Stand Tall: Perfect Your Posture!
A quick case study: A new client came in for a consultation stating that she had no background in formal exercise and was worried about her mobility. She had retired after more than 30 years in her industry and it was time to care for herself. We did all the usual mobility and postural screens and checked for muscle imbalances and structural discrepancies. After 30 years of work, my new client stood tall, had almost no major muscle imbalances, and had full range of motion in all major joints. Why do you think that was?
This particular client had never worked at a desk. She worked on her feet: climbing stairs, doing functional lifting, walking more than the recommended 10,000 steps/day, and wearing supportive shoes for her entire career.
In today’s world, most people spend 8-10 hours each day at a desk, plus time spent in the car and whatever time they spend at home watching TV, checking smart phones, and helping with homework. As a culture, we are spending more and more of our time seated, with 60-90 minute spurts of exercise a few times each week to help alleviate the stress and the detriments of sitting. But just think about the math: 60-90 minutes of exercise versus nearly 840 minutes seated during the day plus 400 minutes spent sleeping at night. Is it any wonder that our necks, shoulders, back, and hips plague us?
As we round and reach forward to type, or slump down on the couch for our favourite TV show, the pectoralis major and minor muscles in the chest begin to shorten while the scalenes and sternoclernomastoid (SCM) muscles connecting our head and collarbone tighten. The levator scapula and trapezius muscles in the upper back begin to overstretch, along with the rhomboids and other shoulder stabilizer muscles. Pelvic floor muscles and core stabilizers go unused and begin to atrophy, leaving our pelvis unstable and our low back weakened along the way. What do we do in response? Fold forward to stretch our low back and what feels like tight muscles in our upper backs. Unfortunately, this is compounding the problem as those muscles are already overstretched and, by folding forward, we continue to shorten the front body. The appropriate course of action to counterbalance our sedentary, seated lifestyle (in addition to simply standing more) is to open the front body and strengthen our backs.
Stand Tall Sequence for Work or Home
Heart Opening Breath: 1 minute
Stand with your feet hips-width distance apart with knees soft and tailbone dropping toward your heels. On an inhale, draw your arms up and overhead, elevating your ribs, until your palms face each other. As you exhale, bring your hands to heart center and allow your hands to fall by your side. As you inhale, gaze up at your hands. As you exhale, allow your gaze to follow your hands back down to your heart. Continue this breath as you allow your thoughts to soften and slow.
Desk Down Dog: 30 seconds
Place your hands on your desk, shoulder width apart, and step your feet back until your body makes an “L” shape. Your spine should be parallel to the floor, arms outstretched. Bend your knees and send your hip creases back until your low back grows long and your shoulders lightly stretch. Continue breathing deeply.
Standing Back Bend Variation: 30 seconds
Stand again with feet hips-width distance and knees slightly soft. Raise your arms to 90 degrees, like goal posts or “cactus arms.” Allow your tailbone to drop down toward your heels as you draw your shoulder blades softly back and down. Lift the front of your ribcage up toward the sky as you continue to lengthen your low back. Firm the muscles of your upper back, hugging your shoulder blades behind your heart. If you feel any tension or pain in your low back, release the “back bend” aspect of the pose and focus on lifting your ribs and heart toward the sky. Inhale your arms overhead and take your inner thighs back to return to standing.
Broken Chair Pose: 30 seconds each side
Standing in front of your desk or a table, take your right ankle to your left thigh, above the knee. If you look down, your legs should look like a figure 4. Slowly bend your left knee, taking your hips back behind you, until you feel a stretch in your outer right hip. If you experience any knee pain, back out of the pose. It may help to flex your ankles firmly and focus on sending your hips back rather than your knees forward. Repeat on the other side.
Modified High Plank: 30 seconds
Plant your forearms on your desk, and step your feet back until your shoulders are stacked over your elbows, body at a 45 degree angle to the floor. Be sure your knees are not hyperextended, and begin to draw your shoulders softly back and your low ribs up and in. Firm your low belly in, drawing your tailbone down, and keep your hips level with your shoulders and knees. Breathe deeply as you energize your forearms and your feet toward each other isometrically. If you feel this in your shoulders instead of in your core, shift your weight back and press through your heels, continuing to draw up and in through your low ribs and low belly.
Standing Locust Variation: 30 seconds
Begin as you did for your first chest stretch, standing softly. Inhale your arms up and over head, then allow them to drift behind you, either grabbing opposite elbows or holding your right wrist with your left hand. Gently pull your shoulder blades back and slightly down as you lift your heart. Use the bind of your hands to create a deeper stretch in your chest and – if comfortable – begin to look up and create length through the crown of your head. Engage your low belly and take your inner thighs back to return to standing.
Yin Neck Stretch: 30 seconds each side
With a firm belly and soft knees, gently allow your right ear to move toward your right shoulder. As gravity moves your ear toward your shoulder, also allow gravity to move your shoulder away from your ear, toward the ground. Press your left hand gently toward the earth and breathe. Stay soft and – if there is any pain or discomfort in the cervical spine, gently move your chin toward you chest to release the pose. After 30 seconds, use your left hand to gently draw your head back to center – rather than using the neck muscles that were just stretched – and repeat on the other side.
Heart-Opening Breath: 30 seconds
Repeat the breath pattern you started with, noticing any changes in your body, emotional state, or mental state.
If you were to spend just ten minutes upon rising, five minutes of every hour at work, and ten minutes at lunch standing and doing a short yoga sequence, it would add up to an entire 60 minute yoga class over the course of the day and leave you with a lighter heart and a stronger core.
Grab a sticky note and make a short-hand journal entry about how you felt when you left work today or yesterday – notice your body, your breath, your emotional state. Then for two or three days, do this sequence at the top of every hour and make a quick note of how you felt at the end of the day – again: body, breath and emotional state!
Take a moment each day to care for your body, move it in ways that feel good and thank yourself for getting up out of your chair a few times each day. As you commit to yourself, you run the risk of noticing more energy…more gratitude…a lighter heart…a deeper connection.