Healthy Back, Healthy Living

How to improve your posture, decrease chronic pain and lower your golf score!

There’s an epidemic sweeping across America and it’s not the one you think. Yes, Americans are more sedentary than ever and, yes, this is leading to massive problems with obesity and the diseases related to obesity like cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and more. But our sedentary lifestyles of sitting at computers all day, driving for hours and then collapsing on the couch at night due to our hectic “do it all” schedules, have created a secondary epidemic of poor posture, chronic aches and pains and weak and injured backs.

As a former health club owner and fitness instructor, and now yoga instructor and personal trainer, I have spent years counseling members and clients on safe exercise techniques. Over the last 10 years, I have met with many women and men, both fit and unfit, who complain of chronic musculoskeletal pain. For the fit individual, much of the pain is due to “overuse injuries”- doing too much of one thing and not resting enough between exercise sessions. But most people don’t have that problem. More and more of us spend hours on the phone or on the computer and live very sedentary lives. My schedule is filled with clients who work at computers, sit at desks, or spend a lot of time traveling for work, and they are all experiencing chronic back, neck, shoulder and hip pain.

When we experience low level chronic pain, we usually ignore it, hoping it will go away. But it rarely does without some type of intervention and, the longer we ignore it, the longer it will take to get rid of. Research has shown, for example, that if you have pain or an injury for 4 weeks, it will take 8 weeks to resolve. Furthermore, chronic pain is a sign that something is under strain, and the likelihood of an additional injury, and thus more pain, is quite high. When we “suddenly” find our pain increasing, we often cannot tie this “injury” to anything we’ve done to ourselves. We forget that we’ve actually been enduring low level chronic pain for quite some time, but we’ve ignored the warning signs. At this point, medical intervention may be necessary. Our choices are myriad- muscle relaxants, rest, ice, chiropractic care, massage, acupuncture, orthopedic visits, physical therapy and more. These therapies will help us, but they are expensive and time consuming and may mean missed work days. AND, even if they are successful; unless we take the time and effort to undo the activities that are causing the weak, tight and chronically painful muscles, the condition will return again and again.

There are many things that we can do ourselves to decrease the risk of serious injury to our back, neck and shoulders, as well as reduce the chronic pain that we often endure needlessly. Self care through exercise, postural reminders and good work place ergonomics all will make a significant difference in pain and injury risk. Exercise includes strengthening those postural muscles which are responsible for correctly supporting the spine, stretching muscles which have become weak and tight from poor posture, and reducing the length of time we are stationary in poor ergonomic situations.

Typically, the chest muscles and front of the shoulders are very tight from sustained work at a desk or computer, or from driving for long periods of time. In addition, we tend to jut our chin forward as we round our shoulders, creating “forward head”- a major cause of neck, shoulder and upper back pain. The front of the hips, the hip flexors, and the hamstrings, become tight from sitting. Thus, we need to stretch all of these muscles to reduce the excess pull they exert on our spine. Our abdominals, upper and lower back muscles and buttocks muscles become weak from inactivity, especially prolonged periods of sitting. Many of the muscles I am describing comprise the “core” muscles- and these muscles are essential to strengthen if we are to ever reduce our risk of pain and injury.

Strengthening and stretching the muscles mentioned above is a key to proper posture and pain reduction, but unless we change the activities that cause these muscles to become so weak and tight, we often cannot fully resolve our problems. For example, when working at a desk or computer, make sure your work station is ergonomically correct for your body. Chair height and desk height should be adjusted so that all joints are at 90 degrees so that the hands, wrists and elbows are not lifted unnaturally for sustained periods of time. Feet should touch the ground, the back should be supported, and we should make a serious effort to sit tall and get up from our desk frequently to stretch and move to loosen up these “stuck” joints. The computer screen should be in front of you, not to the side, as sustained turning of the head can cause serious pain. Headsets should be worn if you are on the phone for extended periods of time, as again, abnormal head positions will cause pain and eventually injury.

With the constant debate about exercise and good health and fitness, postural exercises are often placed at a low priority compared to losing weight and looking lean. But without good posture, we cannot maintain proper form during exercise and recreational activities, and thus are at great risk of injury from the very same activities that we are using to try and “get healthy”.

Golf is a perfect example of a recreational activity that is totally contingent on proper posture, flexibility and core strength. Those golfers with rounded shoulders, forward head, weak abdominals and tight hip muscles will find the golf swing unnatural and painful. By paying close attention to good posture, and making a concerted effort to exercise to improve posture, every golfer will find that their swing becomes more fluid, they get longer distance from their drives and have fewer aches and pains during and after golfing. For more information on exercising for proper posture, and a golf performance exercise program, see the Member’s Only section of the website. Golfers can also read Golf Conditioning- Preventing Injury and Improving Your Game found in the Resource Center for in depth golf related advice.