Working on your computer if it is above eye level or too far below your eye level, staying in one position for an extended time, or using the wrong pillow can cause neck strain. Neck strain can increase blood pressure because certain nerves from your neck go to the area in the brain that regulates blood pressure. 1
Slumping, slouching, or rounding your shoulders can significantly and adversely affect your lung capacity and reduce your expiratory flow. Sitting with a forward head for a prolonged time causes the chest muscles to tighten and limits the ability for the chest to expand. Consequently, our breathing becomes shallower. Poor posture places a strain on the muscles and causes them to spasm. Any spasmed muscle attached to the rib cage can cause shortness of breath.
Posture not only impacts our health but our social skills as well. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy and associates found that even “faking” open and expansive body postures associated with dominance and power–as little as two minutes –decreases the stress hormone cortisol, increases testosterone and the taste for risk, promotes more confidence and better performance in job interviews when compared to those who adopted a closed, contracted posture.2
Contributions to Poor Posture
Besides cultivated habit and fatigue, a number of common conditions such as muscle weakness can contribute to poor posture. Osteoarthritis in the spine also can directly affect the spine, causing muscles, tendons, or even ligaments to become strained, which, of course, can lead to back and/or neck pain. Osteoporosis can cause fractures of the vertebrae that adversely impact the spine. Peripheral neuropathy causes a deficit in the ability to maintain posture. Vitamin B-12 deficiency, diabetes, alcoholism, and certain autoimmune diseases can produce peripheral neuropathy.
Muscle weakness is a possible symptom of many diseases and should be evaluated carefully. Injury, infections, neurological and endocrine conditions can cause muscle weakness. Inflammatory and genetic factors, metabolic diseases, and electrolyte imbalance can also lead to muscle weakness. Mental depression can reduce the muscle strength of a person’s handgrip. Even COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) can cause muscle wasting.
Building a Better Posture
Recognize Poor Posture
Most people don’t think about their posture. However, for those with weak core muscles, keeping the body in perfect alignment is a lifelong struggle. Whether sitting or standing, the ears, shoulders, and hips should be in a vertical line. One word that gets people moving is the word posture. Just mention the word posture in a group setting and immediately people will squirm in their seats correcting their lazy position. Habitually slouching, bending forward with the back rounded, head protruding forward, and even crossing the legs are all positions that can eventually cause back pain or other health issues.
Watch how you sit. This is especially true if you work at the computer most of the day. The top of the computer screen should be slightly below eye level. Your lumbar spine should be well supported. Your shoulders should be back and relaxed.
Engage in Stretches
A sedentary life creates muscle imbalance that contributes to poor posture. Prolonged sitting shortens your hip flexor, hamstrings and abdominal muscles. At the same time your gluteus maximus (your buttocks) and erector spinae muscles (which lie in the groove by the side of vertebral column) become long and weak. You want to engage in stretches that target your hip flexors and hamstrings. It would be well to stretch your neck, shoulders, back and leg muscles and walk for about five minutes for every hour you sit. Hold the stretches for 20 to 30 seconds if you can.
Strengthen Your Core
Core muscle development is important for standing erect. The names of these core muscles are the internal obliques and the transverse abdominus. The internal obliques support the abdominal wall, assist in forced respiration, aid in raising the intra-abdominal pressure, and rotate and abduct the trunk with help from other muscles. Deep breathing and side bends are two simple exercises that will strengthen the internal oblique muscles.
The transverse abdominis (TVA or “six packs” in lay terms) is the deepest innermost layer of all abdominal muscles. It activates the core musculature and stabilizes the pelvis and low back prior to body movement. It assists in breathing and controls the mobility of the lumbar spinal segments. Caesarian sections, hysterectomies, hernias, and child-birth can weaken the TVA. To strengthen this muscle, periodically draw in the abdomen and hold it for 20 seconds. Reverse curls ups are probably the best exercise for the TVA. Lie flat on your back with your hands on your forehead. Cross your legs at the ankles. Round your back as you bring your knees toward the chin while your head stays put. Keep your knees wide so your hips do not pinch. Do this up to 15 times.
Understand How Muscles Work
Generally speaking, flexor muscles are stronger than extensor muscles. So it is advantageous to get a physical therapist’s evaluation to know which muscles we need to target. Over- exercising one group of muscles can lead to pain and posture problems. For example, a few crunches can help strengthen the TVA, but excessive crunching exercise can weaken the pelvic floor and lead to breathing problems.3 Excessive abdominal muscle tone can interfere with the movement of the diaphragm into the abdomen during breathing. Pelvic floor muscles are often over-looked in spinal strengthening regimes.4
Monitor Your Lifestyle Habits
Other factors, as well as exercise and lifestyle habits, impact all muscles including your neck, back, chest, and abdominal muscles. Nutritionally, protein is important for muscle repair but how much of the animo acids actually go into the building and muscle fibers depends upon several hormones. For the healthiest muscles, we want to physiologically improve growth hormone production and insulin sensitivity while reducing stress hormones. Deep sleep, regular exercise, a vegetarian diet, arginine from nuts and legumes, and very short fasting improves growth hormone synthesis. In contrast, obesity and a high fat diet blunt its production.
Fortunately, many of the same factors that improve growth hormone synthesis improve insulin sensitivity too. These two factors – growth hormone and improved insulin sensitivity – means more amino acids enter the muscle cells for growth and repair. Excessive amounts of cortisol, however, inhibit protein synthesis in the body, including muscle cells, so there is less repair and regeneration. Prolonged stress, visceral fat, sleep deprivation, and a high protein diet increase cortisol levels. Other hormones, like testosterone, thyroid hormones, and parathyroid hormone also influence skeletal muscles.
Vitamin D hormone deficiency contributes to muscle pain and inflammation.
Breathing correctly is a key component in strengthening the muscles necessary for good posture. This is done by using the abdominal muscles to make your abdomen, below your waist, go in and out as you breathe. Most of the time the upper chest moves in and out, but this is called shallow breathing and does not strengthen the core muscles. This is the first step to good posture.
Place your hands on your knees while in a sitting position and observe your breathing. Most likely you will have difficulty taking deep breaths. Your lungs and intestines are more compressed, and your muscles are not able to contract as easily as when you are sitting or standing erect. A humped back can contribute to poor digestion, acid reflux, and last but not least—poor oxygen intake which will affect the oxygen availability of all the organs.
Lift Wisely and Evaluate Frequently
Young people don’t usually experience back pain from poor posture so they don’t make the effort to correct this bad habit. However, according to Dr. Mladen Goulic of the Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute, if bad habits are not corrected, spinal wear and tear can cause problems in later life. Just the repeated bending and lifting during the course of the day, if not done properly, will take its toll on the disks in between the vertebra, as well as the cartilage and bones of the back. So evaluate your posture before someone has to tell you to straighten your back, by then it may already be difficult, but not impossible, to correct.
To lift a heavy object, prepare beforehand. Keep the object close to your body. Your feet should be shoulder-length apart. Bend your knees, keeping your back straight, as you tighten your abdominal muscles. Always lift from your hips and get help if you are straining. It may help to practice lifting correctly a lighter object as if it were a heavier one.
Dr. Goulic also confirms that, “There are studies on Sedentary Death Syndrome which show that hours of sitting can cause lower back pain, high cholesterol, obesity, and diabetes.” So as important as stretching and core exercises are, engage in some aerobic and resistant exercises at least three times a week.(5)
If you are experiences back pain, consult with your health care profession. There can be other causes of back pain other than muscle or disc problems. Pain from the gallbladder or kidneys can be referred to the back.
- Edward, JJ. The neurochemically diverse intermedius nucleus of the medulla as a source of excitatory and inhibitory synaptic input to the nucleus tractus solitarii. J Neurosci. 2007 Aug 1; 27(31):8324-33.↩
- Cuddy, Amy J.C., et al,”The Benefit of Power Posing Before a High-Stakes Social
Evaluation.” Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 13-027, September 2012.↩