Better posture in about a minute a day: A quick and easy stretch
Neck aches, back aches, headaches... I see them all too often in my massage practice. Want to know what all of the sufferers have in common?
Oh, my aching neck!
No, not chronic video game playing, though I can see why that might be a problem. I'm talking about posture, specifically the head-forward and shoulders-hunched posture that seems to be all the rage in modern civilization.
Before we start, this isn't a judgment upon you or your job or your hobbies. This fetal posture is how we deal with standing upright in gravity in a world that demands a lot of right-in-front-of-us interaction. Think about the last time that you had to grasp something overhead, look far to either side, or swing something in an arc. Heck, think of the last time you needed to break into a jog for any reason other than rain-avoidance on the way to your car.
Okay, it sounds like I'm judging, but I'm not. I'm an admitted technophile, at my computer much more than any sane man, with more hours logged behind a game controller than should be legal. This topic is near and dear to my heart because my posture was slowly wrecking my life. I had back pain that would lay me up for days, weeks of neck stiffness, and jaw pain that would make eating nearly impossible. While I'm certain that introducing some new habits helped (general fitness stuff that never seemed important in high school), I still stare at a glowing screen for hours a day. This is the modern world, and we're busy. What to do?
Start with little things.
I'm going to describe the under-a-minute stretch in a bit, but what can you do for general musculoskeletal health? Take stretch breaks when you've been sitting for a while. Go on ten-minute walks. Dance in your underwear when you're alone in your room. Fight imaginary ninjas.
Doing little things is a big deal to your cells. Imagine what your endocrine system must think if all you do is sit. It thinks that muscle isn't so important, that fat mobilization isn't a priority, and that you probably don't need much in the way of growth hormone or testosterone. Your fibroblasts will see to it that you have plenty of tight collagen in your connective tissue (the body tries to stabilize you in the range of motion that you tend to use... smart for keeping us from folding in half when all we mean to do is bend over, not so great when all you'd like to do is touch your toes). The brain stops producing as much serotonin when you're sedentary because... well, I have no idea why it does that. It just does.
You want to be fit, flexible, and happy. Want your body and brain to cooperate? You have to provide stimuli that would indicate that you need these things. Start with moving more, stretching a bit, and breathing in a way that indicates that you're not being surveilled by lions. Move toward bigger things in the future, like a regular fitness regimen.
But heck, even if you're not sedentary, you might still have pain-promoting posture. Is there a specific stretch that could help? I'm glad you asked.
The hands-clasped stretch
Also known as scapular retraction and depression, the "hands-clasped stretch" can be seen in my video below. For those of you who can't watch a video right now (or if you find my voice nasal and unpleasant), here's the gist:
- Clasp your hands behind your back, fingers interlaced. Your arms can be straight or bent.
- Thinking of your shoulder blades rather than your shoulders, bring your shoulder blades together and down at the same time.
- Allow your head to fall back a bit.
This amounts to drawing your shoulders back while dropping your clasped hands toward the floor. Hold this stretch for a few seconds, release, then repeat once or twice. All of this should take approximately 10-15 seconds. Repeat a few times throughout the day.
The stretch in motion
Will this really make a difference?
Short answer: yes. This isn't about doing the splits or a backbend, we're just trying to get your neck and back out of the "danger zone," where any little thing can set off a neck ache. As you do the stretch, you should feel some pull across your chest, and maybe down the front and sides of your neck. This is what we're trying to get a few extra millimeters of freedom from, just so that the tug-of-war that your neck is engaged in is no longer such a crucial struggle. You won't get a pristine military posture, but, over time, any slouching that you do will become less pronounced.
This method of short stretches (as opposed to the 30-second repetitions used in many modalities) was formalized by Aaron Mattes, whose books can be found below. While I can't vouch for whether this 2-second stretching method will ever get your foot behind your head, it is excellent as a quick, painless road to overall mobility.
Be gentle as you try any new stretch, and make sure that you acclimate well to them before you advance. As always, be kind to yourself.