Don't Be a Slouch: The Health Benefits of Good Posture
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Don't Be a Slouch: The Health Benefits of Good Posture

The surprising reason behind your aches and pains? It could be your poor posture -- and it's time to straighten things out.

Working at Your Computer

Mom was right: Standing up straight is the fastest and easiest way to look taller and thinner. But it turns out that perking up your posture can have several other major -- and less obvious -- benefits. "Many women don't realize that they can improve their health simply by changing their posture," says Karen Jacobs, a clinical professor in the department of occupational therapy at Boston University. Bad posture can throw your whole system out of whack, stressing and straining your muscles and joints, compressing blood vessels, and draining your energy.

If that's not enough to motivate you to straighten up, says Jacobs, consider this: Standing tall helps you stay young by preserving your range of motion and staving off age-related skeletal changes that would make you inches shorter.

Ready to change your stance? We asked experts to point out six common bad-posture moments in your day and suggest easy fixes for each one. Their advice will have you looking and feeling a whole lot better in no time!

Slouchy Situation: Working at Your Computer

Spending long hours glued to a monitor is literally a pain in the neck -- and back, and shoulders. "Most people hunch over their keyboard and point their head down," says Jacobs. Laptop users are particularly guilty, since the screen is close to your face and well below eye level. Every inch your head projects forward puts an added 10 pounds of pressure on your neck (ouch!), triggering headaches and lower-back pain.

Sit smart. Your thighs and torso should form a 90-degree angle and both feet should be flat on the floor. (If you're short, rest them on a footstool.) "The key to sitting is aligning your pelvis so that it supports the spine," says Kathleen Porter, author of Ageless Spine, Lasting Health. "Instead of consciously raising your chest, which will cause your back muscles to tense and your lower back to arch, center your weight over the front edge of your sit bones and imagine 'wagging' your tailbone into the right position."

Make your lap off-limits. Yes, the beauty of a laptop is that you can use it anywhere. But when possible, place it on a stand on your desk at least a foot and a half from your face. (That's also where the monitor should be if you're using a desktop computer.) The center of your monitor should be about six inches below your gaze. "Your chin will point down slightly, which lengthens the back of your neck and helps maintain the natural curve of your spine," says Porter.

Don't overreach. Keep your arms close to your body and make sure your wrists are in a neutral position on the keyboard. Your keyboard and mouse should be on the same level, with your elbows bent at 90 degrees. If you spend a lot of time on your laptop, invest in a separate keyboard and mouse so that you can maintain that healthy posture, says Jacobs.

Take a breather. Every 30 minutes, get up to stretch and walk around. Holding one position for a long period is tiring and makes it harder for you to maintain good posture. Need help loosening up? Check out our collection of stretches, which you can do at work, at LHJ.com/stretching.

Talking on the Phone

Slouchy Situation: Talking on the Phone

Unlimited minutes have their price. That pain you get from holding your phone to your ear for a long time has a name: cell-phone elbow (aka cubital tunnel syndrome). "Many people tend to cradle the phone between their neck and shoulder, even if they're holding it in their hand," says Amarish Dave, DO, a neurologist based in Crystal Lake, Illinois. This compresses the nerves and blood vessels in the shoulders and elbows, which can lead to headaches and arm pain and tingling.

Check yourself out. Glance in a mirror while you gab to make sure your posture is perfect. After a few days of practice you should be able to naturally feel the difference and correct yourself.

Stretch away tension. To soothe scrunched neck muscles, New York City-based fitness trainer Kristin McGee recommends this move: Tilt your head so your left ear is close to your left shoulder. Drape your left arm over your head and rest your hand on the right side of your head; stretch your neck and let your right hand hang toward the floor. Hold for a few breaths, then repeat on the other side.

Carrying Your Bag

Slouchy Situation: Carrying Your Bag

The oversize purse trend is still going strong -- and that's bad news for your body. "Constantly lugging a heavy bag on one shoulder can cause back misalignment over time," says Lara Licharowicz, a personal trainer at JF Gymnastique, in New York City.

Lug less stuff. If your shoulder starts to hurt after 10 minutes of toting your bag or if your neck or shoulders are sore at the end of the day, it's time to lighten up. The American Chiropractic Association recommends that you carry no more than 10 percent of your body weight (13 pounds if you weigh 130 pounds, for example).

Share the burden. Switch your purse from shoulder to shoulder frequently to avoid weighing down one side of your body, says Dr. Dave.

Take a load off. If you regularly carry heavy items like a laptop or books, give your shoulders a rest and buy a wheeled bag.

Sleeping

Slouchy Situation: Sleeping

Spending the night in an awkward position can be a major cause of head, neck, and back pain, according to Gib Willett, PhD, associate professor of physical therapy at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. "If you feel stiff, achy, or run-down when you wake up, there's a good possibility that you're sleeping in a position that doesn't maintain the natural curves of your spine," he says.

Avoid pillow overload. You don't need a stack of fluffy pillows to support your head. "You want just enough cushioning so that the inward curve of your neck is supported," says Dr. Willett. Although sleeping on your side or back is easiest on your spine, don't worry if you're a stomach snoozer. Simply place a thin pillow under your abdomen, which will take the pressure off your top vertebrae.

Strike a healthier sleep pose. If you tend to snooze in a pain-triggering pose -- for example, the fetal position, which strains your back -- switch to a neutral position every time you're aware enough to do so during the night. "If you can manage to correct yourself just once or twice, it will become easier for you to sleep in a healthier position all night long," says Dr. Willett.

Mind your mattress. If it's worn, lumpy, or sagging, replace it as soon as you can. Lack of support can be murder on your back -- and on the quality of your sleep.

Working in the Kitchen

Slouchy Situation: Working in the Kitchen

Cuts and burns aren't the only cooking hazards to worry about. Bending your neck and hunching your shoulders forward while you prepare food, stand over the stove, or do dishes can easily strain your neck and shoulders, says Julia Abate, a senior ergonomist at the Ergonomics Center of North Carolina, at North Carolina State University.

Find the perfect height. Prevent stooping by checking that your work surface -- the area where your hands are working over the sink, counter, or stove -- is approximately the height of your elbows (although it can be a little lower if you're doing something that requires using force and a little higher if you're doing fine movements that require more visual effort). If the surface is too low and you're going to be working there for a while -- when chopping up a bunch of ingredients, for instance -- try using a thick butcher block. If your work surface is too high, you could move the task to a lower surface, like a kitchen table or a utility cart, suggests Abate.

Mix it up. Highly repetitive activities are most likely to lead to muscular and skeletal problems, according to Abate, so if you're dicing vegetables, take a break every three to four minutes. Likewise, if you're looking down -- for example, while scrubbing a sink full of pots and pans -- straighten up every minute or two to relieve any tension in your neck.

Rely on gadgets. Your automatic mixer and electric can opener are convenient and kind to your body. You wouldn't think that a simple task such as opening a can of tuna with a manual opener could hurt you, but without realizing it you can twist yourself into an awkward position to gain enough strength to do the job. Similarly, constant stirring forces you to bend your wrist at an odd angle and also puts strain on your shoulder.

Keep commonly used tools within reach. Avoid constantly bending and stretching by stashing the cooking items and ingredients you use the least in your lowest and highest storage cabinets.

Driving

Slouchy Situation: Driving

Do you tend to hunch over the steering wheel? You're not the only one: "Some car seats are designed to be cushy and comfortable, but that makes it harder to maintain good driving posture," says Abate.

Get a grip. Many women should ignore the old "10 o'clock and 2 o'clock" hand-placement guideline; it's more suited for guys and their longer arms. Instead, place your hands at roughly 3 and 9 or 4 and 8. These positions don't require you to extend your arms as far, so you won't slouch forward.

Move it. Contrary to popular belief, you don't have to sit up super-straight while you drive. "You can maintain a healthy, neutral spine at anywhere from 90 to 115 degrees," says Abate. What's most important to prevent muscle fatigue is changing the angle of your seat as soon as you get uncomfortable. On long hauls, get out and stretch every hour.

Cushion your lower back. Use the lumbar support in your car's seat to maintain the natural curve of your spine. Don't have this feature? Placing a small folded towel behind your lower back can also do the trick.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, September 2010.

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