Devices, exercises can keep technology from being a pain

| Saturday, Feb. 28, 2015, 7:39 p.m.

After years of telling us to sit up straight and don't slouch, mom's advice has stood the test of time.

The role of posture in our lives and the dangers of ignoring it are getting more attention lately, including the development of new products, from posture shoes and shirts to step trackers and home body-alignment systems meant to address it.

“I would not say that our posture is worse than previous years. Posture has long been an issue for health. That does not mean it is not a problem, simply that people are more aware of it again,” says occupational therapist and University of Pittsburgh professor Nancy Baker.

Our preoccupation with fitness and health, combined with the ability to develop technology to monitor posture, has increased the interest in this topic, she says.

The need to be aware has not changed over the years, says Dr. Barbara Swan of the West Penn Hospital Inpatient Rehabilitation Unit. “Part of the problem today is we don't move around as much.”

Our bodies were designed for movement, not static positioning, says physical therapist Benjamin Read, UPMC Sports Medicine spine specialist. As for mom's classic advice, he says, “I have two young daughters at home and can tell you without a doubt that mom is always right!”

“We are seeing injuries arise on a regular basis which stem from poor posture,” Read says. About 20 percent of the patients he treats for low-back pain require education and correction of postural issues. That percentage is more than doubled for patients visiting him for neck pain.

Technology, including sitting in poorly designed chairs for long periods at computers or bent over smartphones, seems to be the newest culprit.

“Without a doubt, our use of technology has altered our behavior, which has required our bodies to adapt in order to tolerate extended periods on electronic devices,” Reader says. “This is not ideal, from a biomechanical perspective.”

Those devices require us to load the same joints, such as the intervertebral joints of the neck or lower back, and work the same muscle groups repetitively for long periods of time.

Besides contributing to bad posture, laptops and cellphones, which are often used when looking down, can cause pain in the neck and hands, Baker says.

“This bending puts a lot of stress on the neck and shoulders and can be a culprit in pain and injury to the neck,” she says. “And the tendency to use the thumbs to text on a cell phone can put them in awkward postures and place a lot of stress on the base of the thumb.”

Poor posture can cause a variety of problems from pain, headaches, muscular imbalances and joint dysfunction to loss of flexibility and reduction of breathing space in the torso.

“The biggest thing is, you have to move more. As we have more and more technology, we move less. It's really important to move,” Swan says. “The best thing is to work on strengthening the muscles you have.”

Read agrees.

“Muscle weakness is one of the biggest issues we find with people who slouch,” Read says. “Weak muscles quickly fatigue, and, when they do, our bodies compensate by relying on other structures such as ligaments and bones to pick up the slack.”

Many people prefer the slouching position, he says, because it requires less muscle work. “But it comes at a price by creating more joint stress,” he says.

Read and others in his department help people focus on finding their correct posture independently, and they teach simple range of motion exercises to perform throughout the day to help promote movement and avoid staying in one position too long.

We have a tendency to slouch, Baker says, “because gravity constantly is pulling us down from the moment we start sitting up.” As most of the work we do is in front of us, we tend to “get our weight forward. As the body grows longer, we have to work harder to keep our top half aligned over the pelvis.”

One way to combat slouching, she says, is to use a chair with a back rest that supports the natural curves — lumbar support — and to sit with the back resting against the back rest. “Good posture,” she says, “doesn't mean you are uncomfortable.”

The effort of changing a bad habit, such as posture, into a good one can take some time, Swan says. “For most people it takes about six weeks to form a new habit. After that, it is more and more automatic.”

Just trying to stand up straight won't work, Baker says.

“Often, the body has adapted to the poor posture, and it will not easily shift to the good posture except for short periods of time,” she says.

Activities that focus on body awareness, like yoga and tai chi, can help to identify proper posture, she says. Strengthening weak muscles and stretching tight structures can help the body realign.

Improving core strength helps support the pelvis. Losing weight, particularly in the stomach, can assist the spine to align, Baker says.

Because proper standing posture starts at the feet, supportive shoes are a goal. “If the feet are poorly positioned, it's hard to position the back,” she explains.

A secondary benefit of working toward good posture, Baker says, is that “you look better and more confident with good posture. If nothing else, you look taller, and taller people are always considered more confident.”

And when it comes to those marathon sessions in front of the computer or television, Read says, break up the time with short, frequent breaks to give the postural muscles a rest.

Remember, somewhere Mom is watching.

Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or rrutkoski@tribweb.com.

Posture products

Posture Shirt: The goal of AlignMed's Posture Shirt is to provide postural control, to keep the wearer's shoulders properly positioned and reduce fatigue. The most sophisticated shirt in the AlignMed line requires a prescription. The shirts have been subjected to medical studies by sports scientists as well as physical therapists and medical schools. Sells for $95. Details: alignmed.com

Alegria Shoes: Aiming for whimsical, yet functional, custom-fit footwear, Alegria shoes are designed to offer ample arch and heel support to help relieve stress on legs, hips and back from long hours on the feet. The brand caters to those with an active lifestyle, including teachers, stylists, nurses and chefs. The company sells shoes, boots and sandals for men and women at around $80 to $150. Details: alegriashoes.com

Vionic Shoes: The goal of Vionic and Weil Integrative footwear, with built-in Orthaheel orthotic technology, is to counteract the daily grind of walking on hard and unnatural surfaces. It's about, says the company, “realigning feet to their natural (neutral) position.” “The problem is that poor posture is not just a spine problem, it is also frequently a foot problem,” says Brian Hoke, a member of the Vionic Innovation Lab. Vionic has men's and women's shoes, tennis shoes, boots, sandals and slippers from around $80 to $150. Details: vionicshoes.com

Tru-Align Body System: From Kacelia, a Chicago-based health-and-wellness company, comes this at-home body system, created by veteran chiropractor Evelyn Haworth, to treat back and neck pain holistically and improve overall wellness. “Our spines were designed to be ‘S' shaped and with our inactivity, poor habits and injuries, we are turning that ‘S' into a ‘C,” Haworth says. The Tru-Align System reforms and realigns the body holistically, she says. Lying face down and supporting the body at the head, jaw, shoulders, pelvis and ankles, the body is relaxing while gravity applies a gentle pressure, allowing the muscle, ligaments and tendons to be stretched “a little bit” each day, she says. The system sells for $495. Details: kacelia.com

BackJoy SitSmart: The SitSmart, which you put under you on a chair, works to correct posture by prompting users to sit upright keeping their core and back muscles engaged. It automatically tilts, cups and floats the pelvis upright so the user can find his or her most balanced and comfortable posture. It sells for $40 to $60. Details: BackJoy.com

The Arki fitness tracker: Scheduled for release to the mass market in May, this customizable bracelet tracks steps and calories and sleep, but also uses gentle vibrations to alert the wearer when their posture isn't perfect. “People are busy enough, and they simply forget about remembering a good walking posture,” suggests Brian Kim, product manager of Zikto, the South Korean-based venture firm, which is developing Arki. It sells for $119 with a rubber strap attached. Details: zikto.com

The Up Shirt: UpCouture refers to its Up Shirt as “the world's first patented anti-slouching, posture-promoting shirt line.” Fitness enthusiast Neda Naef, founder of UpCouture, says an extra-thin elastic film built in-between organic cotton layers within the Up Shirt comfortably and gently pushes and maintains the shoulders in a straight position. “The effect is more aesthetically pleasing, making the wearer look more composed and even slimmer,” she says. The French company ships worldwide. The shirts run about $145 to $160. Details: UpCouture.com

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