Improve Posture & Reduce Pain – Pilates and Posture Principles for Health

by | May 4, 2008 | Pilates, Pilates Exercises, Techniques & Teaching Tips, Posture Improvement | 1 comment

Do I have to practice Pilates to improve my posture?

Not necessarily. However, the Pilates exercises can be a wonderful way to help you change habits. Everything that you learn about your body with the Pilates Method can be applied to both your everyday life and other fitness activities. The principles of breathing and conscious body awareness with movement that are taught with Pilates training helps to reinforce good posture habits. The Pilates exercises place the body in safe non-weight bearing positions to improve alignment, strength and flexibility. With better body mechanics the exercises help retrain muscle systems for more efficient movement habits. Improved posture is a by-product of a well-balanced muscular system and a great way to develop this is with a Pilates workout program.

The principles and body awareness you can gain through Pilates training can also help you get more out of your other fitness workouts. More time exercising won’t necessarily improve your posture. However, identifying your good and bad posture habits, and then choosing the appropriate exercises to help those habits change, can help you stand taller, reduce joint pain, learn to move with grace and ease, and can dramatically improve your overall physical and mental well-being.

If I could help you gain a quarter of an inch, or more, in height, would you be interested? Have you ever suffered from chronic neck or low back pain, disc or sacroiliac joint problems? Do you have chronic shoulder, hip, or knee pain and wish you could be pain or injury free? Do you notice a relationship between your physical health and mental outlook on life? What if I could convince you that practicing better posture habits could benefit the problems listed above and more…..Are you committed to making a few simple changes in your sitting and standing posture habits that can help improve your overall health?

Whether we realize it or not, our daily body posture habits directly relate to our overall health and ability to move our body without pain or risk of injury. Poor posture habits over time have the potential to contribute to the development of serious muscle imbalances. Over time these imbalances in the body can create disease and chronic poor health problems that may include:

  • Increased muscle & joint pain
  • Limited mobility
  • Poor circulation and restricted breathing
  • Difficulty maintaining an optimal body weight
  • Increased risk of injury and illness
  • Increased mental and/or emotional stress

Before you know it, you’re wishing you felt better, and start scrambling for a miracle cure, spending serious time and money trying to get your good health back!

Everyone has dominant and weaker muscles that contribute to how we hold our alignment and body posture. Many people assume that getting shorter is a part of the natural aging process. Why? Because we see the effects of so many years of poor posture habits on so many people. Some changes happen so gradually that we don’t notice until we can’t turn our heads to check for traffic behind us when we’re driving, or it becomes painful to reach something on a high shelf, or climbing stairs hurts because our knees don’t seem to bend and straighten like they used to, or we’re shopping for slip-on shoes because it’s difficult to bend over and tie a shoelace.

A common false perception is that with age comes limited mobility, a decrease in strength & flexibility, loss of balance and muscular control. The accumulation of a lifetime of bad habits and related injuries has left us running to the doctor looking for the right medicine or surgery to make everything feel better. While modern medicine has lots to offer, the real cure for correcting bad posture habits may be found through improved body awareness and exercise.

But I exercise regularly, shouldn’t that be enough? Good question! Logically one would think that consistent exercise should make it all better. However, if you aren’t conscious of your good and bad posture habits you may not be thinking about executing your movements with the precise control needed during exercise to change posture and body alignment. To make posture corrections, it’s important to be in the best possible alignment while executing all fitness exercises, especially the exercises you know are specifically designed to improve your posture.

Generally, our body will try to just get the task done (whether it’s an exercise, or daily life activity). It may rely only on the muscles it knows can do the job. If you’ve had an injury or accident, there may be some muscles that have forgotten how to do their job properly. Because of this, you may unknowingly be continuing to reinforce poor posture habits by strengthening muscles that are already strong, and still be missing out on the ones that need more work.

Here’s the good news! Regardless of how old you are, or what condition your body is in, it is never too late to improve your posture, strength, flexibility, or overall health!

There are three key components to Improving Posture.

  1. A good understanding of what you’re working on.
  2. Enough body awareness to begin the process of change.
  3. The right exercises built into your daily routine to practice and reinforce better posture habits.

Also, the mind-body connection is an important factor for posture improvement. Participating in fitness programs that help emphasize this, like the Pilates Method, Yoga, and Tai Chi can be valuable tools for learning how to improve your posture and overall wellness.

A few years ago I had a new client come in for a workout. He was a high school athlete, star football player – hoping for a college scholarship, he also happened to have scoliosis (an imbalance in the curves of the spine). Scoliosis can be genetic or functional (created over time by poor posture habits and the way we use our bodies – sitting, standing, and moving.) His mother had heard of the benefits of Pilates training, and knew that there were professional football teams practicing Pilates so she was eager to have him incorporate Pilates into his workout program to further his football career.

My new pupil did well, until I handed him a small two-pound hand weight and asked him to do a specific exercise to strengthen the weaker side of his back. This was something I’d identified was needed to improve his posture and better support his scoliosis so he could continue to play football and hopefully stay injury-free. He was shaking, and in total disbelief that he was unable to lift a two pound weight. After all, he had spent many hours in the weight room strength training for football practice and could bench press his body weight. My point – some of the muscle groups that he needed to work on to improve his posture, and muscle balance, were not being addressed in his current weight room program.

If we avoid strengthening muscles we know are weak, they will only get weaker. If we are unaware of the problem, sooner or later we’ll figure it out when the body starts hurting or gets injured. Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to use back pain, neck pain, shoulder pain, hip pain, knee pain, or foot pain as the red flag that we need to pay better attention to our body and could become pro-active to maintaining good strength, flexibility, and posture?

I would love to tell you that this story had a happy ending; the truth is he didn’t come back. When we’re young the value of making changes doesn’t seem quite as important. I don’t hurt right now, so I must not need to worry about it. As I look back on my personal career as a high school athlete, I wonder how many of my injuries (and early retirement) could have been avoided if someone had taught me a little more about posture, body alignment, and efficient muscle use when I was a kid. Would I have listened then? Who knows, but I’m listening now.

3 Reasons to Practice Good Posture

  1. Maintaining good posture can help you defy gravity. If you’re using your muscles to sit and stand tall, you won’t get shorter with age!
  2. Practicing posture principles does require a little effort. However, this effort far outweighs the foot, knee, hip, back, shoulder & neck problems that can be caused by poor posture habits over time.
  3. For every minute you sit and stand taller (even without an “exercise” program) you are strengthening your body for better health. Regardless of your other fitness activities – maintaining good posture throughout the day is a workout.

A body in good balance can maintain good posture with minimal effort. All muscles are working in harmony to support alignment. A body out of balance will fatigue quickly when working to strengthen weaker muscles.

Try this Seated Posture Exercise:

  • Sit on the edge of a chair with you feet hip distance apart, knees and toes pointing straight ahead.
  • The hips and pelvis should be sitting upright like a bucket (avoid the feeling of pouring water out of the front, or back of the bucket.) Front of the thighs at the crease where the legs meet the torso are relaxed.
  • Sit very tall – like there is a string lifting you up through the top of your head.
  • Chin is level to the floor, with the eyes gazing out along the horizon.
  • Feel the lower abdominal muscles pull up and in – towards the low back, while keeping the arms and shoulders down and relaxed.
  • Use your breath to continue improving posture by sitting taller. Inhale breathing into the back of the ribcage to lengthen the spine from your tailbone through the top of the head. Exhale to maintain the tall and deepen the abdominal support. Repeat 5-10 breaths.

Ideally, what you just practiced with the Seated Posture exercise above is what should be happening with every breath you take all day long!

Did you notice any of the following?

  • Your back muscles getting tired,
  • Your hips and pelvis wanting to slouch,
  • Your abdominals ready to relax, and hang out.
  • Your shoulders wrapped around your ears?

Did you find this exercise easy or challenging? How many breaths can you take without muscle fatigue? Could you continue practicing this exercise as you’re seated throughout the day, without having to think about it – and maintain good posture with minimal effort? (This is the goal of good posture!)

If you think about your breathing and posture while sitting and standing throughout the day, you are exercising and helping to improve your posture! Conscious body awareness and self-correction can help to improve posture and reduce pain. Finding the right exercises for your workout program to help reinforce these habits will help your body understand that regardless of whether it’s moving, or sitting still there is proper muscle action necessary to provide the support for good posture and improved health.

The Pilates Method happens to be an excellent way to learn exercises to strengthen the right muscles and improve body awareness and posture improvement. One of the best reasons for this is that a Pilates workout generally begins with non-weight bearing exercises and body positions that make it easier to support finding better alignment. If you have Kyphosis, Lordosis, forward head posture, knock-knees, bow-legs, or other postural alignment issues, the on-your-back starting position for both Matwork and Pilates equipment exercises allow gravity to assist in postural correction. While you’re stretching and strengthening the muscles needed for posture improvement during your Pilates training session you’re also coordinating breathing with body awareness so that everything you’ve learned with your Pilates exercises can be applied to every-day life activities — reinforcing good health and optimal improvements in body posture. The long term goal is that the posture improvement habits you are developing shift from conscious exercises and action to unconscious lifestyle habits and become the way that you naturally move, sit, and stand. By practicing sound posture principles for health you will find it easier to improve posture and reduce pain. Maintain the carefree lifestyle of your youth by improving posture.

Aliesa George: Over the past three decades, Aliesa George has helped assist people with their personal health journeys by sharing, teaching, and developing Pilates, Foot Fitness, and other Mind-Body programs.

1 Comment

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