“Shoulders back! Stomach in!” That is the extent to which a large majority of people have heard about or think about posture. The truth is, there is not one perfect posture that every person should hold in standing or sitting. The human body is designed to move, and the ability to achieve and maintain various positions is a matter of strength and mobility in joints and muscles.
While there is not one perfect posture, there are several bad habits that contribute to poor posture and adaptations of the body for stiffer, weaker joints and muscles. Joints and muscles that are unable to move through full range of motion are the first step on the path to pain, injury, and the vicious cycle of not wanting to move. Here are four surprising posture quirks you didn’t know were bad habits:
1. Jaw clenching.
This habit increases tension in the neck and shoulders, can contribute to migraines, and is associated with pelvic floor dysfunction. Often, jaw clenchers do not realize they do it because is often happens when one is stressed or distracted. A few good ways to address jaw clenching:
a. Each time you go to the restroom or take a drink, move your tongue in 3 clockwise and 3 counterclockwise circles inside your mouth (it will feel like it is stretching your cheeks).
b. Gently massage the muscles around the jawbone, in front of the ear, and along the temples.
c. Hum throughout the day! In addition to decreasing muscular tension in the head and neck, this stimulates the Vagus nerve for a calming effect on the body.
2. Ribs flared forward.
This habit often happens when people try to pull their shoulders back to sit up straight and end up thrusting their ribcage forward. Forward rib flare is also common after pregnancy and can contribute to difficulty restoring abdominal strength. This habit will perpetuate back tightness and tension in the glute and hip muscles. A couple ways to address forward rib flare:
a. Practice stacking your rib cage over your pelvis in standing. This means that if you are standing up with your hands on your rib cage, your pinky finger is pointing down at your hip bones (not pointing forward, as this would indicate the forward rib cage thrust).
b. Decrease low back muscle tightness. Using a tennis ball, lean against a wall and roll the ball side to side and up and down the side of your spine. Take deep breaths and feel the back of your ribcage expand into the ball. Do 1 minute on each side
c. Engage abdominals in neutral spine position. Laying on your back with knees bent, tilt your pelvis slightly back by pulling your pubic bone up toward your face, flattening your spine into the floor. Then, inhale to allow the abdominals to expand and exhale while you engage (tighten) the deep abdominals.
3. Standing with toes pointing out.
Interestingly, this one has very little to do with your feet and ankles. This is an indicator of hip weakness and often corresponds with clenching the glutes to create stability. With prolonged walking or running, this habit will contribute to hip and knee pain. Here’s how to check for it and a couple ways to improve this hip movement:
a. If you are standing still, glance down and look at what direction your toes are pointing. If they are pointing out, try to straighten them to point forward. This may cause a feeling of tightness in the back and sides of the hip, think of this as a stretch and hold it for 30 seconds at least three times a day.
b. Practice side stepping with toes pointed slightly inward, knees almost straight. Keep facing the same direction, take 10 steps to the right, then 10 steps to the left. Repeat.
c. Work on active internal rotation of the hips. Sitting on a bar stool or tall chair with knees together, pull ankles apart and hold for 5 seconds at a time. Do this 10 times.
4. Forward head with mouth breathing.
If you stare at a phone a lot, you are likely guilty of this! Why is it bad? Forward head posture causes tightness in the neck and chest paired with weakness in the shoulder and upper back muscles. This all contributes to shallow chest breathing that perpetuates core weakness, shoulder pain, and is associated with pelvic floor dysfunction.
What you can do about it:
a. Practice nose breathing. This can feel more difficult than it sounds! Tuck your chin back (not down) to align your head directly overtop your spine. Keep your lips closed and tongue relaxed as you slow your breathing, inhaling through the nose for 3 seconds and exhaling for 5 seconds at a time.
b. Mobilize the thoracic spine. Sit up in a chair and reach your left hand to the right knee and right hand behind you. Keep shoulders relaxed (not shrugged up toward ears) as you take 2 deep breaths in this position before repeating on the opposite side.
c. Chin tucks on all fours. On hands and knees, position wrists directly under shoulders and knees directly under hips. Lower your head toward the floor, and then use deep neck muscles to lift head, chin-tucked to align spine. Do this ten times.
If you find yourself doing one or even all these poor-posture habits, don’t worry! It is never too late to make change in the body, even with habits you may have had for decades. The human body is very adaptable, it just takes patience and persistence to create lasting change.
Need help identifying what may be causing your pain? A Doctor of Physical Therapy is trained in human movement analysis, muscle strength assessment, and joint range of motion testing. Sometimes all it takes is the right diagnosis and exercise prescription to get you out of pain and on your way back to moving and smiling more!