The uncomfortable truth about Slouching... and some tips to help you stop!
Slouching! It has all the signs of an addiction. We can't stop doing it, it makes us look unattractive and is bad for our physical health. If you ever doubted the last point then consider this. Every inch your head projects forward adds another 4.5 kilos of strain to the muscles that support it. Just to put that into perspective 4.5 kilos is the weight of an average bowling ball. Small wonder that slouching is the main cause of chronic neck and shoulder pain cases that I see in my treatment room every week.
If you are a sloucher and feel ready to quit the habit then make this your first step to salvation. In this article I will:
Discuss what happens to us when we slouch, and
Give you a quick 15 minute daily stretching routine to help address the habit of slouching
Why do we do it?
At every given moment there is a battle going on between the strength of our bodies and the environmental force of gravity. Our posture is a direct reflection of the state of this battle. Slouching indicates that we are losing.
In an ideal world we would stand or sit in an upright position, the weight of our torso would be evenly distributed down through our vertical spine and our postural muscles would be in a state of "normal tone" (i.e. they are working but not straining). But we don't. Why? Because unfortunately our modern lifestyles require us to sit at desks and computers. As we concentrate on our work, we involuntarily crane our heads forward forcing our thoracic spine to counter balance this weight by curving.
Over the years slouching slowly becomes our "default" posture as the body's intrinsic ability to adapt takes hold. Our chest muscles tighten thereby rounding our shoulders, our throat muscles shorten pulling our head further forward, our posterior mid-neck muscles contract to form a kink in the neck and our upper back muscles lengthen and struggle as they act like reins holding on to the weight of our heads.
Hardly surprising then, that when we try and sit up straight it can feel strangely uncomfortable and even strenuous.
When a habit becomes a hindrance
Slouching in itself is not necessarily bad for you. Even ballerinas slouch. But it does become a serious risk when we freeze in that position for long periods such as when we sit uninterrupted at our desks.
When muscles are forced to work hard for short periods like during a gym session they will ache for a couple of days. However when muscles are forced to work (even moderately) with no rest over long periods of time, they not only change in length but also develop highly irritable knots that will radiate pain continually throughout their localities until they are successfully treated or you improve your posture.
Do not be misled by the fact that you might not be feeling pain or discomfort whilst you work or that you are safe because you get regular workstation assessments. You may have the best ergonomically designed workstation in the world with your screen, chair and desk height assessed constantly but you can still sit poorly in it. And the longer you remain frozen in that position, the more at risk you are of developing chronic pain syndromes including aching in the upper back, restricted neck, throbbing knots in the shoulder, numbing or tingling in the fingers, jaw locking and headaches.
The truth is that if you are stuck in a slouch position for long periods without regular breaks then you are slowly damaging yourself.
Step 1: Break the routine
Make a personal commitment to sitting up straight and taking regular breaks. Slouching is purely a function of habit coupled with the body's intrinsic ability to adapt. This means that it is reversible; we simply need to persuade the body to re-adapt to an upright posture.
Breaking the habit of slouching is a matter of discipline. It takes diligence and you need to accept that it may feel uncomfortable in the short term (Step 2 is about helping your muscles to adapt to this new posture). Every time you catch yourself back in the slouch position, straighten up and challenge yourself to remain there.
Make a mental note of how long you freeze for. If it is longer than 20 minutes at a time then get up for a few minutes, move around and try to stretch a little. I accept this may sound a little disruptive to your train of thought but if you can find an excuse please do; make a cup of tea, disturb a colleague (and feel good about saving them from freezing)... whatever it takes.
Step 2: Retrain your muscles
The following routine requires no special equipment, takes about 15 minutes and I have designed it so can be done at home or in the office. If you do it diligently every day it will gradually help reset the way your muscles sit on your skeleton and support you in your efforts to maintain an upright posture. Undoing a lifetime of slouching takes time so rather than searching for evidence of change in the mirror after every session, try to make it part of your daily routine. The results will come in time.
If you are suffering from any persistent pain patterns in the neck, shoulder or back then please come and see me prior to attempting this routine.
It is important that you do not stretch into pain. Ease into each exercise until you feel a stretch and then hold it there. To stretch into pain is not good. If you feel uncomfortable then back off and reset. Patience is the key to allow a slow myofascial release of the tissues.
1. Lengthen your front neck/throat muscles
On a chair with your head in neutral position either sitting on your hands or holding onto the seat of the chair. Arch your back thrusting your chest forward. Rotate your head to look sideways and then slowly tilt your head back. You want to feel a stretch in the muscles/tissues to the side of your windpipe. Hold this stretch for 20 seconds. Go back to neutral position and then do the same on the other side. Repeat this routine 3 times.
2. Flatten the kink in your mid-neck
On a chair with your back straight, your head in neutral position. Retract your head and jaw backwards as if to flatten the back of your neck. Do not nod your head downwards, you want to try and shift your head backwards. Hold for 20 seconds. Then from this flat-neck position gently tilt your head downward i.e. lowering your chin. If the back of your neck is flattened beforehand then your head will only tilt downward a fraction. Again hold for 20 seconds and then go back to neutral position for 5 seconds. Repeat this routine 3 times.
3. Reverse the curve your upper back
Move a chair to a wall and sit so your knees are almost touching the wall. Interlace your fingers behind your neck, lean towards the wall keeping your head in neutral and raise your elbows forward so that they are resting on the wall as high as you can. Now keeping a strong grip on the back of your neck tilt your head backwards and chin upwards, as if to look up the wall in front. You should feel a tightening sensation in the region between your shoulder blades or just below. Hold for 20 seconds. Bring your head back to neutral for 5 seconds. Repeat 3 times.
4. Engage your lower trapezius muscles
Stand with your back resting against the wall and your knees "soft" (just slightly unlocked). Raise both arms sideways so that they are bent 90 degrees and your palms face forward. Make sure your elbows and back of hands remain in contact with the wall throughout this routine. Now lower your elbows sliding your arms down the wall as far as they will go and hold for 20 seconds. Then slide your arms up the wall raising your elbows as high as they will go and hold for 20 seconds. Remember elbows and back of the hands must remain in contact with the wall at all times. Repeat this routine 3 times.
5. Open up and stretch your chest
Stand in a doorway and raise your elbows to 90 degrees so that they and the palms of your hands rest against the frame of the door. Now step through the doorway leaving your elbows and hands braced against the frame. You should feel a good stretch across both pectoral (chest) muscles. Hold for 20 seconds. Step back and relax for 5 seconds. Repeat this routine 3 times.
6. Prevent your shoulders from rounding
Stand in a doorway, raise your arms straight out sideways and grip the door frames. Now step through the doorway arching chest forwards. Once in this position you may want to try and grip higher up the door frame and see if you can feel a better stretch. Hold for 20 seconds. Step back and relax for 5-10 seconds. Repeat this routine 3 times.
The truth is that in the long term the slouch position causes more stress to our postural muscles than sitting upright. When our muscles are fixed in an inefficiently lengthened or shortened position, they get irritated and exhibit pain. Couple this with the common act of freezing in one position at our desks for long periods and you have the perfect recipe for all sorts of pain syndromes.
The solution is to:
Break the cycle by constantly reminding yourself to sit upright and taking regular (every 20 minutes) breaks from your desk.
Engage in a daily postural correction exercise routine that is focused on correcting the muscular imbalances that become embedded in the posture of chronic slouchers.
Thank you for reading.