Investing in a better stance could be your ticket to better health in 2010. Posture affects everything from back pain and headaches to fatigue and digestion.
The beginning of Joe Linn's story is one that too many people can relate to: Linn, 57, had tried just about everything to stop the back pain he'd dealt with since college, but nothing helped. Working at his computer and even enjoying his favorite hobbies -- playing piano and growing orchids -- was painful.
Then last summer his piano teacher suggested Linn learn the Alexander Technique, a posture-improvement method that addresses the causes of poor posture and educates people on how to use their bodies better in daily life.
"It's made a big difference in my life," Linn said. "It allows me to do activities I enjoy with less pain."
Anyone who wants to feel better or look better in 2010 might consider the oft-overlooked area of posture. Headaches, chronic back pain, neck pain, joint pain and even breathing, digestion and fatigue all have the potential to be improved with better posture.
And as Linn said, having good posture doesn't mean attending Ms. Prim's Exhausting School of Rigidity. "I thought it was about doing all this extra effort to hold yourself up," he said. "But what I'm actually finding is it's about using less effort because I'm using my body more effectively."
Most people could stand to retrain their brains and bodies for better posture, health experts say. They estimate that nine out of 10 people have posture problems, thanks in part to a sedentary, rushed society that often uses repetitive motions.
"The bad news is a lot of people have poor posture because of our lifestyle -- we've become a nation of professional sitters," said Janice Novak, director of ImproveYourPosture.com and author of "Posture, Get It Straight!" "The good news is, no matter how bad it is or how long you've had bad posture, you can improve it and it's not really that hard."
There are many reasons why posture is worth our attention, says Novak. That's seconded by Brian McCullough, who teaches Alexander Technique classes and offers individual consultations, and Stephen Johnson, an instrument-assistant chiropractor who focuses on wellness and keeping people active. Their observations include:
Appearance. Standing tall makes you appear younger and thinner and helps clothes fit better. Poor posture collapses the midsection, adding a couple inches to your waistline. Also, studies show that poor posture conveys weakness, poor health and insecurity while good posture indicates strength, good health, vitality and confidence.
Back pain. Many people are plagued with upper or lower back pain because of poor posture or weak or imbalanced core muscles. One-on-one lessons in the Alexander Technique proved to have long-term benefits for people with chronic back pain, according to a study recently published in the British Medical Journal.
Headaches. Many people's heads jut forward too far in front of their bodies, causing nerves to pinch and muscles in the head, neck, back and shoulders to tighten. The result? Tension headaches.
Fatigue and injury. The body is designed to conserve energy and hold itself up with ease. Every step in the direction of poor posture takes more energy from the body and tires the muscles. As the wrong muscles work hard to hold the weight of the body, lactic acid may build up and tendons and ligaments may stretch inappropriately, increasing injury risk.
Performance. Proper posture means coordination improves and musical performers have better poise and sound production. The same is true for fitness -- better posture may mean a superior golf swing or more efficient running gait.
Breathing. Poor posture can decrease breathing capability by as much as 30 percent. When the head juts forward, the ribcage drops, compressing the lungs. Also, a tight neck or misaligned head makes it harder to get air in and out. Every cell in the body needs oxygen to do its job properly.
Pain: Neck, shoulder, joint and other areas are affected. When the body is misaligned, the wrong muscles go to work, causing fatigue, tension and tightness, while muscles that are designed to efficiently hold the body weaken from disuse. Poor posture not only leads to muscle imbalances, but also misaligned joints and pinched nerves. Poor posture can lead to temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder, tendinitis, carpal tunnel and thoracic outlet syndrome.
Nerves. The nervous system constantly sends messages to different systems and parts of the body, instructing them what to do. But when nerves are pinched or squished because of misalignment, they can't work as well, which can reduce the health of every system of the body.
Arthritis. Misaligned joints mean common movements wear away at those joints, leading to inflammation and arthritis.
Digestion. A compressed midsection means a squished digestive system.
Trying to self-correct may not be the answer, as people often overcompensate or are so familiar with the wrong way that the right way feels incorrect. Try these steps for better posture and better health this year:
Awareness. Activities in daily life should feel easy on your body, and if they don't, it's a sign you're not holding or moving the body correctly. If it's hard to stand with your weight evenly distributed on both legs for long periods, that indicates a posture problem. Look in the mirror and see if your ear, shoulder, hip, knee and ankle line up vertically and if your shoulders and hips are parallel as they should be. Do some digging online to ensure that your office setup is ergonomically correct and to reset the way you sit while driving or how you lift while shoveling snow.
Seek help. Try the Alexander Technique -- for more information, see www.AlexanderTech.org -- in which an expert can help you feel the correct way to move and educate you on the best way to retrain your body. Take a class or get an individual consultation from Novak, who has posture resources on her website, www.ImproveYour Posture.com. Or you could work with a chiropractor to correct misalignment, a massage therapist for tightness or a personal trainer to help build underused muscles.
Stretch and exercise. Once you've learned proper posture, regular exercise, especially yoga and Pilates, will build your core muscles and help maintain or improve your posture. Make stretching a part of your routine to lengthen muscles and reduce tension and tightness. Just make sure a trained professional has shown you the proper way to stretch and exercise so that you're not over- or underdeveloping the wrong muscles.
Sarah Moran is a freelance health writer in Minneapolis.