If You Are In Pain, You Might Be Surprised To Find What Your Posture Has To Do With It

With books balanced on their heads, secondary school girls at Whitworth learn the art of deportment in the 'Modern Studies' p
With books balanced on their heads, secondary school girls at Whitworth learn the art of deportment in the 'Modern Studies' program, Whitworth, England, January 21, 1967. (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

Pain, stiffness, fatigue -- these are issues that affect us all as we age. How many times have we said, "I'm just stiff" or "Just tired today." But if we take another look at how we view pain, stiffness and fatigue, we can come to understand that much of our pain is the result of postural habits that shrink us.

To me, the visible signs of aging -- stiffness of movement or a slouched posture, for example -- are evidence that we are drying up -- our joint capsules are drier, the connective tissue throughout our bodies becomes drier. As we age, many of us get shorter as a result of our spinal discs losing fluid and flattening.

Sound hopeless? It's not. One strategy to combat this march of time is to pay special attention to re-hydrating. Take a warm bath or shower first thing in the morning and the warmth will push fluids around your body and expand your tissues. If you drink coffee to increase your alertness, have a glass of water with it as coffee has a dehydrating effect. If you like to have a glass of wine or a cocktail, realize that alcohol also has a drying effect on your body, so a glass of water per ounce of alcohol is a good practice.

But another important strategy for combating our shrinking postures is to expand the way we think about posture in the first place.

Almost every day I hear the question, "What is good posture?" To me, this question reveals that posture is difficult to think about and difficult to feel. You may think about posture in the standard way: as the bones of your body being stacked up like bricks and your balance and mechanical alignment being ideally expressed with your head in a precise position above your chest, which is in a precise position above your pelvis, and so on, down to your feet on the floor.

You can stand in this kind of alignment, like a breathless etiquette teacher with a book balanced on her head, but the difficulty with this concept of posture is that it does not allow you to move very easily and your breathing becomes strained.

Your body cannot be compared to a stack of bricks or a building because you have a brain. And your brain determines your posture. What you sense, what you are feeling at any particular moment, your intentions -- all of these things determine your posture.

For example, if you are stressed, apprehensive, hesitant, fearful, your posture will reflect it. Your shoulders may hunch, your chest may be drawn in, you hold your breath. We can see the opposite emotions and intentions -- confidence, eagerness, curiosity -- also expressed in posture -- a head held up high, a chest and belly open to the world.

No one just stands up for no reason -- we all stand up for something. Our posture contains our entire emotional history: We learned to stand up as infants to do something, and we learned finally to form a personality so we could stand up for ourselves.

Our self-image, our ego, and our intentions to perform actions determine our posture, not some abstract and artificial ideas based on mechanical alignment.

Good posture while you are standing and talking intimately to a good friend or your lover is quite different -- and rightly so -- from the posture you have when talking to someone you've never met before or someone you feel threatened by. What would be the ideal posture for being prepared to receive a tennis serve? What would be the ideal posture for a quarterback who is about to receive the ball from the center and intends to make a long pass? Good posture is being able to adapt our posture to many situations and to use it to express who we are socially.

So perhaps a better question than "What is good posture?" -- as if posture were a static sort of thing -- would be: "What is the range of postural possibilities?" How adaptable is your posture to different situations? If your posture creates pain, then you need to move differently inside of yourself and not stand like a stack of bricks.

Do you have a slumped posture?

A slumped posture indicates a curvature of the spine. The forward head position, tight neck, and depressed chest that result make it difficult to hold the face up.

While standing, can you reach one arm up toward the ceiling or the sky? Look at your hand and keep reaching until you feel your outstretched arm lifting your ribs. Make sure your jaw stays open.

Put your arm down and do the same with the other arm. Let the reach occur as if someone were pulling you up higher through that arm. Your heels might come off the floor.

Then simply stand and notice how much taller you feel. As you walk, you can always be posturally prepared to reach up and point to the sky.

Frank Wildman, Ph.D. is the creator of a program specifically for baby boomers called Change Your Age. The program is available as a book, a series of DVDs, and courses and weekend workshops spread around the country.

To help guide people into a movement program that could put more life in your years, Dr. Wildman developed a Mobility Survey where you can find out your real mobility years, which might be functionally quite different from your actual age. You may be surprised!

Most people function in an easier, more fluid manner or in a more tense, stressful and limited manner than their actual age. Get a sense from the Mobility Survey what your Mobility Age is and then consider participating in some way in the Change Your Age program, where you can learn how to move more easily and more youthfully.

To find out more about the Change Your Age program, please visit my website, http://www.changeyouragenetwork.com.

Earlier on Huff/Post50:

Dr. Colvin's Advice For Staying Active After 50