Don’t Want Your Kids to Get Bent Over Like Your Parents? Act Now!

I am currently in the middle of a visit with friends that we see periodically because they live in a different part of the world. I have known Ruth and her parents for almost 30 years. Tall and slender, she was a champion swimmer in her school days before graduating as a physical therapist. Her 15 year old daughter Sarah is a vibrantly attractive, 5′ 10″ at this point, and likely to surpass her mother in height. A recent Swiss holiday with her parents and siblings reinforced a significant reality to Ruth: Including the memories of her departed grandmother, there were four generations of postural stoop.

Change isn’t as apparent when we are with people all the time. It is more noticeable when we have periodic encounters and have our images updated. The reality is that any postural deviation will continue to extend itself until corrected. Rapid decline is likely in later years.

Ruth is very motivated right now. She doesn’t want to follow the same decline as her mother. She would like to prevent her from the eventual need of a walker. She knows she is on a slippery slope and she wants to prevent Sarah and her other children from a similar slide. She’s motivated! She is educated! With the right tools and strategies, she is empowered!

Walking through a crowd of teenagers, at a high school, concert, or any such gathering will provide ample evidence of postural drift. There are many obvious reasons; family tendencies (especially among tall people), slouching over keyboards, carrying backpacks, attitudes, trends, etc. Some are less obvious but equally likely. Sarah is athletic. She runs, plays soccer, field hockey etc. Her height would make her a natural for volleyball, basketball, swimming and other sports. She is also musically talented and spends many hours practicing the piano. Being a tall relational person makes her want to be on the level with her friends. Spending all this time in a bent position, the body thinks it is the standard position where it ought to return to. A new normal needs to be established.

This is an article to call attention to the problem and suggest a mechanism to instill an awareness of optimal posture and desire for it to be a new normal. If you ask most teenagers if they want to be shorter, the answer would be a quick no. There are exceptions. Abnormally tall young people may want to conform to fit in and so they consciously stoop so their height is not so obvious. Some are conscious of their bust line and want to hide it. Most get over it and appreciate the advantages; and there are many.

A simple search of the internet under “forward head posture” or “head forward posture” yields yields millions of hits. Many of them offer restraining devices that hold the shoulders back in a position that seems to represent good posture. The problem with passive restraint devices is that they only work when you wear them and they substitute for muscle activity. They actually weaken structures rather than improve them. Taking them off gives a relief from being restrained and they return to old norms. Other solutions are exercises that stretch, strengthen muscle groups and mobilize joints to improve body condition and restore posture. They can be good and work for some people. When it comes to young people, they are even less likely to accept restraints or regular exercise disciplines. It is easy to just “fit in” with everybody else and slouch together.

I think there is a better solution that has possibilities to change habits and behavior. Working as an educator for 30 years, I believe that providing a motivation and a process that is simple enough to integrate into daily activities, they will buy into change and make it permanent. It isn’t constant reminding (nagging) by parents or some other adults and it isn’t guilt or dire warnings of consequences. (Why do young people still take up smoking?) The long term consequences of poor posture are immense.  Joint and muscle pain, to back pain, nerve impingements, reduced lung capacity, TMJ pain, chronic headaches, shoulder and neck pain, blood pressure regulation, internal organ function and many more, all have possible links to posture.  It just isn’t as common to think about these things when you are young.

Most of us. including young people, don’t want to lose our height. Most of us, including young people, want to improve our self image. Optimal posture will do that. We can recover two inches or more if we correct a slouch and we can improve our overall appearance as well.

I am suggesting an approach to posture protection and correction that I don’t see as much. It is really more about lifting of the upper body into alignment; reaching up to full potential. Strangely enough it involves depressing the scapulae or shoulder blades. Think of three elevators side by side. The outer ones represent the scapulae. The inner one is the spine. As the two outer ones (the scapulae) go down, the middle one goes up.

Why does this happen? Dr. Makofsky, Professor of Physical Therapy at a New York university coined the term “Spinal Corkscrew Principle”. He identifies the action of depressing the shoulders produces a compression force on the ribs. Because of their construction, this inward force creates an upward force or decompression on the spine. This brings the spine into alignment in a very natural way by activating and strengthening key muscle groups in the mid and upper back. One way to experience this is to do it when you are lying in bed. Lying flat on your back, press your shoulders toward the bottom of the bed. You should feel your upper body move toward the head of the bed while the lower body stays still.

Active muscle involvement creates muscle memory. How many of the skills that we learn are performed with muscle memory? How many times are we awestruck at kids as they effortlessly perform complex skills; riding a skateboard or bicycle, skating, swimming, performing gymnastics, playing an instrument, etc. In some disciplines it is referred to as “kinesis” or “kinaesthetic awareness”. It makes you aware and you don’t forget.

In 2005, with over 30 years of clinical experience, Dr. Makofsky invented the PostureJac. It uses this mechanism to restore and train proper posture by correcting your perception of what’s normal. It slips on like a jacket with handles at the side. With the handles adjusted so that your elbows can lock while pressing down, it produces the “Spinal Corkscrew Mechanism”. The shoulders go down (like the handles of the corkscrew), and the spine goes up (like the cork). Holding this position, the spine is very stable and the joints are tight. Dr. Makofsky has designed exercises that will stretch, strengthen and mobilize tight, weak and stiff muscles and joints. Teenagers won’t likely feel these things but you will, and you are reading this article and you may have these problems as well, just like Ruth and her mother. So you should pay attention to this as well. Chances are that your posture is worse than theirs and you think it is too late.

The good news is that it isn’t too late and you can set a good example for them. It’s kind of like telling them to stop smoking when you can’t, or lose weight when you won’t. This is something for everyone. There is just an urgency with young people in their developmental years to create a healthy “groove” rather than cut a new one later on.

You can find more information on Dr. Makofsky’s “Spinal Corkscrew Principle” and the PostureJac at http://www.posturejac.com (and see a picture of Ruth and Sarah). It isn’t just for bent over people. It is for athletes who need to maximize performance, for singers who need maximum lung capacity, whoever hunches over a computer too long, and other people who would just like to live longer and better by taking proper care of their spine. It is the central axis of our body, and it affects all the other joints and organs.

You know the old saying “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” Okay, you can’t “make” them stand up straighter. Come to think of it, they do get headaches, TMJ pain, and various other sundry pains. Hmmm! Maybe there is more in it for them than just looking taller and better.