posture


As I wrote recently, part of my posture-reprogramming regime is that I have a watch alarm that goes off every 20 minutes, reminding me to check and, if necessary, fix my posture. (I’ve written about my protocol for fixing it here.) My amazing physical therapist, Shannon, predicts that in the long run, this will be the most helpful part of all the work I’m doing. I’ve been doing it every day for over three months, now, and it does seem to be helping. It is no longer unusual that the alarm goes off and I don’t need to fix my posture, which never happened during the first month.

One entertaining side effect of this practice is that my friends have begun correcting their posture, too, when my alarm goes off. At Not Back to School Camp, this summer, campers and staff figured out pretty quickly what the alarm meant. Here is some footage I took secretly from the back of a camp meeting while my alarm went off:

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Improving your posture is not an easy task once your body becomes set in its ways. The obvious reason is that your joints lose their range of motion, your muscles become long in the wrong places and short in the wrong places, and everything gets tight. In my case, for example, the ribs and thoracic spinal joints do not move as freely as they should, and especially the upper thoracic spine is habitually curved forward. This places my head too far forward, placing strain on the whole axial system. This is not easy to reverse at my age, and I have been spending just over two hours a day at it for more than six months. (See here and here for more.) I am prepared to work on it for several more years, if necessary. I plan to live at least into my 90s and want to have a strong, flexible, pain free body for as long as possible.

One less obvious way that improving your posture is not an easy task is that habitual body position seems to be activity-specific. I am pretty good and improving at good posture while standing, sitting, and walking, for example, but only while doing extremely simple versions of those activities. Sitting in my truck, driving straight on the highway, it’s easy to have good posture as long as I am thinking about it. Making a right turn, however, is a completely different deal, for two reasons. First, the attention that I use to remember posture tends to be taken up by the brain activity of making the turn. Second, it seems that my body has a way of making a right turn that is a gestalt: what I am looking at and for, what I am thinking about, how I move, and the position of my entire body is molded by the pattern and memory of 24 years of right-turn making.

So unravelling that and making right turns with good posture takes some doing. And that leaves left turns pretty much untouched, not to mention playing guitar, having an emotional conversation, or leading an underarm pass while partner dancing.

I was cutting up big pieces of plywood today, using a table saw. I tried to figure out how to do this series of motions while keeping my body in good alignment. I wished that I could have a construction-slash-posture coach there, helping me out. Then I started fantasizing about people who use table saws for a living getting trained like that. I have worked on construction crews, and if you are lucky you get trained how not to cut off your fingers, but you never get trained how not to have a painful back in ten or twenty years. If it was successful, I bet the extra cost would be more than made up for by the reduction in worker’s comp claims.

On the other hand, it might not be successful. When I was first learning to dance, my teacher, Karly, spent some time emphasizing the importance of posture and moving my body into good posture. “Remember this,” she said. “This is what good posture feels like when you are dancing.” The problem was, I did not keep doing it. I think maybe I couldn’t. It was too much to think about at the same time–the feel of leading, the moves I was trying to lead, and posture. It was overwhelming. For that to have worked, I think I would have needed Karly to insist on perfect posture and never moving on before I could lead each move with perfect posture. That would have been very slow. On the other hand, I am going to have to do all of that work anyway, so that I can dance without hurting my body. That is my next project with dancing–start over, re-learning the simplest moves with perfect posture.

One thing my massage therapist (Joe Wattles, Eugene, OR) does is gait analysis. This summer, he put me on a treadmill and watched my walk. He said that the way I was walking was probably undoing a lot of the work we’d been doing with massage and exercises. I had suspected as much.

Here are the instructions he gave me for walking. Keep in mind that these instructions correct my walk, not necessarily yours:

1) I need to bend forward at the hips more. My butt needs to be back far enough that I can see my feet from the ankles forward, when standing and looking down.

2) I need to land with less weight on my heels, transferring my weight very quickly to my whole foot.

3) My knees need to bend considerably more with each footfall, absorbing the shock of impact. This, along with #2, means that my stride needs to be shorter.

4) While my belly button stays facing forward, my ribcage needs to twist more, so that my sternum points from 10 to 2 o’clock with each stride.

5) My arms need to swing less, and my shoulders (which I am holding a bit up and back from their habitual position, as assigned by my PT and described here) more. My ribcage/shoulder motion should be what is swinging my arms, while in my normal walk my arm swing is doing all of the counterbalancing of my stride.

6) My head needs to pull back so that my ears are above my shoulder joints.

This all felt pretty weird for a couple weeks. It felt like I was sticking my butt out, sneaking, bouncing up and down, and walking with a flamboyant twist. It still feels a little funny after a couple months, in that I only do it when I remember to do it consciously, but it feels much less awkward. In fact, it feels more confident and energetic than my old walk–more like prowling. My old walk feels stiff and jolting. I imagine that my new walk is more like I walked as a kid, before I stopped wanting to draw attention to myself.

I’ve been working seriously on changing my posture for the last six months. I’ve been seeing a chiropractor, a massage therapist, and a physical therapist. On normal days I do about two hours of stretching and strengthening exercises–postural reprogramming stuff that they have assigned. On super busy days I do about an hour’s worth.

I’m strengthening the muscles that hold my shoulders and head back and up. I’m lengthening the muscles that pull them down and forward. I’m decreasing the exaggerated curvature in my thoracic spine (called kyphosis), especially focusing on the top few thoracic vertebrae. I’m increasing the twisting range of motion in my thoracic spine and ribs. I’m learning to relax muscles in my legs and butt, back and shoulder blades. I’m learning how to sit differently, stand differently, sleep differently, and especially walk differently. I have an alarm set to remind me about posture every 20 minutes that I’m awake.

The thing is, I’m almost 40 and I don’t have kids yet. I need my body to stay fit for at least another 20 years, and preferably more like 50 more. But nearly three years ago I started having some serious pain in my body–after 37 years of being as athletic as I pleased, I was suddenly limited in how much I could run, lift, swim, and sometimes even walk. One year I could go to a Lindy Hop event and dance all day and all night, and the next I had maybe two hours, maybe 15 minutes in me. Unacceptable.

And it turns out it’s because of my posture. Joints, muscles, and their connections do not work properly if not in the optimal relative position to each other. The habitual position of my joints had put enough strain on my body that I started having intense pain.

My chiropractor once told me, “You are the most compliant patient I’ve ever had.” My PT and massage therapist have said similar things. That is exactly what I’m aiming at–the most compliant patient. I do not just show up. I do not intend to waste my money or my life getting care and then not following through with the recommendations of my providers. If you tell me not to ride my bike for 3 months, I start walking or taking the bus. If you show me how to walk differently, I will walk differently. If you tell me to do 45 reps of some new, super-awkward exercise every day for the foreseeable future, I will do it. I am your perfect patient. I do it because I’m hoping you know what will help. I want to make you look brilliant. And I do it because if, after a couple of months, what you do and have me do has not helped noticeably, I will find someone else to work with, because I have tried you and your ideas out to the letter.

For the first time in my life, I have the perfect bike for me. It was built by Michael, the owner of Klink Cycles in Eugene, to my specifications, out of used parts when possible, for $250. It looks goofy but it feels great–I finally decided to get completely over aesthetics and go for ergonomics when it comes to my primary form of transportation. Bicycles have been hurting my posture for too long.

My specs:

Frame/wheels/tires OK for Eugene streets and Joshua Tree dirt roads.

A low top tube for easy stepping over, to accommodate recent back and hip limitations.

A shock absorbing seat post for butt, pelvis, and low-back comfort.

A “sweet cheeks” seat with no crotch and no nose for crotch comfort.

A tall handlebar stem for upright posture.

Handlebars with a certain amount of curve and flat-palm grips for hand wrist and hand comfort.

Michael spent a couple of hours with me, tweaking and changing out parts, then having me ride around until I found a complaint, then re-tweaking. He was amazing and this bike is amazing.