the first place, look back at Sitting – the New Smoking? for a full explanation.
I have filmed this clip as a little routine to perform all at once, but you could break the exercises up and just do them randomly over the course of your day or your journey – the more frequently the better!
Sitting: the new smoking?
Sitting in a chair – especially the way most of us sit in a chair or on the sofa – is really not very good for the body. Most of us roll back off our sitting bones and collapse through our spines, poking our heads forwards towards our computer or tv screen…
This posture is bad for our bodies in so many ways. It reduces the space for our internal organs, affecting our breathing, digestion and blood flow. It compromises our spines by squeezing our intervertebral discs, creating the microtrauma that can lead to disc degeneration and bulging or herniated discs. It reduces the distance between the sacrum and pubic symphysis, leading to a shortening and weakening of the tissues of the pelvic floor (I’ll be doing a more comprehensive post on the pelvic floor soon, but think incontinence, prolapse, erectile dysfunction….). The forward head posture can lead to neck and shoulder ache since your poor muscles and connective tissues are having to hang on to a head that is being pulled on relentlessly by gravity and is not supported by the spine that should be underneath it. The forward head posture also compromises the space for the vertebral arteries that are encased within the neck vertebrae (bit of a design flaw?). This can lead to reduced blood flow to the head, headaches, eye strain… No wonder people are saying that sitting is the new smoking.
But, you say, I have to sit! My work environment, my travel arrangements, my home furniture design – modern life is geared around sitting. What do I do? Unless you are one of the lucky people who can rearrange their lifestyle, you need to make the best of a bad lot in two ways. The first way is: don’t sit still for so long. Come up with some ideas for how you can create habits that encourage a change of position or some movement at regular intervals. For example:
Every time you talk on the phone, stand up. Or, if you have a cord-free phone, walk around.
Every time you press send on an email, check your posture. Or better yet, stand up, swing your upper body around from side to side a few times, then sit back down in a good sitting posture.
When you are travelling (and by the way, most car, train and airplane seats are designed with a bucket shape that forces you to slump – it’s usually impossible to sit well in them) set the timer on your watch or phone to beep every 15 minutes, and get up and move around.
The second way to improve things is to sit with a better posture. Esther Gokhale, author or 8 Steps to a Pain Free Back, teaches ‘stretch-sitting’ and sells a back support that helps keep good spinal alignment while leaning back in a chair (I haven’t tried it myself so can’t give a fully informed opinion on it, but it seems to makes sense). But even better than sitting with such a support is to sit well without one. Mary Bond, author of The New Rules of Posture, taught me how to sit well, and it all starts with the pelvis. Firstly, make sure that your pelvis is higher than your knees. If your chair is a bit low, stack a block or some firm cushions on it. Then find your sitting bones….
After a lifetime of slumping, your back muscles may lack the endurance to hold you up in this position for extended periods of time. Take a break from sitting well as often as you need to – see Giving Your Spine a Break When Sitting for ideas.