Are You a Donald Duck or Pink Panther?
One of my favorite activities is people watching – especially at airports. You see all kinds – old and young, big and little, tall and short, and of course Donald Ducks and Pink Panthers. I know that not everyone fits into one of these categories but because of what I do for a living, I have this horrible habit of profiling people – or at least their postures.
We all know who they are. Pink Panthers are those individuals whose shoulders and heads are forward, upper backs are rounded more than normal, low backs are flat, and rear ends are non-existent. They always have to pull their pants up (or wear suspenders).
Donald Ducks have other issues. Their heads may still be slightly forward but the low back has too much curve inward, accentuating the “tail feathers.” Sometimes this posture is associated with increased abdominal weight or even a pregnant belly. I always joked with my husband during my pregnancies that I could balance a plate on my belly or my rear – come to think of it, I don’t remember him ever disagreeing with that comment.
The problem with both of these postures is that they fall short of what is considered “normal.” Everyone’s normal is a little different but some general guidelines follow:
- The ear, shoulder and hip should all line up in a straight line when looking at the body from the side (when sitting or standing).
- The shoulders should be level and pulled back slightly, not slumped or rounded forward.
- The low back should have a slight curve inward at all times — if you sit up as tall as possible with your chest up, this usually happens automatically.
The spine has three natural curves — one in the neck, one in the mid back, and one in the low back. It is important to maintain these curves so the body stays “stacked up” properly. When you have poor posture for long periods of time, some muscles become weak, fatigued and overstretched. Other muscle groups become shortened or the ligaments (tough cord-like tissues that provide stability for the spine) become irritated. These muscle and tissue imbalances can result in burning or sharp pain, headaches, muscle spasms, back aches or stiffness. Not fun.
So why is good posture so important? The reason is that posture affects almost everything we do. When you have good posture, you put less strain on your muscles and bones, you can breathe more deeply and digest your food better, and your circulation improves. Good posture can also make exercise more enjoyable, improve general fitness, enhance sports performance, and make you look more confident. Who knew that Mom was an expert when she told us to sit up straight?
Good posture can also lead to improved health and function. I remind women who are turning 29 for the 10th year in a row that poor posture can make them look “old” at an early age. Likewise, teenagers and young adults correct posture more readily when they learn that poor posture can make them look shorter or heavier than they truly are. Good posture can also help prevent the following:
- tension headaches, fatigue, and cramping
- pain in the low back, neck, legs and shoulders
- injury related to muscle imbalances
- difficulty sleeping
- eye strain
A recent article in one of my favorite health magazines flashed the headline “Lean and Tall in Minutes.” I chuckled just like I do at all those too-good-to-be-true claims we see that promise loss of inches and miraculous weight loss with absolutely no effort on our part. All I could picture was my aunt’s 4’9” frame standing next to my sister’s 6’ physique. No matter how much my aunt walks around with a book on her head, she will never be taller than my sister’s legs.
There is definitely a genetic component when it comes to anatomy and posture. While I usually get a kick out of the “yo mama” reference, I don’t agree when patients tell me you can’t change what yo mama gave you. No, you can’t escape genetics but you can lessen your chance of getting Uncle Bill’s potbelly or grandma’s hump. The article promises that if you add just four simple exercises to your workout regime, you too can “elevate your stature.” While I feel this claim is an exaggeration, I do agree with the author’s claim that simple posture correction can help you breathe more efficiently and safeguard your spine. Unfortunately, this is not an overnight phenomenon. Retraining the muscles and soft tissues takes time and repetition and the same four exercises won’t improve everyone’s deficits.
To correct your posture, you should start by trying to “sit up straight” as often as possible during your day. This is very difficult for those of us who spend a lot of time in front of the computer or for the kiddos sitting in their desks at school. Try sitting on your “sit bones” with your feet flat on the floor and your bottom as far back in the seat as possible. Pull your shoulders back and pull your chest up slightly to develop the curve in your low back mentioned above — it is very difficult to maintain a proper low back curve with good alignment when slouching down in the seat or sitting with one of your legs bent up underneath you.
At first your muscles will not be strong enough to keep your posture correct all day, but as you begin using proper posture more frequently it will become easier and easier. If you find it is painful to correct your posture or you continue to have difficulty after 6-8 weeks of self-correction, call your physical therapist to set up an appointment or talk to your doctor for advice. You may need assistance identifying your specific deficits and designing an exercise program to address your issues.
Whether you are a Pink Panther, Donald Duck, or something in between, you do have the ability to improve your posture with stretching, strengthening, and corrective positioning. Despite popular belief, you can teach an old duck new tricks.