When I was in my 20’s and 30’s, I couldn’t comprehend a time when I’d be in my 50’s, troubled with the common problems of that age. Now at 52, I have more compassion for my mother, who suffered from arthritis in her fingers, and for my dad, who had constant back pain. Finding myself now with sore hands and an achy back is a humbling situation!
Growing up, I remember my mother telling me to stand up straight, and maybe more importantly, sit up straight. Often annoyed, I’d push my shoulders back, pull in my tummy, and straighten my back. This occurred most of the time as I sat at the dining room table doing homework, hunched over my books. Or we would be standing in the grocery store line and she’d tell me to hold in my belly. Boy, did mother know best! I didn’t realize then that I was developing habits that would serve my health and well-being today. As I sit at the computer right now, I don’t have to think about sitting up straight. And although I have some stiffness and pain from old injuries acting up, I usually feel pretty darn good.
Fighting gravities pull is a challenge in the best circumstances, but is tougher considering our modern culture. We live in an era where sitting is practically a full-time occupation – driving, long airplane flights, computer work at the office and at home, and watching TV. Prolonged sitting puts pressure on our low back and hips, and strains our upper back and neck, especially if we are hunched over a desk. Back muscles get spasmic, and shoulders get tight from rounding forward too much. Neck pain is common because our head is jutted too far forward and not seated comfortably over our shoulders. Over time, this takes its toll on our bodies. And even if you have an active job, like mine, you can find yourself slouching by days end. In essence, we are a society of slumpers.
As a Massage Therapist, I’ve helped many people get relief from tight muscles and stiff joints, and even heal from injuries. Over years of experience, I have noticed that some clients recovered easier from injuries, had better range or motion, and had less aches and pains in general, as they got older. A lot of these clients had one thing in common – they had good posture.
So, I think a contributing factor to aging more comfortably is a healthy posture. When our joints line up properly, especially the spinal column and shoulders, they incur less wear and tear stress. There is less breakdown of cartilage, which leads to arthritis. (check out the bottom figure in the above photo.) The result is less joint pain and easier freedom of movement. Our heart pumps easier and our lungs function better because our chest cavity is more open. (see above how the being hunched over really closes off the chest!) This is great for our muscles and joints, which are bathed with more nutrients and oxygen. Even though “Skinny” in our photo is a bit exaggerated, you get the point. How do you think he’s going to feel when he’s 60?
So what do we do if we can relate a little too much to Skinny the Skeleton? I believe exercises like yoga and pilates are really helpful. These exercises strengthen our midsection, and stretch and tone the upper body, as well as our legs and hips. When our core is strong, our back muscles can relax. Lengthening the hamstrings (for example, downward dog pose or forward bends in yoga) eases tension in the low back. Strengthening upper back muscles offers better support for our shoulders which creates less strain on our neck. (think more down dog and lots of planks)
Strength and flexibility training is also helpful. I recommend finding a trainer or a class, and starting out slow, and sticking with it. Weight loss, of course, helps, and we all know exercise is a major component of that. In a society where sitting (overall inactivity) is the norm, movement and more movement is the answer to a lot of our woes.
However, and here comes my favorite part: I think some postural issues can be improved in the hands of a good massage therapist. I have done Myofascial Massage, which unwinds tight muscles and scar tissue, for years and know that coupled with therapeutic stretching, it can unravel tension in any area of the body. To help with posture, I often work on the chest muscles first, ironing out the pectorals and opening up through the front of the shoulders. I use trigger point work on tight traps and neck muscles, which often instantly relieves neck pain. Deep massage of the entire back musculature, particularly around the spine, is helpful, and feels so good some people fall asleep! With spinal, neck and shoulder muscles released, it is easier to stand or sit in a more upright posture. Some of my clients say they feel taller the minute they get off the table!
Now, not one of my clients has come in asking me to help them with their posture. But they do come to see me because they are in pain. Being dedicated to helping people reduce pain and stress in their lives, I have found this to be very rewarding work. And if better posture comes from healing touch that lessens stress and tension, I think thats icing on the cake. So, stand up straight, hold in your gut, and pull those shoulders back. Get some therapeutic bodywork, and try a yoga or pilates class. If it hasn’t done so already, your body will thank you.