The latest buzzword going around the media is ‘old-age ailments’. It follows a study of 60,000 medical records and 4.7million online searches that found more people in their 20s, 30s and 40s are suffering injuries and conditions typically associated with the elderly, including scoliosis, blood vessel constriction and slipped discs.
Removal of haemorrhoids and varicose veins were two of the most common procedures in the heart and circulatory diseases category for both 26 to 45 year olds. “Haemorrhoid removal and treatment for varicose veins are procedures that people in this age group should not be encountering,” said Bupa’s medical director Dr Steve Iley in a statement. So why are we experiencing these old-age problems? Because of poor posture.
For those with unilateral discrepancy or congenital misalignment (in layman’s terms, that’s having one leg shorter than the other), limb lengthening and reconstructive surgery is available, but there are plenty more of us for whom poor posture is a fault of our sedentary lifestyles. Time spent sitting at desks, watching box sets and using smartphones or tablets is resulting in a young population of hunchbacks, and it’s having a serious impact on our health.
What causes bad posture?
There are many causes of bad posture, both long and short term. According to the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research, children who remain static for long periods build less bone density during their development years and are more susceptible to osteoporosis and bone breakage later in life.
Then there are new studies that demonstrate how our attachment to screens is causing us to crane our necks and poke our chins, and leaning over keyboards is making us hunch our shoulders, resulting in tight chests and weak upper backs. So-called ‘text neck’ results from leaning our heads forwards, which also causes a rounding of the shoulders.
There’s debate as to whether this phenomenon is new, considering we’ve been hunching over typewriters and reading while tucked in nooks and crannies for years, but sitting for long periods increases the risk of stiffness in joints and muscles, muscle degeneration and herniated lumbar disk, also known as a slipped disc in the lower back.
But it’s not just sitting or an inactive lifestyle that affects our posture. Rounded shoulders, for example, can be caused by muscle imbalances that arise as a result of poor exercise practices and focusing too much on chest strength. All this causes a tightness around your spine and weakens your core.
The way we stand has a huge impact on our posture too. Leaning more on one leg while standing feels comfortable to most, but instead of using your buttocks and core muscles to keep your uprights, you place excessive pressure on one side of your lower back and hip. Over time, this causes you to develop muscle imbalances around the pelvis which causes muscular strain right up to the neck.
Sometimes, poor posture is medical. Unilateral discrepancy is a shortening of bone which affects equal limb length. For lower limbs, a length difference of even 2-3 cm will induce a limp and, in most cases, will tilt the pelvis to one side causing a curvature of the spine or scoliosis.
How is poor posture impacting our health?
First of all, maintaining good posture is imperative to good bone health. Limb bone loading occurs when they are forced to bear more weight than they are built to, just as muscles when they are stressed.
And poor posture compresses the diaphragm, which in turn affects breathing and digestion. Long-term we experience compromised lung health, which can prevent tissues from receiving oxygenated blood.
According to physicians at Collins Chiropractic, poor posture can lead to trouble sleeping, such as insomnia and disrupted sleep patterns. Prolonged over time, trouble sleeping can lead to stress and anxiety, as well as chronic fatigue that will reduce productivity and performance.
Poor posture can hurt our wellbeing too. Dr Lisa Ashe, medical director of BeWell Medical Group, explains “poor posture is associated with decreased confidence and decreased self-esteem.”
According to a study by researchers at San Francisco State University, when you have poor posture your internal processes slow down, which can cause stress on the body. It leads to greater risk of poor mental health and depression, especially in those who are more predisposed to depression and anxiety disorders.
More than that, in a TEDx talk entitled ‘Your body language shapes who you are’, Amy Cuddy claims that body posture changes how others see us and how we see ourselves. Just as a good posture shows confidence and astuteness, a sloppy posture indicates a careless attitude and a lack of energy.
And according to Janice Novak, author of Posture, Get it Straight, slouching at work makes people perceive you to be a less valuable company member. Such perceptions can lower performance and prevent you from receiving the treatment and promotional opportunities you might deserve.
What can we do about poor posture?
According to Livestrong, practicing good posture while sitting and standing can reduce tension in your neck, shoulders, and back, improve organ function, and strengthen your core.
Exercise plays an important role in building and maintaining bone strength. This can be achieved by weight bearing or impact exercises, which can lead to modest bone accrual in targeted areas. Even small increases in bone mineral may significantly reduce the risk of fracture in later life.
In order to keep breathing clear and unobstructed, and your digestion smooth and regular, you should focus on sitting and standing with height, rather than slouching. Practicing deep breathing techniques will also reinforce your proper body mechanics.