Blog by Susan
As we go through our lives, the majority of us are standing, sitting, walking and even sleeping somewhere other than in 100% “neutral spinal alignment.” In other words, noBODY is perfect!
The fact is, most of us, to some degree, exhibit imbalances in our posture due to tight or weak muscles and ligaments, gravity, heredity and maybe even a few extra pounds we’re carrying around. Imbalances can also be the result of “overcompensating” for a multitude of daily stressors including long commutes, desk jobs, injuries and even dominant-sided activities like golf, where movement is repeated over and over without a “counter” motion in the opposite direction.
As a rule of thumb, physical imbalances often become more noticeable as we age. You probably know an elderly person who is kyphotic with an exaggerated “hunching” or rounding of the upper back and shoulders. But many younger people are quite literally “heading” in that direction and already show signs of “head forward” positioning from hovering over computer keyboards and smartphones. (How many times do we tell our kids to “sit up straight!”)
Face it, vision plays a critical role in helping us navigate our world. And with eyes positioned in the front of our heads, and our heads weighing on average 10 pounds (that’s a heavy bowling ball!), nature and gravity seem to be setting us up to have a more rounded posture (or in spinal terms - flexion). Unfortunately, all of this rounding can lead to increased neck pain, rotator cuff issues and cervical disc herniations down the road.
Add to this the fact that our daily routines often require us to sit for extended periods of time. [Studies are now showing that a sedentary lifestyle is at the root of many conditions ranging from chronic lower back pain to diabetes. In fact, some researchers are saying that “your chair could actually be killing you.” While this sounds alarming, the anecdote could be as simple as just standing up every 15 to 20 minutes! It so happens that frequent acts of “anti-gravity” really make a profound difference at our cellular level.] In terms of postural alignment, all this sitting is wreaking havoc with our spinal health, and throwing many of us into a prolonged and exaggerated posterior pelvic tilt (where the tailbone is tucked under and the lower back is rounded). And it’s particularly harmful when in a seated or standing position because there’s added compression of the lumbar spine from your own body weight.
If we look at studies of the “sitting” positions found in cultures throughout the world, the healthiest is one where the “load” (weight of the body) is spread across the entire pelvic floor and not toward the tailbone. It requires a slight anterior pelvic tilt - where the natural curve of the lower back remains visible (and possibly even more arched for some of us), and a supportive base is maintained between the pubic bone and ischial tuberosity (sitz bones). This little “triangular platform” seems to distribute the weight optimally and relieves pressure on the lower back. It seems the spine doesn’t like to be in the shape of the letter “C” all the time. A healthy spine wants to be more like an “S” - as in “S is for Spine!"
So why do some exercise fads like “barre work” encourage participants to hold a prolonged seated or standing pelvic tuck? Mistakenly, many people believe a deep posterior pelvic tilt (“the tuck”) helps to engage the large, but sometimes underused glute muscles for a tighter bum. But the experts say the ability to maintain a balanced, neutral pelvis is key to putting your glutes at a better leverage advantage. And more than likely, a posterior tilt in the pelvis will result in the firing of the quadriceps before actually engaging the glutes. Over time, this tucked position can exacerbate weak hip flexors and further flatten the spine, adding even more compression to an already stressed out lower back. Ouch! It’s a recipe for “Disc-aster!”
The key is to have strong abdominal muscles to stabilize the spine and maintain optimal position of the hips and pelvis while the glutes (and hip flexors) work. Pilates, a functional exercise method that’s been around for nearly 100 years, helps with this by focusing on the deep stabilizing muscles of the “core.” When performed correctly, the body is retrained to utilize muscles in a more balanced and productive fashion, and most importantly, to maintain the natural “S” shape of the spine. By targeting those stabilizing muscles, Pilates can be an effective exercise option for those struggling with spinal alignment issues, and also an integral part of a rehabilitation program for some chronic back conditions. These carefully performed exercises are designed to restore balance within the overall “biomechanics” of healthy movement. In other words, when one muscle (or set of muscles) is working, what others must be engaged or released in order to create stability and more authentic movement? Could it be that certain strong, tight muscles (which are often prone to injury from overuse, like the workhorse hamstrings) need to take a back seat? What other muscles could be isolated and better utilized to keep us “standing tall?” These are just a few of the many issues addressed within the Pilates Method.
So before you sit down at your computer or are encouraged to hold a deep pelvic tuck in your next exercise class, think again about the natural alignment of the spine. Remember, “S is for Spine!”