Posture has been a buzzword in the past and it seems that it’s coming around again. Postural control is defined as the act of maintaining, achieving or restoring a state of balance during any posture or activity. Poor posture was something that my Mum harped on about (love you Mum). She would constantly tell me to “stand up straight” or “pull your shoulders back”. I tried to do these things, admittedly I didn’t apply myself to them ritualistically, yet I tried. This nagging was put into the category of things that mums just loved nagging about like washing your hands before dinner or not picking your nose. It didn’t bother me that I had “bad posture”. Until a fateful day of tennis.
Yes, this is me at age 16. Year 11 of school was a tough year and I’m sure I studied plenty, but surely this was just an overexaggerated posture? But as more and more photographs from over the years surfaced the sinking realisation came to me; my posture wasn’t just bad. It was terrible. I was in a constant hunch.
For my final year of school I started taking an interest in how I could change my own posture. I took the same approach as most, beginning with doing my own research to see what would help before finally seeing the local physiotherapist. Religiously I would lie face down on my bed and pull my shoulderblades hard together to try and strengthen the area (Dr. Google told me this was a great idea, which is nonsense). I even had a friend help me tape my back as a regular occurrence so that I could learn to stand taller and with less of hunchback. Yet as the HSC drew ever nearer and as my priorities changed my posture was placed into the “come back to it later” basket and life moved forward. But it certainly influenced my career choices…
Posture is simply the human bodies position of strength in any given scenario. Hence, we have a favoured sitting posture, a favoured standing posture, riding posture, writing posture, handstand posture…the list goes on. Let’s run a mini experiment here. Please go and locate a mirror. Don’t worry, I’ll wait. Whip out that fancy smart phone of yours (that you are likely reading this article on) and take a pic of yourself standing side on in the mirror. Ideally this is done with minimal clothing on so you can see the contours of your body.
Done? What do you see?
If your body hunches forward into a position of comfort for you, then that is where your body has the most strength. If you notice that your hips shift forward and your ribcage shifts backwards this is your position of strength. If you have military posture you have either practiced this, or this is simply your position of strength. Maybe you see that you actually lean to one side, or that you have a really proud chest and your butt sticks out? The point is that it doesn’t matter what you look like. The reason you do whatever you do is because this is the most economical position FOR YOU IN THE GIVEN SCENARIO. What do I mean by the most economical position? I mean that in this position you must use the least amount of energy as possible. Humans as a species tend to find shortcuts to efficiency and posture is no exception.
What do we need muscular strength and energy for when we talk about posture? You guessed it, gravity. As Isaac Newton discovered, gravity is the enemy. The eternal force of gravity compresses us longitudinally as we are standing, causing our postural muscles to fire in order to attempt to (a) hold us upright and (b) decompress us.
The issues arise with poor posture or bad posture when:
a) the muscles, bones, joints, ligaments, tendons and nerve tissue that end up bearing the brunt of the load are unable to do that anymore. Our bodies have a set strength/endurance/tolerance for any given task. Holding ourselves upright is no different. If your body begins to ache after half a day of standing, it is likely that you have excellent tolerance of up to 4 hours of standing, yet at the 5th hour the muscles begin to fatigue and the body begins compensating as best as it can.
b) when the posture has been sustained for so long that the body has begun to adapt to always being in that posture. Over time, our body begins adapting to positions in which it is placed by forming small fascial adhesions (or Fuzz as coined by Gil Hedley – look up his Fuzz speech on YouTube). Ask anyone who has had their arm in a sling how stiff their elbow was at the end of 6 weeks… even if they were in the sling because of their shoulder! Every morning when you wake up you have a mini stretch which breaks down these mini adhesions and allows muscles and joints to function optimally. If we are constantly holding a hunched forward posture while standing for example, our body builds tiny fascial adhesions (aka Fuzz) that hold us into this posture.
Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent. If you consistently practice your tennis shots poorly then you will always be a poor tennis player (note to all readers: letting your extremely talented better half try and teach you something that they are fantastic at will result in lasting memories).
Hence poor postural practice makes poor posture permanent. Try saying that 5 times fast.
Some aspects of posture are definitely permanent because they are unmalleable. Bone morphology fits firmly into this basket. If my lower leg is genuinely twisted (for example those poor kids born with talipes equinovarus or kids with external tibial torsion) then no amount of brain power, muscular control or PRACTICE will be able to change how that bone looks. Yet the way bones interact with one another can certainly be changed. Hence poor postural practice makes poor posture only SEMI-permanent.
So bones can’t be changed yet the way they move with each other can. How about muscles? We spoke in the previous article about small fascial adhesions forming between muscles in times of immobility. We know that if enough of these adhesions form then they can hold us into a certain position. However the key piece of information that we need to take away from this is that by and large these can be reversed. They can be altered with manual work such as massage or myofascial release by physiotherapists and through stretching and applying movement to stiff areas.
Does this mean that posture can be changed?
The shortest answer I can give you is three letters. Yes. Yes of course we can change posture. Much like we can change the way that someone swings a golf club, or learns to play piano or learns to speak another language. This all relies on the neuroplasticity of the brain i.e the ability of the brain to adapt and change throughout a person’s life. This neuroplasticity means that the body can certainly learn an entirely new posture for any given scenario as long as the body can first physically move into that posture.
I guess that means its experiment time! As you’re sitting there please shrug your shoulders up as high as they can go. All the way up. Now attempt to hold them there for the next minute while you read the rest of this article.
You have moved yourself into a new and foreign posture. Firstly it will feel strange to have your shoulders up near your ears… which is fair enough because you probably look ridiculous. But then you will feel the big muscles on the top of your shoulders starting to come alive as their endurance capacity starts to get tested. This muscle normally doesn’t work in this fashion, in this scenario. This muscle (the upper trapezius) usually works to a much smaller degree when you are sitting or standing. It probably only works this hard when you are carrying something heavy in one hand.
But the point is that your body could adapt to this new posture. And with the right training it can become adept at maintaining this new posture.
However learning is all about consistency.
Your body just needs the right exercises, done with enough frequency, led by the right health care practitioner, in order to change for the long term.
Yes I hear you asking what happened to the slouched over little boy. Well there are two answers to that question. Firstly, he became a Titled Musculoskeletal Physiotherapist who loves nothing more than to help others change their posture. But most importantly, he proved to himself that it could be done by changing his own.
If you are having trouble with your posture then please don’t hesitate to call your local postural expert in Dee Why at The Beaches Sports Physio.
Like doctors, physiotherapists are first contact practitioners. That means you don’t need a referral from anyone for a physio to examine, diagnose and treat your injuries. Physiotherapists can refer you to get scans but we don’t prescribe medicine. Physios are experts in back pain, shoulder pain, knee pain, ankle pain, hip pain, neck pain, headaches, muscle pain, pains in the butt… you get the drift. But we don’t just treat pain; we also aim to prevent it.