“My husband/boyfriend/dad needs this stuff!”, I hear it all the time! So, in response, I’m teaching an Alignment for Guys workshop February 28th (details below). I work primarily with woman, but corrective exercises, alignment principles, and natural movement apply to men too. Other than our reproductive organs, men and women have the same basic anatomy & physiology. It’s nothing new, just worded differently, because it’s hard for a man to read something about pregnancy and vaginas and think “yes, I can see how this applies to me.”
My classes are full of women, and we talk a lot about pelvic floor issues–things like incontinence, painful periods, sciatica, etc. Today, let me be clear that men have alignment related pelvic floor issues too! Several sources estimate 95% of prostatitis (prostate inflammation) isn’t bacterial. Meaning there is inflammation that isn’t caused by an infection and can’t be treated with an antibiotic. In many cases, there is a mechanical/muscle tension component. In the year 2007, John Hopkins estimated over 18 million men in the US over the age of 20 suffer from ED. (I’d be willing to bet it’s higher now.)
Another thing I’d like to be clear on is this: the alignment principles aren’t just for pelvic floor issues. Problems with pelvic health and function are common, so I tend to talk about them a lot, but they are just one small piece. The tension and misalignment created by our modern life creates issues for every part of our body. Improving alignment can help rotator cuff problems, arthritis, plantarfasciitis, headaches, back pain, hernias, prostate issues, and high blood pressure, just to name a few. We like to blame these things on “getting old”, but all of these aliments can have mechanical causes. How you move (or don’t) can cause or exacerbate these common male issues.
Bear with me as I make an over generalization. Men are less likely than women to do activities like yoga, walking and stretching. I know this is a stereotype, but look around the yoga studio or the stretch class at your gym, and TELL ME this isn’t true. (Funny story about guys trying yoga here.) What I teach is different than than yoga, but the trend applies here too. When I used to teach “co-ed” classes, they were usually 80-90% women. When I teach at a certification week, it’s at least 95% women every time. Men are more likely to do activities that are about speed, strength, endurance…..things like weight lifting, running, sports, cycling…. None of these activities are bad, but when you combine short bouts of very intense workouts with longer periods of sedentary time, pain and injury are bound to follow, despite your best intentions. In order to continue doing the acitivites you enjoy, you need something to help fill in the gap between your sedentary time and your workout time. Exercise and sports have a lot of benefits, but we know now that they can’t undo hours of sitting each day. Our bodies have adapted to a lifetime of chairs, couches, cars and computers creating tension and misalignment. When we take these bodies to the gym and ask them to do challenging things, it’s like taking out a rusty, misaligned, uncalibrated machine that has been sitting in your garage for the last 20 years and expecting peak performance. Not going to happen. This is why even the most fit, athletic guy you know has pain and injuries.
I think there is a widespread belief that when it comes to exercise, the harder it is the better it is. The “easy” things like stretching and walking aren’t worth doing because they don’t make you sweat and don’t make you want to puke. If you want to remain active, pain free and have all your parts function well, you need to start doing some of the “easy” things. As you learn to move differently and move better while doing the “easy” things, you can start doing the more challenging things without injury and pain. If you come to one of my classes, you’ll find very quickly that the things that appear “easy” can be quite challenging.
If you (or the men in your life) are experiencing any of the above mentioned issues, feeling a bit achy or older than you should, here are some suggestions:
- If you are local: Join us for the Alignment for Guys Workshop on February 28th! This class will be an introduction to alignment for better health, mobility, and strength. We’ll identify and review exercises that address common aches and pain brought on by hours sitting in front of a computer or behind a steering wheel, overcorrecting a slouch with “military posture”, and “getting old.” Register and see details here.
- Try these movement breaks for the office.
- Read “Don’t Just Sit There” by Katy Bowman to figure out how to move more and still be productive at work. Another good resource is this list of ways to create a more active workstation.
- For male pelvic floor issues: David is a Restorative Exercise Specialist who works with men experiencing pelvic pain and dysfunction. This article has lots of resources too.
We recently moved to Nashville, and although this move was considerably easier than our last one, it still takes a toll. For most people moving and back pain go together. We’ve all been there: I think I can move that couch by myself….this box isn’t THAT heavy….I don’t need help…. Usually what follows next is a back spasm (and maybe some cursing) followed by days/weeks of pain. Even if you get off lucky and only have some mild soreness, it’s both uncomfortable and avoidable. Here’s how I got through the move without the typical back pain:
1) I used my HIPS. You’ve heard “lift with your legs, not with your back”, right? I’d like to revise that saying to “lift with your hips, not with your back”. I think a lot of people get into trouble when they THINK they are using their legs because their knees are bent. It’s true, some of the leg muscles are working when the knees are bent, but the position of the pelvis determines whether the big muscles on the back of the leg (gluts & hamstrings) can work here. The position of the pelvis also effects what is happening in our back (because they are attached). When our hips are tight, we tend to over use and abuse our spine and/or knees when bending over to pick something up. The pelvis will tuck, the low back will go into flexion (round) and the knees will move forward. In addition to being a vulnerable position for the spine and hard on the knees, it prevents a person from being able to effectively use the gluts and hamstrings to do the heavy lifting. A person who lifts like this might use some leg muscle but will also use their back:
Try this instead: Bend down like you are going to pick somethings up. Now, do it again, and pretend like you are squatting. Untuck your pelvis and back your butt WAY up until shins are vertical. This allows you to use the gluts and hamstrings (hips!) as well as save your back when you lift:
Now, you might be thinking “I don’t think I can get into that position, much less lift a box in that position.” Can you see how my knees are coming forward in the picture on the left? I can’t quite make it all the way to the ground with vertical shins, so I allow them to come forward, then on the way up, back my pelvis up as soon as possible, so I can use my hips to do the work. You might also notice that my pelvis is a little bit tucked. It’s not perfect, but it’s still enough to keep me from the full on back spasms of my past. I’ve been working on building the strength and mobility to be able to do this for years, and I still have a ways to go. It takes time. You’ll find some hip opening and squatting homework at the bottom of the page to help you get there.
2) I paid attention to my body’s warning signs and asked for help. What are the warning signs? I’m so glad you asked. All of these are signals that you are not strong enough to do what you are attempting to do. Stop and ask for help if you:
- Have to hold your breath, bear down, valsalva
- Leak urine (Yes, it’s common. No, it’s not ok.)
- Feel any downward pressure, straining or bulging in your pelivc floor or abdomen
- Experience back or pelvic pain (during or after)
By the way, if you experience these signs during a workout, the same guidelines apply. It’s your body’s way of telling you that you are not ready to do that particular activity. Continuing to do an activity that causes theses things to happen can make back, pelvic floor and core issues worse. There are steps you can take to gradually build strength without compromising spinal health or core/pelvic floor function. (See the suggestions below.)
3) I relaxed & released my psoas. If you try your best, but still have some pain at the end of the day, try these psoas releases. The psoas is a muscle that attaches on the spine (T12 & all lumbar vertebrae), goes through the abdomen, and attaches on the femur (thigh bone). It is often a culprit in low back and pelvic pain. During this move, some days I had mild soreness/stiffness in my back, but when I did these two releases, it was gone the next day instead of lingering or becoming worse. Notice I’m calling them RELEASES not EXERCISES. This is because all you have to do here is relax and let the tension release. There is nothing to do or force. If you want more, my colleague Susan demonstrates more psoas exercises on her blog.
Here are some ways to start gaining the strength and mobility you need to prevent injury:
- Get started at home with this easy series.
- Try an Alignment Snack (20-30 min online class). I like “All Around the Thighs” and “Frankie Says, Relax the Posas” for stretching all the muscles around the hips and addressing the psoas.
- Join me for Aligned & Fit on Mondays at 8:30 (starting 9/14) at Blooma Nashville Yoga. This class focuses on building functional strength– the kind of strength you need to do daily life. Play with your kids, lift heavy boxes, climb stairs, chase your dog, carry babies…. without peeing your pants or ending up in pain!
PS- This isn’t just for moving! Apply these principles to any heavy lifting or repetitive bending down you might do– lifting your kids, cleaning the house, lifting weights, loading the dishwasher, etc. to use your hips and save your back.
1.) Constantly pulling your shoulders back (shoulder blades together) will make it worse. I know that this position is taught as “good posture”, but it is not good alignment. (Read about the difference between posture and alignment.) The rhomboids are muscles on your upper back that connect the spine and the scapula (shoulder blades). When you have the habit of retracting your scapula (retracting=pulling the shoulders back like you are squeezing something between the shoulder blades) these muscles get tight and weak. When you retract your scapula it LOOKS GOOD, but it is only masking your shoulder tension, NOT FIXING IT. Trying to keep this “good posture” all the time is causing these muscles to become tighter and weaker, sabotaging your long term shoulder and spinal health.
2.) The tension in your hands is directly related to the tension in your shoulders. Before I started studying Restorative Exercise™, it never occurred to me to stretch my hands. I didn’t even realize there was tension in my hands. If you can relate to this, try these tests.
Test #1: Start on your hands and knees. (If you can’t get on your hands and knees, try bending over and placing your hands on a coffee table.) Place your hands on the floor so that the middle finger points straight ahead and the thumb and pointer finger make an “L” (a 90° angle). Then roll the elbows in towards eachother so that the elbow points back towards your thighs and the elbow “pit” faces the same direction as your middle finger. Keep a slight bend in the elbow to keep from hyper extending. In the photos below, there is a red dot on my elbow pit to help you see it.
Did your hands cup up away from the floor? Is it impossible to get the hand position and arm position at the same time? This shows you how the the shoulder, arm and hand tension is all related. We SHOULD be able to keep both the hands and the shoulders aligned at the same time, not one or the other.
Test #2: Reach your arm behind your back without letting your scapula “wing” (boney edges stick out). Keep the flat and wide across your back. If you can, reach your arm up towards your neck without winging the scapula.
Then flip your palm over so that the palm touches your back. You should be able to do this without the scapula winging. If you can’t, this shows you (again) how your shoulder and hand tension are related.
3.) Just because you don’t FEEL a stretch, doesn’t mean you don’t have tension. It’s pretty common to have one or more hyper mobile joints. When a joint is hyper mobile the ligaments are too lax, making it easy to move a joint without the muscular tension getting in the way. In this case, you may be able to move through a normal (or often excessive) range of motion without ever feeling a stretch. When you try to stretch, you don’t feel anything, so you assume your muscles aren’t tight. The tension is still there creating pain, tendonitis, numbness, tingling, etc only you don’t realize it because you can’t feel it. It is MUCH harder for someone with hyper lax ligaments in a certain area to access the muscular tension. It’s very complex to learn to stabilize your hyper mobile parts. If you suspect this is an issue for you, see suggestions 3 & 4 below.
What You Can Do About It:
1.) Stop pulling your shoulders back/together all the time. Let them relax wide.
2.) Practice Test #2. It’s a test, but it will also help mobilize the shoulder.
3.) Join me at Blooma Nashville for Upper Boday class. Come stretch and strengthen the muscles of the shoulders, arms, chest, neck & upper back to create shoulders that are both strong AND mobile. This class will restore upper body alignment, relieve tension & pain, improve flow of blood, lymph & milk, and teach how to deal with hyper-mobility.
Every Thursday at 6:45pm
4.) Try Katy’s online Super Supple Shoulders webinar for an in depth shoulder workout and education. This class will help you learn to deal with hyper mobility and relieve tension.
5.) Try these Alignment Snacks (shorter 20 minute classes): Everybody Needs a Little Shoulder Bolster, Rhomboid Madness, Can’t Get Enough of Shoulders & A Real Pain in the Neck. Get Alignment Snacks HERE.
I’m always telling my clients about the health benefits of sitting less, and the question that usually follows is something like this: “…but what about when I DO sit? What’s the best way?” I know that you aren’t going to spend the ENTIRE day standing and walking (and I would not advise that you do so). At some point, you will have a lunch date or drive in your car or sit down because you are tired. And that’s ok. It’s not that sitting is inherently bad and standing is inherently good. The problem comes when we remain in one position almost constantly (whether it’s sitting, standing, or anything else). Moving your body through many different positions throughout the day is the best way to keep all the tissues healthy.
When you do sit, here are some things to think about.
- Sit for short periods of time, and don’t sit in the same position for hours on end.
- Sit with a neutral pelvis. You know when a little kid sits on your lap and their “butt bones” dig into your thigh? Those are called the ischial tuberosities (or sitz bones), and you want to sit up on those rather than on your sacrum (tailbone). See picture on the right. (Thanks to Susanne at Kangaroo Fitness for the great photo.)
- Sit in a variety of positions. I like to sit on the floor and put my food/computer/bills/etc on the coffee table. If your hips are really tight (like mine), try sitting with your hips elevated to help get your pelvis neutral. These are some of my favorites:
Turns out it’s really hard to take side view photos of yourself. Not exactly high quality, but you get the idea.
When we sit, we tend to always sit with 90 degrees of hip and knee flexion (think sitting in a chair). Note: Sitting on an exercise ball may add instability, but it’s still sitting with 90 degrees at the hip and knee. Mixing up your positions will stretch the muscles of your legs and increase the mobility of your hip and knee joints. This way you can work on your health while you do the other things you need to do. Increase circulation while you answer emails. Decrease hip pain while you eat lunch. Improve your pelvic floor health while you play a game with your kids. If you’re like me, you probably have tight hips, but you don’t have 5 extra hours everyday to stretch them. This is a simple (but not easy) way merge your “I need to fix my hips” time with your “I have a million things to do” time.
For more ideas, you can see pictures of resting postures from around the world here.
When my husband was working on his undergraduate degree in history, he had an assignment to write about the 1940’s using the school’s archives of McCall’s magazine. He wrote about how the ads exploited the emotions of war wives and the homecoming of soldiers in order to sell things like silverware and soap.
This one’s my favorite. It reads: “Happy New Year – I’m Your Dad!”
While he was sifting through the archives, he found this gem: the “Do’s” and “Don’ts” of good posture according to McCall’s Magazine. Knowing that it would make my day, he snapped a quick picture.
(Top. How to Stand.) Don’t: “Stand like this, you look ten years older! Your tummy is pushed out, back rounded, head and neck outthrust like a turtle’s”. Could they have picked less flattering imagery? Do: “Stand tall, feet straight ahead, tummy pulled in, buttock muscles tucked under, shoulders erect, head and neck held high.” I will grant them, the picture on the left is really sad looking….and the one on the right looks much better. Feet straight ahead-yay! Pulling your tummy in and tucking your butt under? Not so much. It looks good, but she’s on the fast track to back pain and sneeze pee.
(Bottom. How to walk.) Don’t: “Lead from your chin in walking! Abdomen sags; body slumps for it is used in disjointed sections, big muscles out of balance.” …..I don’t even know what any of this means. Do: “Start walking from a good standing posture with a spring in your step. Weight of body should be even over both legs and feet.” Why do I need a spring in my step?
(Top. How to climb stairs.) Don’t: “Carry your weight from lower back or cramp middle muscles in climbing stairs. You tire if you don’t use leg, thigh muscles.” What? How do you climb stairs without using your legs? Do: “Climb stairs correctly. Lift weight by strong leg, thigh muscles. Body slightly forward, erect, as in good standing posture.” (Sigh)
(Bottom. How to carry bundles.) Don’t: “Use your hips for a shelf to carry bundles, books; this causes curvatures. You look lopsided— ” Oh, I totally do that, carry the laundry basket on my hips… Wait! It got cut off?! Lopsided…and what? Man, I bet it was good. Do: “Carry bundles with shoulders and hips even. Spine straight, use muscles of back, abdomen, arms.” That’s actually not bad….but what came after “lopsided”?
Well done Husband, well done.
Besides the obvious entertainment factor, why am I sharing this? I think it has some good reminders for us.
1) Beware of where you get your health information. There is a whole generation of ladies with pelvic floor disorders because they read to tuck their pelvis and pull in their tummy in McCall’s magazine. Ok, that’s dramatic. It’s not all their fault; McCall’s was simply reflecting the popular belief of the culture. But you get my point? The same thing happens today. Just because SHAPE magazine or Oprah told you to do 3 sets of 50 kegels everyday, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. (It’s not a good idea, by the way. Read why here.) No one is trying to mislead you or sabotage your health, but sometimes information you read is based on popular culture instead of science. (Or it starts out as science and then becomes misunderstood/misinterpreted and turns into something scary.) The point is, question what you read/hear. Always ask “WHY”, especially if you are going to make a decision about your health based on the info.
2) “Good posture” is decided by the culture and has nothing to do with health. Just because it looks good, doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Read more about the difference between posture and alignment here.
3) Did you notice the vague and subjective language? Shoulders erect, lead from your chin, good standing posture, big muscles out of balance, don’t cramp your middle muscles…. When you read these, did you think “What exactly does that MEAN!?”. Recommendations for good posture are often subjective. There is a lot of room for interpretation and misunderstanding. When it comes to your health, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification!
Have you ever been told to “stand up straight!”? This phrase has children everywhere grumbling as a well meaning adult lectures on the importance of good posture. In my opinion, it’s one of the most relevant examples of the difference between posture and alignment. The phrase has permeated the culture with its vague (subjective) recommendation for our spinal health and caused a lot of confusion. I have many clients who have spent years trying to get their back “straight” because of this misunderstanding and suffered greatly because of it. For all of you out there in the same boat, I hope this post helps you find some relief.
First of all, the spine isn’t supposed to be straight. It has curves like an “S”. I’m going to say it again: a healthy spine has curves. Specifically, notice the thoracic (mid back) curve. This is called kyphosis. The word kyphosis is often misused to mean “too much curve.” (Too much curve is called hyperkyphosis.) You want that kyphotic curve. It’s supposed to be there.
Most people translate “stand up straight” to equal “chest up, shoulders back.” This lifting of the chest/rib cage creates forces that distort the curve of the thoracic spine. If I asked you to stand up straight or show me your best posture, chances are it would look something like this:
(Again, ignore the “I Dream of Jeannie” arms. I’m just doing that so you can see the line that is coming up.)
Looks pretty good, right? In my last post, you learned how to align your pelvis. When you did this, you may have felt like you were going to fall over backwards or felt some discomfort in your back. If so, learning where your ribs belong will help. Let’s revisit the super awesome grid app.
The vertical line is lined up with the bottom of my rib cage. See how that line falls out in front of my pelvis? My “good posture” is lifting my rib cage and pushing it forward. Look at any skeleton in an anatomy text book, and you will see that the rib cage is supposed to be right over the pelvis. Put your finger tips on the most inferior, anterior part (the part that is lowest and towards the front) of your rib cage. Can you feel the pointy edges of your ribs sticking out? Now exaggerate your best posture. Are your ribs sticking out even more? Now relax and let the ribs drop down ALL THE WAY. (If you feel like you are slouching, you’re on the right track.) At this point you shouldn’t be able to feel any boney edges sticking out. They will be directly over your Anterior Superior Illiac Spine (ASIS: boney protrusions on the front of each side of your pelvis). If this description is confusing, or you have a hard time finding these boney markers, see how to test for rib thrusting against a wall.
I have one finger on my ASIS and one on my bottom rib, so you can see where they are. Now the rib cage is right over the pelvis, where it belongs.
Take a look at these side by side. On the left: Ribs are aligned, restoring thoracic kyphosis. (What you want.) On the right: Ribs are lifted and thrusted forward, distorting the thoracic curve. (A recipe for pain and degeneration.) Can you see the difference?
I know these two positions look similar, but the physiological effects of these two positions are very different. Remember, “good posture” looks good but is not necessarily healthy. The rib thrusting/chest lifted position distorts your spinal curves and puts excessive compression on the one or two vertebra that you are displacing. The vertebra that make up the spine stack on top of one another forming a protective housing for the spinal cord. When we lose or distort our spinal curves, the integrity of this protective structure is compromised, and the spinal cord and nerves that branch off are at risk for damage. Displacing the ribs also compromises the abdominals’ ability to do their jobs. One of these jobs is to properly support the spine and decompress the discs. Many people find huge relief from back pain when they stop thrusting their ribs. Another job of the abdominal muscles is to support the weight of a growing baby when you are pregnant. When these muscles are compromised, it can lead to diastasis recti (excessive spreading/separating of the abdominal wall).
When you get your ribs down (ALL THE WAY DOWN) you might (read: almost certainly will) find that you have hyperkyphosis and your head and shoulders are too far forward. Like this:
Don’t panic! I know, it’s alarming when you see how far forward your head is. The good news is you can make changes with some hard work. Resist the urge to lift your chest/ribs to “fix” this problem! It will look better in the short term but will not solve the problem. When the ribs are down in their aligned position, it reveals all the tension in the upper body that we typically hide by lifting the chest/ribs. Instead of hiding the problem, use the two exercises below to start correcting it.
First, elevate your head and shoulders and relax here until your ribs start to relax down towards the floor. You can let your arms rest on the ground by your sides. This helps relax a muscle called the psoas.
Next: After several minutes, add SLOW arm motions like you are making a snow angel without letting the ribs pop back up towards the ceiling. Rotate the arms so that your thumbs are closer to the floor than the pinkies. This will stretch the chest and shoulders.
Happy New Year!
I thought I’d start off 2014 by addressing one of the questions I was most commonly asked last year: “Alignment, is that like posture?”.
When I tell people that I teach alignment, what usually comes next is something like “Alignment, is that like posture?” or “Oh, I need that, I have terrible posture.” While they may sound like the same thing, alignment and posture are actually two different things. Posture is how something looks. Alignment is how something works. Posture is subjective and cultural. Alignment is objective and scientific.
“Good posture” means different things to different people. We decide that a particular posture is good if it creates a look that is seen as desirable. Certain postures might look good, but that doesn’t mean they are healthy. Different sports or activities require a particular posture to maximize performance or to create a certain aesthetic. (This usually occurs at the expense of tissue longevity. Look at all the best athletes and dancers. They are REALLY good at their sport, but their career is usually over by age 40.)
Whether it’s intentional or not, we often use our body position to say something about ourselves— a macho guy who puffs up chest to look tough, a tall kid who stands slouched over to appear shorter, a woman who sucks her stomach in to look thinner—you get the idea. Sometimes we adopt a particular posture for a good reason, such as coping with an injury or surgery, but continue the habit once the need is no longer there without even realizing it.
I’m writing this on an airplane, and one of my seatmates asked me what I’m writing about. We got to talking about posture and where the notion of good posture comes from. Seatmate #1 said her parents told her good posture meant standing up straight and holding your stomach in. Seatmate #2 said she spent time living in another country (I wish I could remember which one…. somewhere in Asia) and that the desired posture for women in that culture was a stooped over position because it showed humility. A woman who walked around with her head held high and “stood up straight” would not be respected. Subjective & cultural.
Optimal skeletal alignment is objective. It’s based on science—anatomy, physiology, biology and physics—rather than culture. It’s the orientation of all the parts that allows everything to work the way it is supposed to work with the least amount of damage. Think about the alignment of your car. You go to the mechanic, and they adjust the alignment. (No one ever took their car in to get the posture checked.) They make sure all the parts are in the proper position—not just to allow your car to run, but to help all the parts wear evenly, and ensure that the vehicle doesn’t sustain unnecessary wear and tear. The same is true for your body. When your musculoskeletal system is aligned, all your body systems can function properly, for as long as possible, with the least amount of unnecessary wear and tear.
This image is taken from the Restorative Exercise™ Specialist training manual. It shows the 25 points to consider when assessing skeletal alignment.
Here’s your first step to good alignment: Back up your pelvis.
First, let your pelvis shift forward. (Notice the picture on the left.) You will feel more pressure in the front of your feet than the heels. Now back your pelvis up until you feel more pressure in your heels. (Notice the picture on the right.) That’s where you want it. Your legs should be straight (no bent or locked knees) when you do this. Can you feel the difference?
Left: My pelvis is out over the front of my feet, and my upper body is actually behind my pelvis.
Right: My pelvis is stacked right over my ankles. There is a vertical line from ear, shoulder, hip, knee, ankle.
(Don’t let the “I Dream of Jeannie” arms confuse you…they aren’t part of it. I’m holding them up so they don’t block the view of my pelvis.)
NOW, check out the lines I can make with my super awesome (not at all nerdy) grid app. It’s much easier to see the differences when there are actual lines.
SO COOL, right? I’m not a very “techy” person, but I LOVE this app. Go by the objective alignment marker (a vertical line) rather than how it feels. If you go by what feels right (subjective), you will always go back to your old postural habits. To see the lines on yourself, you can hold a belt or strap at the center of your hip joint and watch where it falls. It’s helpful to do this in front of a mirror. You would want the weight bearing, structural beams of your house to be completely vertical (perpendicular to gravity), and it’s the same for your legs.
Just backing your pelvis up will reduce unnecessary damage to your feet, knees, hips, and spine. This position gives you stronger bones and better pelvic floor function. You will use more leg muscle which means a higher metabolism and better circulation– all this just by shifting your pelvis.
Whatever your health goals are for 2014– less pain, stronger muscles, better balance, fewer headaches– working on your alignment is the first step! In the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing more about the differences between posture and alignment and giving you simple, practical steps to make big improvements.
I know, I know. Hear me out.
You may have seen this article in Buinessweek that came out a few years ago titled Your Office Chair is Killing You. It focuses mainly on the way that sitting negatively affects the alignment of your spine, encouraging a “C” shape instead of the natural “S” curve, which leads to degenerative disks, neck/back pain, osteoporosis of the vertebra, bulging disks, high blood pressure and about a hundred other things. It also talks about the metabolic changes that occur after prolonged sitting, which increase our risks for obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
Sitting in a chair all day make the muscles of the legs very tight, which causes hip/leg pain and significantly reduces the circulation to the lower body. Do your feet or legs get numb halfway through the work day? Now you know why! Tight muscles of the hips and leg are also a huge culprit in back pain because they can pull the spine out of alignment. When you are sitting, your muscles are pretty inactive, which significantly affects metabolic processes in your body.
We all know that it’s unhealthy to be sedentary, but here is the part that is often misunderstood.
“People need to understand that the qualitative mechanisms of sitting are completely different from walking or exercising,” says University of Missouri microbiologist Marc Hamilton. “Sitting too much is not the same as exercising too little. They do completely different things to the body.”
Did you catch that? Sitting too much is not the same as exercising too little. If you go to the gym everyday, you may consider yourself an active or fit person. What you need to understand is that an hour at the gym everyday is not enough to counteract the damage of sitting all day. That’s like eating a salad for dinner to make up for the fact that you smoked all day. It doesn’t work like that, right? No amount of kale is going to undo those cigarettes. The research shows we need to sit less, not just exercise more.
Take this quiz to find out how much you ACTUALLY sit each day. It’s very eye opening. The first time I did it, I was shocked!
If you are a student or have a desk job, sitting less requires some creativity. Read how to transition to a standing desk here.
This is my new desk that I made recently. It started out as a $19 baby changing table from the thrift store. Unfortunately, in my excitement, I forgot to take the “before” picture before I tore off the box part on top. (You know, those side pieces that keep the baby from rolling off.)
I attached a piece of plywood on top, painted it, and found some cute hardware in the clearance bin at Cost Plus World Market. A non traditional desk doesn’t have to be expensive or ugly!
I like to multi task by stretching my calves while I work. My dog likes to be RIGHT next to me all the time. Sometimes it ends up looking like this.
Just by standing up you will:
- Increase your metabolism & circulation
- Use more muscles during your day
- Reduce hip, leg & back pain
- Build bone density
- Decrease your risk for cardiovascular disease, obesity & diabetes
It’s not that standing is a magic pill, it’s just a simple way to start reducing the amount of time you are sitting in a chair. You can swap your chair sitting time for sitting on the floor in different positions and other types of movement. The goal is varied and regular movement throughout the day.
Here are a few ideas:
- Instead of meeting a friend for coffee, meet at a park and take a walk.
- Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
- Instead of sitting at a desk, try sitting on the floor while studying or working on the computer. Cycle through different sitting positions.
- Look for the furthest parking spot instead of the one closest to the store.
- Stretch while watching TV or reading rather than sitting on the couch.
- Read Don’t Just Sit There, by Katy Bowman for ways to get in more movement while you work.
In Paddle Boarding Part 1 we looked at my sister’s default position when on an unstable surface. Another common response when on an stable surface is to lower our center of mass (in the pelvis) to feel more steady. Your center of mass is closer to the ground when you are kneeling, making it easier to balance. Here my mom and I are trying to get up from our knees to our feet.
Once we got to our feet, we had our knees bent, again slightly lowering our center of mass. Bending the knees is instinctual when you feel wobbly, as is turning your feet out and widening your stance. If you’ve ever played sports, this is the common “ready position”.
This position is helpful if you are trying to get your balance during an activity or preparing to run/jump/etc into action while playing a sport. The problem comes when you are so conditioned to hold this position that you start doing it all the time. You may have learned not to lock your knees but instead to keep a slight bend in them. This can be just as damaging as standing with locked knees. There is actually another option: standing with legs that are fully extended but not locked. This position is the least damaging and most beneficial for long term health. Let’s take a look at standing positions in more detail.
Option #1: Locked Knees- Legs are fully extended and quadriceps (muscles on the front of the thigh) are contracted, pulling the patella (knee cap) up and back into the joint space.
Downside- when the quads are overused, and the patella is pulled up/back, it starts to cause friction and irritation in the knee joint which causes inflammation, damage, pain and (eventually) cartilage degeneration.
Option #2: Bent Knees- Knees are kept slightly bent.
Downside- when the knees are chronically bent, the body adapts by shortening the muscles around that joint to keep things taught. This passive shortening is different than an active contraction a muscle does when it is working. When these muscles get too short and tight, they start to decrease joint space, inhibit range of motion, and compromise circulation. Eventually, it can become difficult to fully straighten the leg because of this tension. Here’s an example: Think about an arm in a sling. It is passively held in a bent position, and the muscles shorten. When the sling is removed, you can feel the tension that has accumulated. It takes time to be able to straighten the arm again.
Option #3: Fully Extended Legs with Relaxed Quadriceps– Legs are fully extended with relaxed quadriceps. To test whether your quadriceps are relaxed or not, contract and release your quads and watch your knee caps dance up and down, then leave them in the down position. If you can’t do this, make sure your knees are not bent and try backing your weight up into your heels. If you still can’t do it, try leaning forward with your backside against a wall. Often the quads are stuck in the “on” position (knee caps up), and it can take time to get them to release. Practice daily until you are able to do it standing upright. Other components of optimal stance include standing with the outside edges of your feet straight, feet the width of your pelvis, and hip/knee/ankle all in a vertical line. (I’ll have to cover these in more detail in a future blog.)
Downside- It’s really hard. There are no physiological consequences to standing this way, it’s just a lot of work. Whenever you think about it, adjust yourself to this position and eventually it will feel natural.
(NOTE: When most people fully extend their knees, they end up with a vertical leg. If you tend to hyperextend your knee joints, “fully extended” is too far for you because when your knee is fully extended, it goes beyond the natural boundaries of the joint. A better cue would be to extend until you reach a vertical leg.)
In real life, there are times when it’s appropriate to stand with bent knees or make other adjustments to perform a particular activity; however, the more you can stand in this optimal position while doing daily activities, the healthier your knees will be. In the end, I needed to use the wide stance to keep my balance but finally got my legs straight and quads relaxed!
We’re in Grand Lake, CO, aka paradise, this week spending time with family and friends before the big move.
We rented stand up paddle boards this morning and all gave it shot. Of course, like everything, this turned into an alignment education opportunity. When you get on an unstable surface, what is your default position?
This is my sister, Tarah, who is an English horseback rider and trainer, which means she spends a lot of time on a horse. She’s been riding horses for almost 20 years. She is really strong, stable and comfortable in her riding posture. This is how she looked on a paddle board.
Which is the same posture she holds on a horse. An upright torso, bent knees, wide knees, feet turned out. Straight line from the shoulder, through the hip, to the heel.
Fascinating, right? When we are on an unstable surface, we tend to go to our default position, the position in which we spend most of our time and are therefore most comfortable. She was able to get into the position that she trains in and use the same muscles, so the activity felt fairly easy. This comes in handy when you’re trying not to fall into a recently thawed lake. For other, non hypothermia inducing situations, we want to work towards being that strong and balanced in every position. When we use all our muscles and joints in a variety of positions, it keeps blood flowing to all the tissues (=oxygen/nutrients in & waste out) and keeps them healthy. Using all our muscles (rather than just the ones we always use) increases our metabolism and reduces our risk for overuse injuries.
To figure out what your default position is, just find an unstable surface to stand on and watch yourself in a mirror. The BOSU is my favorite habit revealing tool!