When you look in the mirror what do you see? An upright person with perfect posture or a stooped individual with hunched shoulders and drooping chin who looks years older than his/her age?
Many of us fall into the shouching category. Worse still, as we lean over our desks or sink into our sofas we do not even realise what we are doing or the injury and pain we may be storing up for the future.
Richard Brennan, the Moycullen based author of Change your posture, change your life who teaches the Alexander Technique - a system of releasing excess tension from our bodies which is believed to be helpful for back pain - believes our posture directly affects our body’s overall functioning. It also has a major influence on how we think and feel, he claims.
“Good posture allows the body’s healing processes to work more efficiently and effectively and helps to prevent future illness. It also aligns your body and helps your muscles, joints and ligaments to do their job as nature intended. Improving posture reduces fatigue, muscular strain and pain. Good posture also brings the body back into balance, physically, mentally and emotionally. A person who has good natural posture tends to project poise, confidence, integrity and dignity.”
Mr Brennan has given hundreds of Alexander Technique classes over the past 20 years and whenever he asks how many of his students would like to improve their posture almost all put up their hands. Their reasons vary.
“Some people suffer from various muscular complaints, such as hip, back or neck problems while others have asthma, stress or various types of repetitive strain injury,” he says. “Quite a few have no physical pain at all but just want to look better and improve their general co-ordination and ease of movement. Some simply want to improve their self-esteem. Whatever the reason, however, it seems that many, many people are aware that bad posture is a large part of their problem.”
He found it interesting that although many people knew that muscular tension was causing or exacerbating their poor posture they were still trying to improve it by tensing up even further. “For example I saw people attempting to sit or stand up straight but actually over arching their backs in the attempt or trying to pull their shoulders back but in fact over-tensing their shoulders and upper back muscles.”
The fact that more and more people are time poor today has an adverse impact on their posture, he says. “This feeling that we have too little time causes harmful tension throughout the body. So, a vital step in improving posture is to begin to give ourselves more time in everything we do. Realising that life is not one long emergency really helps to improve posture. This may sound simple but it is difficult to practice when we have lifelong habits of rushing around.”
Take the first step in changing habits by noticing how you feel when you are in a hurry, he says. Notice the position of your head and shoulders. See if you can feel tension in other parts of the body, for example, your back, legs, arms and even your jaw. It is important to differentiate between doing things quickly and rushing our movements. He says there is nothing wrong with doing things quickly it is constant hurrying which can harm us.
“The key to good posture is really to take your time as you go about your daily activities and pause for a moment and consider how to perform a certain task even if that task is simply sitting down or standing up. Just try it for a day and you will find that this will go a long way to not only improve your posture but also revolutionise the way you live.”
The worst culprits of all in terms of posture are furniture and footwear, according to Richard Brennan. “In my opinion, one of the major external causes of poor posture is badly designed furniture. It is interesting to observe that back pain and neck problems have reached epidemic proportions in all countries where sitting on chairs has become the norm. Chairs and desks are the most common ergonomic factors that encourage poor posture. Many of us spend as much as 75 per cent of our waking lives sitting on chairs.
“Many people do not realise that the chairs they use can actually mould the form of the human body and can so severely affect posture that I often refer to them as ‘weapons of mass destruction’. While at school most of us sit for over 15,000 hours which is a huge amount of time, especially if the chair design is putting unnecessary strain on the muscles and joints. It is simply not natural to sit for prolonged periods, no matter how good the chair is, because the body is primarily designed for movement rather than keeping still.”
He says school chairs are nearly always designed so that the base is backward sloping. Children then have to tense many of their muscles in order to maintain an upright position. “I believe this tension represents the beginning of the numerous musculoskeletal and respiratory problems that we see in our culture today. Children often develop techniques to counter the effects of the backward slope, such as sitting on a foot which also has the effect of raising the pelvis. This is just another way of enabling them to pivot on the sitting bones keeping an aligned and healthy spine. However, it is often actively discouraged in case the blood flow to the leg is restricted.”
Sooner or later most children begin to slump as their back muscles beome more and more fatigued. They then tend to bend their upper back and necks forward, often quite severely as they work at their school desks. Over time this way of sitting becomes a habit and many teenagers have a bent posture even when they are not at a desk. This can cause unnecessary wear and tear on the vertebrae and discs thus sowing the seeds of future spinal and back problems, he maintains.
Desks can be a problem, too. Most are designed to a standard height so for many people they can be too high while for others the same desk can be too low. “Your desk should be roughly half your height but if you change the height of your desk or chair do allow a little time to get used to the new way of working.”
Many of us are prepared to suffer in the name of fashion wearing unsuitable shoes yet are surprised when we develop foot problems. Of the five billion people who wear shoes throughout the world 73 per cent have foot problems.
“Most shoes that I have come across do not allow the foot to function as nature intended and as a consequence they can directly affect posture,” says Mr Brennan. “The first problem is the height of the heel or even the fact that there is a heel at all. When barefoot the body is naturally aligned but even a low heel, such as those found in men’s shoes, can contribute to the body being thrown out of alignment. According to Dr William Rossi, a podiatrist, if a person wears a 5cm (2 inch ) heel their entire body is thrown forward out of alignment by 20 degrees. In order to stop ourselves from falling forward a huge number of changes must be made to the organisation of our precisely balanced framework. The pelvis rotates forward, taking away support of the internal organs within the pelvic bowl and abdomen. The lumbar vertebrae become more arched as the body fights to regain balance, and as a consequence, muscles, tendons and ligaments all become strained. More importantly of all, being off balance causes a backwards and downwards retraction of the head, causing excessive tension in the head, neck and back area, which in turn interfere with the primary control neagtively affecting the functioning of the entire body.”
* Change your posture Change your life costs €20, including postage, and is available from his website at www.alexander.ie or from Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop at Middle Street.