It’s true. I am like the majority of Americans. I grew up hunched over my school desk, hunched on the school bus or chair or couch, and after I grew up I still sat hunched in the car or at my desk. I don’t work in a business office. I work at home. I’m an author hoping to attain publication here in the not so distant future. I’m not there yet but I spend large quantities of time leaning over my desk.
I am also blessed with hyper-extended joints, particularly in my elbows and knees. For years, I stood wrong. I locked out my knees which stuck out my tush and sent all the weight and pressure into my lower back. I’m sure it still is not grateful for the enormous weight of all those school books on my shoulders. And yes, I believe I probably hunched forward to carry them, too.
When I began dancing in college, my instructor told me that I stood wrong. I worked on correcting that the whole semester of Ballet I and I am indebted to her for fixing me. I believe that she saved me from the back pain so many people throughout the world experience. How? Dancers have incredible posture. They know how to hold themselves. They engage every muscle in their body to stay upright in a safe, secure fashion or else they would topple over on those pointe shoes. They do this regardless of whether they are in the studio or out of it. In fact, one of the diagrams I have from Ballet II (the next year) shows somewhere around 17 directions for proper dance posture. Among them are tailbone down, shoulders down, chest up, chin parallel to the floor, abs engaged, thighs rotated around to the outside of the bone, gluts engaged (not totally squeezed though), knees soft, etc.
Back injuries, from a simple pull to sciatica to ruptured discs, are becoming a leading cause of time off due to medical needs in the workplace. Insurance companies are shelling out millions of dollars each year, and companies are losing loads of money. Little wonder why the employee co-pays are going up.
The reality is that we only have one back. Science has not come up with its replacement yet and, frankly, I’d not take it if it did. Synthetic replacements just don’t work as well. Period. They make life liveable but at some point, until science comes up with new technology, they need replacing or wear out. Am I an expert on this? No. I am no doctor. I have no replacements. My job as a fitness instructor specializing in Pilates is to prevent injury from happening. Sadly, it is a battle me and my fellow instructors are losing because everyone has an excuse as to why they do not want to take care of themselves.
Health and wellness is about making choices, even making sacrifices, in order to live a better quality of life. As I’ve said, you only have one back. Once it’s gone, it’s gone and living a quality life is virtually impossible. Prevention is about taking pro-action. This is particularly true for backs.
There are not a whole lot of rules or definitions or jargon associated with the back. It is a series of 33 discs that support the upper body, neck and head, provide foundation for the ribcage, and connect your two halves together. It is flexible, allowing the individual freedom to move across all three planes of motion. It is the framework for ligaments, muscles, and skin, which connect the bones together and provide support for the internal organs. It is the centralized location of your nervous system from which stems out into your extremities. Hence the reason why it causes you so much pain when it gets injured.
How do we prevent and/or fix back problems in the fitness industry? Do you really want to know? Or will you just shell out more excuses? It’s your choice…
First, we advise you to become aware of your posture. Where do you feel pressure? Do you lock out joints when you’re standing? Is your head tilted forward? Do you get frequent headaches? How do you lift objects up from the floor? Are you hunched over your work much of the day? In the car while driving? Can you breath, or inhale fully? People who walk with their chests caved inward experience higher rates of negative mood and depression, poor self-esteem, and are easier targets for predators and criminals as they are less observant and less likely to fight back.
The most common postural deviations are lordosis, or the anterior tilting of the pelvis and deepening of the arch in the lumbar spine, and kyphosis, the forward rounding of the shoulders. The former leads to severe low back pain, tight hamstrings, hips, and hip flexors. The latter reverses the natural muscular balances of the body.
Awareness is possibly the easiest step in the process of improving posture. When I began to consider it, I would make myself think of it at random times of the day. I would take an assessment of myself. What did I find? Often, I was practicing my bad habit of ‘slumping’. The muscles of my shoulders and upper back were loosening and those of my lower back, hips, and legs were tightening. When I thought about it, I corrected myself. As I continued this process, it became easier, but I made sure that I did it daily.
Second, incorporate back exercises into your workouts. Pilates and yoga are great ways of improving back strength if you prefer classroom work. They work your whole core, not just your abs. And speaking of abs, crunches may be ineffective ways of improving abdominal strength as most people strain their neck, shoulders, and backs by grasping their heads and jamming their chins down onto their chests. If you must do them, I recommend letting the fingertips hang out behind the ears, across the chest, or let the hands slide up from the thighs to the knees and keeping a fist’s-width space between your chin and chest, and to lower and lift with your breath (inhale, exhale respectively). However, don’t just work the abs. Work your back muscles: the erector spinae, rhomboids, trapezius, obliques, latissimus dorsi, intertransversarii, and multifidus. Incorporate lower back strength to improve support around the pelvis. Add upper back strength to straighten those shoulders and lift the chest and head.
The last thing I often tell my students when I’m crazed enough to pull stunts like incorporating dance into my Pilates workouts is to feel a sense of self. Find your presence. Enjoy it. Reveal it to the world. You are important. You are valuable. Hold your head up, smile, and stand tall. You’re less likely to be attacked, but more importantly you will be taken seriously by those around you. You may even get questions about what you’ve done that transformed you into the new you. You can keep it a secret if you want.
I’d rather tell people because I feel good and I want them to feel good too.