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Your mother always nagged you to stand up straight. But even if you followed her advice all these years, sitting for so long in front of screens — and age itself — have likely taken your posture down a few notches.
“We begin to naturally lose muscle mass in our 30s, and it really starts to accelerate in our 50s,” explains Christina Rodriguez, a physical therapist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. “But we need this muscle strength and endurance to hold us upright and stand up against gravity.”
Bone loss is also common (think osteoporosis and osteopenia), and women are particularly susceptible to its effects since they tend to lose more bone mass than men.
As people age, they also may notice a decline in their balance, which leads them to look down more, further throwing off their posture. “All these age-related changes together can lead to rounded shoulders and a forward head tilt, which affects your posture and also can cause neck, shoulder, upper-back and lower-back pain,” Rodriguez says. Not to mention the fact that many folks tend to sprout a spare tire around their middle, which leads to a weight redistribution that puts even more stress on the spine.
But there is also another big, controllable reason why we’re all so slumped over: We’re sitting too much. “Many of the age-related spine changes we see in older adults are from us taking on these prolonged, fixed positions in our work environments — like sitting in a cubicle all day, staring at a computer screen — that we weren’t designed for,” explains Chad Adams, a chiropractor at the Center for Integrative Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic. “Ultimately, our bodies start to adapt to it, and it becomes our natural structure.”
That’s a problem, he adds, because poor posture often leads to your body unevenly distributing force throughout your joints and tissues, which can lead to problems like hip, knee and back pain as well as other conditions like degenerative disc disease.
The good news: If your poor posture’s due to years of sitting slouched over and/or general muscle weakness and limited flexibility, then it most likely can be significantly improved with a few general day-to-day lifestyle tweaks. Some conditions that can affect your posture by accentuating the natural curve in your upper spine — like osteoporosis, degenerative disc disease and vertebral fractures — aren’t as easily addressed. But even in these cases, you can still take steps to prevent it from worsening.
The best thing you can do? Move. “Our bodies were designed to move, so the most simple thing to start with is to avoid sitting for long periods of time,” Rodriguez says. “When we sit, we usually slouch and spend a lot of time either looking down at a device or craning our head forward.”
The more you get up and hoof around, the easier it is to “reset” your body for good posture. Set a timer to remind yourself to get up and walk the hallways or your block a few times a day. You can also try these easy exercises designed to be done without leaving your desk or living room.
While sitting in a chair, put your feet on the floor and push yourself straight up into a standing position. “As you engage the muscles in your legs, your spine will straighten up automatically,” says Adams, who recommends doing this exercise four to five times every half hour to see drastic improvements.
When you’re sitting, periodically squeeze your shoulder blades together and hold for a count of three to five seconds, Rodriguez advises. (Just make sure you keep your shoulders down.)
Every time you take a sip of water at your desk, do three to five shoulder circles. This will help keep your shoulders back, preventing them from automatically rolling forward.
When sitting at your computer, periodically check that your chin is parallel to the floor and your ears are close to being aligned with your shoulders, Rodriguez adds.
It’s also key to make sure you develop a good strength training plan. One of the best ways to improve your posture is to focus on core exercises that strengthen abdominal and lower back muscles, explains physical therapist Eric Robertson, spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association. These connect to your spine and pelvis, so they’re essential to ensuring you can stand up straight. Here are three to follow. (Incorporate them into your workout two to three times a week.)
Stand behind a sturdy chair with your feet slightly apart, holding onto the chair as needed for balance. Slowly lift one leg straight out to the side, your back straight and your toes facing forward. Hold for a second, then return to starting position. Repeat 10 to 15 times, then switch to the other leg. As you get stronger, you can add in ankle weights.
This classic move strengthens all your abdominal, shoulder and back muscles. Get on your hands and knees with your palms aligned under your shoulders. Now extend both legs straight behind you, toes tucked under, into a push-up-like position, with your abdominal muscles pulled in. Hold for as long as possible until you start to feel fatigued. (While at the beginning you may not be able to hold for longer than 10 seconds, gradually work your way up to 30, then 45 seconds, until you can hold it for a full minute.)
This yoga pose strengthens the erector spinae, the back muscles that extend your spine and prevent slouching. Lie on your stomach with your palms flat on the floor, legs extended straight behind you. Now slowly raise your head and chest off the floor, pushing your hands into the floor in front of you while engaging your back muscles, making sure to keep your hip bones on the floor. Slowly lower back down. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds. Beyond the Cobra pose, many other yoga moves are also helpful for spreading open the muscles of the chest and upper back, countering the effects of us hunching forward during daily activities. “Sun Salutations [a series of yoga poses done in a continuous flowing sequence] are particularly great because they take you through the entire range of motion,” Robertson says. Focus on poses like the Mountain pose, Raised Arm pose and Downward-Facing Dog.
This article was written by Hallie Levine for AARP.