Fitness Classes

I don’t know how common this is, but many of the stretching/strengthening exercises in my fitness class at a local senior center (yes, I am that old.) involve some kind of bending-forward . This is particularly true of the mat exercises, which include crunches (modified sit-ups) for strengthening abdominals, several types of jack-knife type positions (sitting while leaning backwards with legs extended and raised) while holding weights in various positions,other variations of sit-ups and also the bending-forward, reaching-for-the-toes exercises for stretching hip extensors (hamstrings), and even though the instructor says to keep the back straight many of the students hunch their upper backs to reach their toes, which elongates/weakens the thoracic back extensors which worsens the hunch  And too many crunches can worsen sway back posture. Meanwhile strengthening back extensors, the muscles that pull our backs erect, is ignored.  If exercises only target front abdominals for strengthening and end up stretching opposing back extensors, that is a prescription for worsening hunched posture. More bending forward exercises to strengthen abs increases the tendency for the body to bend forward all the time. After all, isn’t that what these exercises are training the body to do?  For healthy balanced posture, at least equal attention must be given to back extensor strengthening.  And for those who already have hunched posture, more attention must be given to back extensors, and depending on the type of faulty posture, only particular abdominals may need to be strengthened and perhaps abdominal strengthening is not needed at all, in fact may be counter-productive as in flat back posture.  For a senior population already tending toward hunched posture because of increases in chronic illness and age-related decline in bone density (a risk for wedging of vertebral bodies and compression fractures with bending forward exercises), a balanced muscle strengthening program is even more important.

The rest of the class, which includes 30 minutes of aerobics is enjoyable. Doing the steps to “up beat” music keeps participants coming back and that is  important. I intend to stay with the class especially for the step aerobics, which gets the heart pumping but not excessively. There is no pressure to do all the exercises and I can opt out of the exercises that are counter to my posture type (flat back).

 

Tai Chi classes: Tai Chi is done slowly, mindfully, with arms and legs coordinated and both moving throughout the movements. Learning it well takes balance, understanding the logic and flow of the movements, and sensitivity to the proprioceptive senses — all of which is very challenging,

From the aspect of improving posture, you’d think that good posture would come automatically with Tai Chi practice, however, from what I saw in this Senior Center Class, Tai Chi by itself does not improve posture. Over half the participants have a more kephotic upper back than is healthy.  Perhaps if there were mirrors on all the walls or practices were video-recorded, and people actually saw themselves  maybe they’d straighten up. But how likely is that?

Yoga

As a teenager I dabbled in it, but either injured myself as when I tried a yoga headstand and strained my neck, or began wondering what all that extreme twisting and bending was doing to my joints and ligaments. I watched my dad, a student and teacher of Hatha yoga, who did the positions much better than I could. He also had a lot more determination than I, maybe too much. He would remain in a headstand propped against a wall for quite some time—his face turning bright red. Later I wondered if that had something to do with the Alzheimer’s that overtook him in his late 60s. (Or was it head trauma from boxing as a heavyweight on his college team? No one else in his family ever had Alzheimer’s.) Anyway, he finally did stop doing the extreme lotus because he figured it caused the painful phlebitis (a blood clot in a deep vein of a lower leg) that swelled his lower leg. The lesson here being: don’t do yoga to extremes.
But mostly I’ve heard good things about Yoga from friends. However, a recent article in the New York Times, How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body, discusses the small but growing numbers of serious injuries to the lower back, shoulder, knee and neck. Glenn Black, a well known New York instructor states that injuries occur because students have underlying weaknesses that need to be addressed first. Also mentioned is Yoga Instructor, Carol Krucoff, who tore a hamstring muscle while being filmed doing Kitchen Yoga for a national TV show. See Insight from injury: If the practice of hatha yoga was meant to heal, why are so many yogis getting hurt? Instructor Glenn Black in another interview, Yogi Glenn Black Responds to New York Times Article on Yoga, lists pinched nerves in the neck, low back tightness, injuries to hips, knees and shoulder problems and also which yoga poses to avoid. And most disturbing of all:

EF: You now have a spinal fusion and screws in your lower lumbar spine to stabilize herniated discs and spondylolisthesis. How did your own yoga injuries come about?

Glen Black: Extreme back bends, and twisting coming up from my hands on my ankles. I overstretched my ligaments and destabilized my spine. 

But any sport or activity done to extremes can cause injury. See: Practicing Safe Yoga — 5 Tips to Avoid Injuries by Eva Norlyk Smith, Ph.D.

Habit Formation, Exercise and Posture

As much as possible, the brain converts repeated actions into automatic routines or habits in a process called chunking. Once chunked, behavioral routines require minimal attention or mental energy to perform. All that’s needed is a cue (or trigger) that switches the brain to autopilot and starts the routine; and then at the end, a reward tells the brain if this particular routine (may be physical, mental, or emotional) is worth doing again. The cue and the reward become associated so that when the cue is present, a craving to perform the sequence emerges. Cues and rewards can be obvious; e.g. doing the grocery shopping every Saturday morning (cue) and afterwards buying a coffee at Starbuck’s (reward). Or not so obvious: washing up before bedtime (cue) triggers toothbrushing, and afterwards the feeling of a clean mouth serves as the reward. Some cues and rewards are so slight that one may hardly be aware of them, but our neural systems certainly are.

Trying to change a habit sequence once it’s triggered is difficult because the conscious brain is not actively involved. One approach in particular seems to help; a study on exercise habits showed that when participants were educated about habit formation and then asked to identify cues and rewards that might increase participation in exercise routines, they exercised twice as much as those who only received lessons on the importance of exercise. Simple cues seemed to be most effective. For example, I put a pedometer (a Fitbit) in my pocket after dressing in the morning (the cue) and take one walk then. Checking how many steps are recorded, gives me a little rush of satisfaction (the reward). (A second walk is cued by my dogs, who won’t leave me alone until we head out the door in the afternoon.)

For an interesting article on habits see the New York Times Article, How Companies Learn Your Secrets (they want to know when a life changing event, such as impending marriage or childbirth will occur, in order to get a headstart sending out advertising. Otherwise one’s spending habits aren’t very open to change and advertising has minimal effect. This article is based on the book by Charles Duhigg, “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

So how can cues and rewards be applied to improving posture? My experience has been that the feeling of slumped posture can become a cue, and when I become aware of it, I tighten and straighten my mid-back, which lifts my chest and gives me a feeling of release from chest constriction (a reward) and I take a deep breath. Then I do a rep of the Fix the Shoulder Blades Exercise, during which I often remember how much better my profile looks (even when I’m not anywhere near a mirror) and how good my neck feels now versus how miserable it used to be (more rewards). Finding and appreciating those rewards required that I become more aware of how my body looks (especially from different points of view), and also more sensitive to how my body feels, not just pain, but muscle tension, joint position, limitations imposed by poor posture, awareness of shoulder blade anchoring, spine position, posture during movement etc., or everything that comes under the classification of kinesthetic senses. Sometimes I wonder why I didn’t naturally have those sensitivities when I was younger. Perhaps it was my sedentary life. And perhaps also because poor posture develops so slowly there’s never enough difference to notice; and meanwhile the body memory of good posture is slowly lost. As well there’s often little feedback from other sources of information, such as visual (generally only face forward view in a mirror is available and that doesn’t help in seeing the entire body’s alignment), or comments from family and friends (who often don’t want to say anything upsetting, even my mother had stopped criticizing), or advice from medical professionals, fitness professionals and physical education teachers (of all the many I had contact with, none ever said anything about my posture). And perhaps also, poor posture itself, and any pain from poor posture, deadens sensitivity to body state. Is it any wonder that a person’s posture seems to be a relatively unchanging part of his or her physical appearance, except to slowly get worse with age? In order for a person to improve posture, an epiphany of some sort is needed. And once some improvement has been experienced, the body becomes more sensitive to what a healthy postural state feels like, and strives to maintain that state.

However, there is a matter of backsliding into poor posture, and I do find myself slouching, but only when working long hours at the computer, not when standing, walking or other more physical activities. The good thing is though, that I’m more aware of slumped posture, and I put more effort into correcting it. So why is slumping more likely at the computer? Perhaps because computer work takes a great deal of mental energy, and the mind and body tires quickly. And being tired means less energy for the back extensors, which are the critical muscles keeping our backs erect against gravity. Our body structure doesn’t help either. The spine tends to bend forward because the bulk of body weight, is in front of the spine. The thoracic spine, in particular, supports the ribcage and attached muscles and organs, which are a major part of the body’s mass. No wonder the thoracic spine, which naturally has a rounded, kephotic curve, tends to curve even more forward under that weight if the back extensors aren’t kept strong.

Ultimately, maintaining good posture is a continuous challenge, but it is a challenge that can be won, if one becomes aware that it feels so much better (the reward) than slumped posture. The reward is even greater if one has suffered years of pain from it.