Maintaining the body's natural alignment to reduce stressful forces and eliminate awkward positioning is of crucial importance when performing prolonged or repetitive work activity. Improving posture is the cornerstone of all ergonomic interventions. Equipment design, seating systems, work methods, even recommended stretching and strengthening exercises are all based upon postural improvement.
Posture is defined as the position or bearing of the body whether characteristic or assumed for a special purpose (Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary). For work purposes, we can look at sitting posture, standing posture and movement patterns performed during work activity (body mechanics).
The Basics -
Spinal alignment and positioning is the key to good posture. The spine is made up of bony blocks called the vertebrae. The top seven vertebrae comprise the cervical spine which supports the weight of the head. The next twelve vertebrae, the thoracic spine, have little movement but provide the housing structure for the internal organs (heart and lungs) and provide the attachments for the ribs. The next five vertebrae, the lumbar spine, make up the lower back. The lower back is the most commonly injured area as it not only supports the weight of the torso, but also allows the most movement and rotation of the body. The sacral segment of the spine is the five fused vertebrae that attach the spine to the lower body.
Functionally, when the spine is properly aligned, the body works most efficiently and provides a stable base for movement. The nerves (the body's power cords that provide for muscle power, sensation, and control circulation) and the internal organs are able to perform their functions most efficiently.
Posture Check -
Have a friend or co-worker stand about 5 feet away from you facing your side. If they draw an imaginary line starting at your ears and ending at your knees, the line should bisect your ears, shoulders, elbows, hips and knees. Your shoulders should be soft and relaxed.
From an early age, many factors work on our bodies to pull us out of proper alignment: positional and occupational stressers, gravity, injury, muscle tension and spasms, poorly designed seating systems, etc.
Try This -
Slump and round your shoulders forward, let the weight of your head fall forward, tilt your head back so that your eyes are level with the horizon, then try to lift your arms. Do you feel the pinch in your neck and shoulders? Are you uncomfortable? How high are you able to lift your arms? Now imagine holding this position for 8 hours or performing activity in this position.
Although this positioning may be exaggerated, many people working at a computer or desk have the tendency to fall into this pattern.
An Exercise to Improve Posture -
Many gyms now offer foam rollers for use during exercise routines. Foam rollers can be a great addition to a postural alignment program. Try this exercise. Lie on your back with the foam roller aligned along your spine, your head supported, and your knees bent for stability (the roller should be long enough to fully support your back and your head, usually about 36 inches). Let gravity gently pull your shoulder blades around the roller. Keep your shoulders relaxed. Position your arms gently out to the side with your palms up. Take some deep breaths: As you breathe in, expand your diaphragm; and as you breathe out, flatten your stomach toward the foam roller. You should be pain-free while performing this exercise. Perform once or twice daily, stretching for about 5 minutes each time.
Marji Hajic is an Occupational Therapist and a Certified Hand Therapist practicing in Santa Barbara, California. For more information on hand and upper extremity injuries, prevention and recovery, visit Hand Health Resources.