Perfect Posture: Is Your Head On Top of Your Spine?

When you think of perfect posture, are there any particular people or characters that come to mind?  Maybe a military soldier with their chest open in front of them.   Or, maybe a strong woman à la Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to do with It.  Some people may think of Fred Astaire, a dancer with a graceful body, or even Martin Short’s Saturday Night Live character, Ed Grimley, who walks with his pelvis and hips tucked under and his legs outstretched in front of him.  Our bodies are designed to be stacked, one part on top of the other — pelvis over legs, ribs over pelvis and head over ribs, but we all have different postural habits.  From one person to the next, we all live inside our bodies

Nowadays, most of us have one thing in common: a slightly forward head.  Having a forward head means our head and neck sit in front of the rest of our spine.  Forward head can come from prolonged periods of computer use, television watching and incorrect sleeping positions.  It can also come from weakness in the shoulder blade muscles and back extensors.  Did you know that for every inch your head sits forward an extra 10 pounds of weight is added to your neck?  This can put a huge amount of stress on your neck and upper back muscles to keep your chin from dropping to your chest and can be a contributor to chronic back pain including tension headaches.

Have you ever caught yourself leaning into your computer screen, or seen someone at the gym thrust their head forward to force an abdominal curl with an unsupported head? How about an elderly woman crossing the street, leading with her head and neck jutting out in front of her?  Our vision is only one of our five senses, but we rely on it the most when attempting to co-ordinate even the most basic movements.  Using one of our other senses — touch, would help to give us better proprioception.  Proprioception is the ability to sense our position and location and orientation and movement of our body and its parts.  It helps us with our spatial reasoning — to figure out where we are in space.

Feet are a great place to start.  Standing tall on the ground and pushing into your feet can instantly give you better proprioception.  So, one end of your body is taken care of, but what about your head and neck?  Try placing your hands on your head as you side bend through your spine from one side to the other.  Our feet anchor us to the ground and having our hands on top of our head gives our head and neck some feedback as to where we are in space.  Without a root or anchor for our upper body, our head and neck would be flailing like a waving tree in the wind.  So, perhaps, after all, there is something to the Pioneer school days when students were asked to balance a book on their head.  I sometimes tell my clients to put a bag of rice on their head when they’re at home sitting in front of the computer, even just for a few minutes.  A little bit of weight, just one pound, allows the muscles in our neck to stabilize.

Having an increased awareness of your posture is the first step to making some positive changes.  Here are the other two steps:

Exercises You Can Try at Home

Midback Rotation

  • Begin lying on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
  • Reach arms to vertical, bringing palms together so they line up with the centre of your chest.
  • Imagine your hands are on a clock at 12.  Begin to roll your ribs, arms, head and neck to 2 o’clock and back to 12.  Roll the other direction to 10 and back to 12.
  • Drop into one rib or side of your back as the other side lifts up (imagine a seesaw or the tipping of a scale).
  • Make sure everything rotates together from the waist up, including your head & neck
  • After many reps, try turning head & neck in the opposite direction of your ribs.
  • Everything from your feet up to your belt line should be stationary, as you free up the muscles above your waistline.

Pec Stretch

  • Lie down on one side, stacking your hips and shoulders.
  • With knees bent, place arms straight out in front of you with palms touching.
  • Inhale, bring top arm up to the sky and back behind you, letting the whole upper body turn with you from your waist to the top of your head.
  • Imagine opening a large book (inhale to open & exhale to close).
  • Keep your legs & hips stacked, so you get a gentle stretch through the back, pecs and collarbone.
  • Repeat on other side.

Superman Arms

  • Begin standing with your back against the wall.
  • Walk your feet out so you are in a mini squat (knees over heels) and make sure that you can press as much of your back as possible flush against the wall.
  • Try and suction your head back over your spine, creating a double chin.  This may help you to align the back of your head against the wall.
  • Bend your arms on either side of your body, so the backs of your arms and hands are touching the wall.
  • Notice if you can touch the wall or, if this is challenging, modify the exercise by facing the wall instead, a few inches back.
  • Reach arms up into a V, as if you are superman taking flight and then switch, bring them down into a W, bending your elbows and, most importantly, make sure you are squeezing your shoulder blades together.
  • Continue to lower and lift, V arms into W arms — squeezing your blades together on the way down.
  • Feel for what is manageable at the shoulder joint.  If you experience any discomfort, limit your range of  motion.

Chin Nods

  • Begin lying on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
  • Nod chin to throat, as if you are suctioning your skull back overtop of your spine, allowing the back of your neck to lengthen and then return to centre.
  • Continue chin nods moving from the junction point where neck and skull meet.
  • Imagine the front your head sliding forward and down, while the back of your head (behind your ears), slides up and back.  This creates a traction effect in the neck.

Changes to your Everyday Life

Set up an ergonomic work space:

Your body’s ability to contort to a poorly organized workspace can contribute to injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome, muscle strains, and vision problems.

  • Adjust your computer screen so the top third of your screen is at eye-level.
  • Measure the distance from your monitor to your eyes.  It should ideally be 18-24 inches away from your face, so you won’t want to reach your neck forward to see.
  • Placing a cushion or ergonomic footstool under your feet.  This will allow your body to slide back into your chair and take pressure off of your low back.
  • Take frequent breaks and keep moving.  Check out this video of a simple exercise you can do while sitting at work: (Insert link to my podcast “Pilates at Your Desk”)
  • No matter how ergonomic your workspace is, you still need to be mindful of your posture — sitting tall, keeping elbows close into sides and keeping shoulders back and relaxed will go a long way!

Avoid carrying heavy bags or purses:

  • Avoid carrying bags on one arm or one shoulder of the body.  This will exacerbate poor posture.  If you have to carry a bag, pretend to be ambidextrous and alternate the side that you carry it on.

Change your pillow:

  • If you tend to wake up with a sore neck, try buying a supportive neck pillow that allows your head to fall into the middle of the cushion while supporting the neck with a curved section at the bottom of the pillow.