Postural decline occurs as we get older. As we get age our muscles get weaker and find it harder to resist the inexorable pull of gravity. Tight abdominal muscles, years of sitting and a stiffening spine amplify the effect.
Most of what we do is just in front of us, from shoulder height to waist line. The spine of our upper backs curves forward from the bottom of our ribcage to half way up our neck.
We spend a lot of time sitting down and this can really accelerate the process of postural decline, especially if you tend to slump a bit when you sit.
Gravity doesn’t just pull us down, it also pulls us forward. So if we don’t keep an eye on our posture we get pulled forward and down. This is postural decline. The older you get the more compelling it becomes.
As your upper back curves further forward into a kyphosis, your head moves forward in front of your centre of gravity. It then has to tilt back so you can keep looking straight ahead. The facet joints at the back of your neck get jammed up and you become far more prone to stiffness, osteoarthritis and headaches. That can mean pain in your lower and upper back, shoulders and neck.
The muscles of the whole back of your body have to work harder to keep you upright.
When your whole upper body moves forward like that it puts greater strain on your lower back and calves.
The discs of your low back are bearing a greater load and the facet joints at the back of your spine become chronically stretched and strained. The more your calves tighten up, the more they twist and strain your low back.
These are major components of degenerative joint disease.
More forward Less backward
The more your upper back bends forward, the harder it is for it to bend backwards, that is to straighten up.
Your joints become stiffer and your muscles become tighter.
Chronically tight abs
When your upper back curves further forward, it brings the lower edge of your ribcage closer to your pelvis.
Your abdominal muscles attach to your lower ribcage at the top and your pelvis at the bottom. Bringing and keeping the 2 ends of them closer together means they will become chronically shorter and tighter.
This chronic tension makes it harder to stand up straight, because not only is the stiffening spine resisting it but the abdominal muscles are holding on tight and can’t relax.
Squeezing the life out of you
In the long run compressing the front of your body like this puts undue pressure on your organs which can impede how well they work. Take your lungs for example. If your reduce the range of motion of your ribcage and diaphragm, your lungs can’t expand and therefore function as well as they should. That means that it can eventually effect your ability to breathe easily.
We live and die on our ability to get air into our lungs.
Digestive problems occur when you put the squeeze on your gut which is a long soft tube. Indigestion is a common problem. The first legal drug to sell more than a billion dollars worth was an antacid. Poor posture is one of many causes.
Assimilation of nutrient from your small intestine can be effected, and compression of the large intestine can case or contribute to constipation and some other chronic bowel problems.
Postural decline gets worse with age. So does your general health. These two have a symbiotic relationship – they make each other worse. Conversely, as they improve, they can help improve each other.
A stiff chest makes it harder for your body to fight respiratory infection, a big problem for older people.
I’ve seen people so bent forward that their ribcage rubbed on their pelvis. Believe me, you do not want to go there.
Older folk, especially women are more likely to have a significant kyphosis, an increased forward curve of the upper back, because of osteoporosis or thinning of the bones. One of the problems of osteoporosis is bone fractures because of loss of bone density and strength.
A common place for these is the mid back right at the apex of the curve were the strongest compression force occurs. The greater the curve, the greater the force that concentrates there and so the greatest risk of compression fracture
If your older relatives have the stooped look of postural decline, you are a strong candidate for similar problems unless you do something about it now. And keep doing it because the 3 main factors causing this problem are always at work in your life. Your genes, gravity and time.
The worse the problem gets, the faster it gets worse. For a few reasons.
Leverage multiplies Gravity
The further your upper body goes in front of your centre of gravity, the more effect gravity has on you. Use your arm for a demo. Stand up and see how long you can hold your arm down by your side.
Indefinitely, right? OK now take that same arm and hold it out in front of you for as long as you can. However long that may be, it’s a lot less than the other way. Leverage multiplies gravity.
Having virtually the whole top half of your body slowly toppling further forward in front of your centre of gravity creates a tremendous strain on the musculo-skeletal system. Wrenching the back of you, crushingthe front.
As your posture declines, the facet joints and discs start to carry loads and strains they weren’t designed for and so they wear out faster than they should. They are also easier to injure.
Another very important reason behind postural decline is that we are all getting older. Somewhere around your 30’s or 40’s you start getting weaker. Even if you work or exercise by your 60’s your strength is really diminishing. And it continues.
You cannot stop it but you can slow it down significantly by doing an adequate amount of stretching and exercising.
It’s our muscular strength that holds us upright. As we get weaker gravity has a greater effect on us. So stay tall, supple and strong with plenty of stretching and exercising.
The single best stretch I give people to counteract postural decline is to lay on the bed or the floor. The floor will give you a stronger stretch because it’s firmer but if getting down to or up from the floor is a bit of a struggle, the bed will do just fine
Drop your arms back over your head and takes some deep breaths, stretching your hands back as you breathe out. Relax as you breathe in and stretch as you breathe out. Repeat for 10 to 50 breaths.
Stretch as you breathe out
If your shoulders are too stiff or sore to do this, drop your arms straight out to the side, bend your elbows to 90 degrees, let your hands drop back toward the bed. As you breathe out push your hands back toward the bed and up past your head. Relax as you breathe in, stretch as you breathe out.
You may find it more comfortable with a pillow under your head and your knees bent up with your feet flat and 60-90cm of 2-3ft apart
This stretch does many things. It gets your shoulders moving better. Most importantly it arches your upper back backwards and stretches your front and side ribcage muscles, your abdominal muscles and your hip flexor muscles.
Once you start to loosen up you can lie back over a pillow, cushion, folded towel or wheat bag to give you a stronger stretch.
This stretch is a brilliant way to start and finish your day. Do it before or just after you get out of bed in the morning and before you fall asleep at night.