Accredited Exercise Physiologist - Sophie Pacek

Sophie Pacek

Exercise Physiologist, Healthy Connections

Since COVID-19 restrictions have been in place, there have been many changes happening including the nature of our work at Healthy Connections. In normal times, my day consisted of long bouts of standing and walking around the gym area when seeing clients interspersed with bouts of sitting at lunch time or when doing paperwork. Nowadays, I spend more time in the car travelling to clients’ homes for 1-on-1 sessions and in front of the computer doing Telehealth consultations or writing these blogs. These changes in my workday have resulted in changes to my working postures. I can say the same for my weekends – I am spending more time exercising, standing and walking around the kitchen while I cook/bake, sitting at a desk doing university study and laying on the couch to watch TV. I have noticed additional niggles and knots in my thoracic spine and neck from increased sitting at work as well as soreness through my calves and feet from prolonged static standing. This got me thinking: what are these changes doing to my posture and could this be contributing to my new aches?

What is posture?

Posture takes many forms – posture when sitting, standing, lying down, walking, playing sports, lifting, pushing, pulling, crouching, squatting, reaching, twisting and the list goes on. When we are in one position (e.g. standing or sitting still), the optimal posture is one in which muscles are in equilibrium or balanced. All muscles are working at a neutral length, where none are shortened or lengthened.

Our muscles work in teams and can take on three different roles (McGinnis, 2005):

Let’s look at an example:

If you wanted to bend your elbow (e.g. bringing a cup up to your mouth), the agonist muscle is the biceps brachii (in red), the antagonist muscle is the triceps brachii (in blue), and synergist muscles include brachioradialis and brachialis (in green). The agonist and synergist muscles contract and shorten whilst the antagonist muscle relaxes and lengthens to produce a bend at your elbow.

These teams occur throughout the entire body and when all are at a neutral length, we can achieve optimal or neutral posture.

What is neutral posture / neutral spine?

You may have heard in yoga, pilates or even one of the AEPs at Healthy Connections refer to ‘neutral spine’. As I mentioned above, this is achieved when all muscles are at a neutral length. In a perfect world, we would be able to obtain and sustain this posture 100% of the time; however, humans take on many postures and depending on our activity/inactivity, we can develop habits that lead to postures that are non-optimal. This occurs when muscles become underactive or overactive and their antagonists respond with opposing positions. Over time, if these muscles become more underactive or overactive and our posture worsens, problems like pain, arthritis and discomfort may develop.

One approach to explain poor postures was described by Vladimir Janda in the 1980s. Janda proposed that non-optimal postures were caused by muscle imbalances in the upper and/or lower body. These imbalances were coined the terms Upper and Lower Crossed Syndromes to help health professionals to understand how to treat a client’s pain or postural abnormality (Page, Frank & Lardner, 2010). ‘Upper’ and ‘lower’ refer to the upper and lower parts of the body, and ‘crossed’ relates to the pattern of underactive/long/weak muscles and overactive/short/tight muscles that form a ‘X’ or cross across the front and back of the body (see images below).

Upper crossed syndrome

Lower crossed syndrome

Note: there are several other postural abnormalities that can occur – I have only covered the main ones.

How can we improve our posture?

This is the million-dollar question! Our posture changes all throughout the day and each individual’s body has been through different experiences, injuries and habits, making it difficult to correct any existing muscle imbalances with a ‘one size fits all’ approach. However, that beautiful thing called exercise is one intervention that can assist with improving posture.

Here is my step-by-step guide:

Some homework

Take the time this week to be more aware and in tune with your body, specifically its postures and positions. Identify some areas that you wish to improve on. This may include:

Next week’s blog will explore these areas with specific exercises that can assist to address the muscle imbalances involved and hopefully help you with improving posture and reducing pain.

Until next week, stay safe, wash your hands and keep moving!