Do you instinctively remind someone to “sit up straight”? Or do others often tell you the same thing? Contrary to popular belief, sitting up straight doesn’t actually fix the real problem.
Our natural posture is an indication of our spinal health – so if sitting up straight feels unnatural, it points to a joint dysfunction in our bodies. It’s likely that your spine has already lost its healthy cervical curve. There could be a misalignment, our bones are moving too much or too little, something is restricting that movement, or there’s some kind of instability. To prevent further degeneration, our bodies adapt our resting postures to protect and preserve the spine.
So, when we then force ourselves to sit up straight, we’re prompting our muscles to do the work of holding our spine up. We then end up contracting our muscles to maintain a straight posture, but in a few minutes our muscles tire and we sink back into our resting state. Our muscles’ primary job is not to hold up the spine. Their function is to allow us to move our joints.
Here’s an analogy to help you understand the different functions of our spine and muscles. Think of your body as a building, where your spine serves as the beams. Beams provide structural support. Muscles, on the other hand, are walls. Walls provide some support, but while a hole in the wall won’t cause major structural damage, a fault in the beams can collapse the building.
When the spine isn’t working as it should, our muscles have to take over the role of holding us upright - the more conditioned the muscles are, the longer they withstand the additional stress. When muscles fatigue, however, the bone breaks down in order to regenerate and provide stability to the body. While these fused bones may be stronger, they do not allow movement.
Remember that age is no barrier when it comes to spinal degeneration. A child as young as five years old can display symptoms of degeneration. If postural issues aren’t corrected when they first arise, it becomes difficult to “sit straight” because their bodies have already accommodated to the initial trauma.
What should you do if your spine needs some work?
It’s better to take a preventative approach when it comes to your spinal health. My first visit to a chiropractor was at the age of 21, when I was suffering from pain. Instead of waiting for a problem to arise, you should check in regularly with a doctor or chiropractor to correct minor issues before they snowball into larger injuries. Make sure that you do some due diligence when you’re choosing a chiropractor to work with. Some chiropractors are specially trained to work with certain spinal conditions such as scoliosis. Given that there are many techniques for chiropractic treatment, it’s in your best interest to do your research to find the right fit for you. Just as you wouldn’t hire the first person that you interviewed for a job, it doesn’t hurt to consult a few different chiropractors before choosing one. Ask questions based on your research to get a sense of their areas of expertise. If they’re unable to help you address your specific concerns, they’re likely to refer you to a colleague who can.
Other than visiting a healthcare practitioner, you can apply the principles of ergonomics to the various spheres of your life to support healthy movement. I’ll share more about this in the following chapters.
A healthy neck is naturally shaped like a backwards C. To support the proper alignment of your neck, prop your screen up so that you can look at it straight ahead. Use a stack of books or a stand to raise your monitor or laptop to meet your eye gaze and keep the healthy C curve in your neck. If you’re using a laptop, propping it up will raise the keyboard to an uncomfortable height for your wrists, elbows, and shoulders. For a quick fix, purchase a separate keyboard that you can place on the table.
Next, pay attention to your arms and shoulders. A nagging ache in your wrist? It’s likely that your arms aren’t properly supported, irritating the nerve that runs from your neck, through the shoulders, elbows and down to your hands. Do a quick check. Does your chair have an armrest? Is your armrest in line with your desk? When you’re typing, you should rest your elbows on your armrest and place your forearms on your desk. Without this support, you might experience a tingling sensation in your arms, or a loss of blood supply, especially if you haven’t moved for some time.
One of the perils of a modern lifestyle is the lack of movement. Our ancestors used their bodies constantly - to hunt, build, and forage for food. They climbed, ran, and carried things. They used their muscles in various ways in their daily lives. On the contrary, the average working professional sits at a desk for the majority of their day, and works out at the gym afterwards. Weekend warriors are sedentary during the work week and work out aggressively on weekends. Both these habits aren’t healthy, and can even cause injuries. Movement has to be natural and balanced. Your body simply isn’t meant to sit idle for five days, and have a burst of activity for two.
Set a reminder if necessary. Every once in a while, stand up and take a short walk. Shift your weight around. Wearing heels adds pressure to your knees and lower back, so it’s crucial that you don’t add further stress by being inactive. If you have a home office or work from home, you have the liberty of setting up a few stations where you can work standing up, sitting down, or even lying down on your belly with your head propped up. The key is to constantly change the way your body is facing.
Why are people increasingly swapping their office chairs out for Swiss balls? The imbalance that you feel when you are sitting on a Swiss ball causes your pelvis to move and thus activates the muscles around your core. As a result, your core is engaged and is strengthening even when you’re not working hard. While choosing a Swiss ball may sound like the healthy thing to do, I can’t emphasise enough on the importance of choosing the right sized ball to protect your spine. Getting the wrong sized Swiss ball does more harm than good.
There are some key things to look out for when you are choosing the right Swiss ball. First, always remember to keep your ball fully inflated. It should never dip when you sit on it. Second, your legs should form a 90-120 degree angle when you’re seated on it with your hips centred at the top of the ball and feet flat on the floor. If the Swiss ball is too high, you’ll feel unstable; if it’s too low, you’ll strain your lumbar spine. Another concern about sitting on a Swiss ball is that there’s no arm support, which could then affect your wrists, shoulders and elbows.
If your job or lifestyle requires you to spend a lot of time on your phone then you'll likely encounter some strain on your neck and shoulders. Where possible, try to use your mobile devices sparingly. Choose a phone call or an audio message over a text. Use Whatsapp web instead of the mobile app.
Do you find yourself scrolling through Facebook on your commute? Don’t worry, you don’t have to give that up too. Help your body by placing one arm across your waist, and using it to support the elbow of your arm holding the phone. While your device won’t be at eye level, it’s still a lot less harmful to your neck than if you stood bent over your phone, facing the ground. Need to jot off a quick email? Stick your elbows into your stomach, raise your hands with your phone closer to your head and start typing.
Catching up on your summer reads by the beach shouldn’t put a strain on your spine. Ideally, you could read while lying on your belly and propping your body up with your elbows. This keeps your eye gaze straight ahead. If you’re on your back, anchor your elbows on your stomach and keep your shoulders planted. Don’t hold your book or phone up without supporting your elbows. With time, your upper trapezius muscles, biceps and triceps will start to tense up, causing tightness and discomfort.
These are small actions that can go a long way in improving your muscles' and spine's well-being. Take these good practices with you wherever you go.
To view the full content, sign up for a free account and unlock 3 free podcasts, power reads or videos every month.
Dr. Katrina Gallagher
Chiropractor, Clinical Nutritionist