Exactly How Your Posture Worsens With Age
Updated: May 4, 2020
We all know that posture worsens with age, but exactly how?
Understanding the, 'Why', is the first step to knowing what to do about it, and it is my experience that the vast majority of people simply don't know why it happens with sufficient detail to be able to do anything about it.
Typical answers include, 'it's sitting too much', 'it's genetic, my dad had the same thing', 'it is just the process of wear and tear as you age', 'it is because of an accident I had when I was younger' or 'I just don't stand properly'. There is truth to all these statements, but they have 2 problems; 1) a more detailed answer is needed, and; 2) there is an inevitability about all of them, like there is nothing you can do about it, because everyone sits, you can't change your genes, everyone gets old, and you can't wind back time and not have an accident.
If you Google the question, you will typically get answers like this;
"Age can wear down the discs in your spine, which causes them to compress. "This is one reason why people lose height as they get older," says Dr. David Binder of the Orthopaedic Spine Center at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital."
Havard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School
My issue with explanations like this, and the general current public understanding of posture is that is suffers from the same defeatist attitude that this stuff is inevitable, and again doesn't explain with enough depth. Why, might you ask, has person A got fairly healthy discs at 65 and half-decent posture, but person B doesn't? The typical response will be, "it's in the genes", "their lucky/unlucky", "one had a stressful job at a desk", "one had a accident, maybe", etc, etc. There is no real explanation here.
For sure, because of genetics, bad luck, or the job you do, some people are going to be worse-off than others and the challenge of improving or managing your situation as you age is going to be greater, but there is no reason why you can't begin to reverse postural problems or at least slow the deterioration. First though, you need to understand the mechanism behind what is going on and the reason those discs start to wear down.
*Also, note that people's posture doesn't just worsen at the spine, but other joints are pulled out of alignment also. The reasons for this are also poorly understood, but we'll leave this part for another time.
A Lack of Movement
With very few exceptions, none of us move as much as we have evolved to. As I have mentioned before in other blog posts, humans have evolved a very particular way of moving (i.e. walking and running on two feet) and through foraging and hunting, it is likely our ancestors would have been very active.
The act of walking, and especially running and sprinting, naturally and optimally stretches our muscles, fascia, tendons, and ligaments. It also dials-in working relationships between different areas of the body because fundamental human movements are not isolated, they are whole body, interconnected movements. Executed properly, there is nothing better for your body than walking and running, indeed they are both essential for good posture and a fully-functioning body. Executed badly, however, running is a sure-fire way of showing-up all your dysfunctions and getting you injured.
A Widespread Issue
Without running and walking often and properly, you will not get the active stretching under tension required to keep your hip flexors at their optimal functioning length. So even before all the sitting at your desk, your hip flexors are already going to be too tight. Tight hip flexors then pull on the top of your pelvis causing an anterior pelvic tilt.
Once you have an anterior pelvic tilt - usually accompanied by a anterior pelvic shift - your upper body has to round and your head come forward to compensate and adjust your centre of gravity. All of this is set even before you spend hours hunched over at a desk or your smartphone. These activities simply exacerbate the problem, and people with the worst examples of this kind of posture almost always have worked long hours, sitting down in a stressful job.
From left to right: Diagram of first good posture then the typical example of modern day bad posture, followed by a real-life example of a shift and then tilt of the pelvis.
In my experience with clients, 99% of people have an anterior tilt and/or shift in their lower back (causing a curve in the lower back called a lordosis) accompanied with a rounding of the shoulders and upper back (a kyphosis) and a forward head position. It is only the degree to which the issue is set-in that differs. On top of this, though, sit a range of other postural issues very specific to that person based on their genetics and lifestyle.
Remember those discs in your spine that wear down with age? Well, it isn't inevitable - not at the rate most people experience it anyway. These discs wear because they are continuously compressed by gravity, and you can certainly make the situation worse. Rounded shoulders cause a depressed rib cage and the typical slouching position and forward head posture, creating increased curvature of your spine at the neck, your upper, and lower back, which puts more pressure on those discs, leading to increased degeneration.
Let us further investigate why this common postural issue worsens with age and the biological mechanism behind it.
The first thing to note is that if you are over 35, you have been phenomenally successful at surviving, from a historical perspective. Most of our ancestors would have died before they reached this mark. We have not evolved to maintain good posture as we age, we have evolved to survive until we can reproduce. If our ancestors had a small injury, for example, it would make sense for their bodies to adapt and compensate for it and still be able to move in the short term - so they can still hunt or forage for food or escape danger - rather than wait until they can move perfectly so they don't have bad posture when they are 40.
I am not saying our ancestors would have been exemplars of perfect posture and movement. Far from it, the fossil record shows signs of many imperfections. Our ancestors wouldn't have issues with sitting at a desk all day or too much smartphone time, but minor injuries and accidents would definitely have been more prevalent, so they would have had to compensate for these also.
So exactly how does your body compensate for minor injuries and physical stresses?
When you put strain on a certain area of your body - like being at a desk all day, regular heavy lifting, repetitive straining positions, or doing the same sport for many years - the natural reaction is for your body to lay-down more fascia (think of fascia as a 3-dimensional web-like network that connects almost all structures in your body) to sure-up the area, which usually involves lessening the range of motion, hence why you feel stiff. This makes sense if you want to prevent a more serious injury in the short term because less range of motion = less risk of a major tear in a muscle, a dislocation, sprain, or bone break. Without this adaptation, our ancestors would have suffered more serious injuries, more often, leading to reduced ability to hunt and forage, and a greater chance of ending-up in a predator's stomach.
Fascia sits in the space between muscles, bones, ligaments, tendons, organs, and basically everything in your body, suspending all of the structures in body in a 3D mesh. Healthy fascia is like well-hydrated, stringy mucous which holds tension very well, yet also has elastic properties, connecting muscle groups and synchronizing movements. However, when you continually lay-down fascia at areas of tension, it packs too tightly and forms clumps (myofascial adhesions, and you may notice big ones as "knots"). When it is too tightly packed it cannot get it's needed supply of interstitial fluid (fluid that sits between tissues in the body) and it becomes dehydrated. Dehydrated fascia loses its ability to allow smooth movement, by being less lubricated and it also loses its optimal elasticity.
If you have bad posture, it is a sign that you have a lot of dehydrated, thickly-packed fascia and to begin fixing this problem, you need to break it up. If you don't, this fascia will begin to mould your body shape at a deeper level as it pushes joints out of alignment and this is most easily observed at the spine with problems such as lordosis and kyphosis, as mentioned earlier.
Positive Feedback Loops
Unfortunately, once you have one area of dysfunction in your body, it migrates to other areas because of the integrated and interconnected nature of the fascia in your body. So once you begin to develop bad posture it causes something called a positive feedback loop; bad function in one area causes bad function somewhere else, which then leads to even worse problems in the original area of dysfunction.
Once you develop bad posture, that bad posture develops more bad posture; once you begin to move badly it encourages you to move progressively worse, and on and on the problem magnifies over time.
It is curious that the typical example of bad posture also matches the human stress and defense position (indeed most other mammals have the same reflex). When threatened, most land mammal species will hunch their shoulders and tuck-in their chin, protecting their vital organs. In humans, it is a sign of anxiety. The reverse of this, and a signal of victory in combat, confidence, and vitality is to puff the chest out and throw your shoulders back, essentially the polar opposite of the defensive posture. Doing this basically signals, "I am strong, capable, confident, and a force to be reckoned with, so come and have a go if you think you're hard enough".
So stress puts you in this rounded, defensive position, which makes you less confident and stressed, precisely because you are in that position. The stress encourages bad posture, the bad posture encourages stress, and the stress encourages more bad posture, and round and round we go. It is not only purely physical, but mental also.
The good news is that once you have the know how to go about reversing bad posture, the positive feedback loop works in the other direction; once you begin to correct posture, you move better, and when you move better this helps to correct your posture. This is not an easy thing to learn, however, hence why we have such a problem with posture in society, perhaps likely to get worse as the smartphone generation gets older.
Funnily enough, you see this pattern everywhere in life, e.g. once you have a little money, you can make more money, and once you have a lot of money you can make even more. Conversely, when one thing starts to go bad in your life, like your health deteriorates, this often negatively affects your finances, your relationships, and your happiness, which then go on to worsen your health even more.
Learn to do Myofascial Release (Self-Massage) Yourself to Begin the Process of Postural Reform
Massage is the first step to correcting posture because it breaks-up the myofascial adhesions that are pulling you into poor postural positions and restricting your movement. Both getting a massage from a massage therapist and performing self-massage (rolling or myofascial release) can be effective, however, learning to do massage yourself has the advantage of being much more affordable (once you learn it, it costs nothing), while simultaneously helping you understand your body better.
The restrictions caused by myofascial adhesions are a key factor holding you back from performing many forms of exercise correctly, and seeing as you've been using your body sub-optimally for a number of years, you need to practice realigning everything using corrective exercises. Ideally this should be done after a lot of these adhesions have been cleared, but there are some simple exercises you can practice that will begin the process of learning how to align yourself properly into good postural positions and to reverse, or at least delay the inevitable.
To learn more, contact Chris:
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