Returning our focus to our posture (by extension, postural hygiene) has its merits, and it’s not all that hard to do
You spend a lot of time at your desk. If not your desk, then perhaps at some sort of coffee table. Or maybe you’ve taken it to the next level with your head propped up on a pillow, your laptop on your chest, and your hands just in front of your chin, typing away.
I’ve visited all three contortions myself.
And now, having had the occasion to observe my working self in front of a mirror, I’ve grown a bit concerned. In a T. rex or Mr Burns manner, I’ve got a real typer’s hunch going on.
That’s not a medical term—I’d like to think it’s my own.
My neck seems sucked into my torso, drooping my head downward towards my computer screen; my shoulders are hunched up to touch the bottom of my ear lobes; and my hands are clawed over my keyboard with my fingers plunging down on keys as though part of some strange crustacean.
As funny as that must look, I sat back into my chair and thought, “for all my running and trying to eat healthily, this must be pretty bad for me.”
And it really is
An article published by the Department of Health of the State Government of Victoria lists the following as symptoms of poor posture: rounded shoulders, potbelly, bent knees when standing or walking, head that leans forward or backward, back pain, body aches, muscle fatigue, and headache.
I’ve got a check mark next to half of the symptoms.
As concerning as that may already be, it goes on to list a few more complications resulting from prolonged poor posture: spinal dysfunction and joint degeneration.
In explaining these maladies, the article differentiates between the two types of muscle fiber that make up the skeletal muscle: static or slow twitch fibers and phasic or fast twitch fibers.
“Generally, static muscle fibers are found in the deeper muscle layers, [helping us] maintain posture without too much effort.” On the other hand, “phasic muscle fibers are used for movement and activity.”
After hours spent hunched forward or leaning on one side or the other, we create muscle fatigue in our phasic fibers as we’re utilizing these to try and maintain the position of our bodies—and they burn out faster than static fibers.
This causes the slower burning fibers to “waste away from lack of use,” eventually tightening and shortening, which “can compact the bones of the spine (vertebrae) and worsen posture.”
Yes, that’s a thing.
One website suggests that postural hygiene “starts with using your body in the correct way for every task it has to do.” Far from sounding like the most exciting way to live your life, but given that we’re sitting at our desks a lot more at this point in history compared to the last couple hundred years, the discussion of how to sit properly—in a way that avoids injury—is relevant.
On top of that, in the last two years spent in a pandemic, we’ve been far less mobile, which otherwise may have been some kind of counterweight.
A Mayo Clinic article on office ergonomics suggests that we should sit in chairs supporting our spinal curves, with our feet flat on the floor, with our thighs parallel to the floor, our arms resting gently on armrests and shoulders relaxed.
Chances are high that you work at your desk with some sort of monitor. The article suggests that you place it directly in front of you, arm’s length away and that the top of the screen should be at or just below eye level.
These sound fair and square, and frankly nothing new. But here are a few tips I’ve found that work for me:
Combat “curve reversal”
This is a term I got from the Department of Health of the State Government of Victoria article. Essentially, take time every once in a while to stretch your body the opposite way. So if you’re often hunched over ala Mr Burns, treat yourself to an arms-over-your-head-and-reach-for-the-ceiling type stretch.
Try a foam roller
For the shoulder pains and tightness, my foam roller has been the rub. While there’s no routine to this, I whip it out every once in a while to try and give my “curve reversal” a little more oomph. Here is a video to help get you started.
Look with your eyes, not your neck
That could be a mantra—one lifted out of physical therapist and exercise physiologist Jon Cinkay’s words. Try to think of the extra neck craning as wasted movement. Keep your head up, sit pretty, and look down at your screen.
Seriously think about not wasting movement
Mayo Clinic calls them “key objects.” Think phones, pens, and paper, and maybe a mouse? Keep them close to your body to minimize reaching around the place.
While reaching around and about my office desk, I tend to end up leaning to a side, all the while getting into a frustrated tangle of “do I have to back up my chair and stand up?” Simply, avoid this sort of self-questioning.
Consider lumbar support cushions
Under its “everyday tips for healthy posture and back,” Medical News Today recommends using lumbar support cushions on seats. A 2013 study concluded that a lumbar support pillow improved “an objective measure of comfort in healthy individuals and patients with low back pain.”
Be in touch with your body
This is where the old 10-minute break comes in.
Where postural hygiene may be a starting point for a sort of mental measure in which you catch yourself in the medley of your daily rigors and begin to floss out the items that are doing you some sort of harm.
But more importantly, this is not a dive into the science of perfect posture. I will leave that to the folks keen on utilizing their bodies in the ”correct way for every task it has to do.”
Though that may be a goal to which we can aspire, this is simply an argument that we should try to do that more often.