We are shaped by the forces we experience: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.
Whether you view this statement from a neuroscience perspective or good old-fashioned logic, it can spur a significant amount of reflection should one allow themselves time to do so. Let’s begin our reflection with the physical forces.
What physical forces shape your body? Start with a reflection on how you spend your time. There are some primary categories I consider as an occupational therapist. Many of us divide most of our time between some combination of caring for ourselves and others, work, and sleep. These days, if we are generous with ourselves we also squeeze in leisure, play, and social participation. I’ll toss in one more category that is often left out, travel. We spend a lot of time in our cars driving to work, running errands, and getting family members where they need to be. With all those categories, where do we start? With furniture, obviously! We may all divide our activities differently between the categories of life, but a common denominator among us and our activities is furniture. We use it at work, in our homes, in the community. Furniture is a massive physical force in how our bodies are shaped. How?
Let’s start at home. Almost every American home has a couch. Some call it a sofa, a davenport (yes, I just heard someone use that the other day), a lounger or futon if you still have your college furniture. The softer and cozier the couch, the better, right? Reflect for a moment on how your body is shaped when you sit on your couch. Or, better yet, look at your friends or family members who are on the couch next to you. What shape is their body when they are sinking comfortably into the couch for a binge session of Netflix? My guess is the letter “C.” Their feet are up on the footrest. Their tailbones are tucked under pulling their lower spine flat. Their heads and shoulders are rounded forward occasionally looking down to check their phone. From an ergonomics perspective, this is categorized as an awkward posture. Awkward postures are a risk factor for potential injury. Having one risk factor doesn’t necessarily lead to an injury. The likelihood of injury increases when you layer one risk factor on top of another. With our love of couches in this country, the risk factor we layer on with our awkward couch postures is time. How many hours do you spend on your couch? If you have more than two or three favorite T.V. shows, the answer is probably too much.
Let’s reflect further on our furniture and our sitting habits. The next most common place we sit for many of us is work (paid employment). If you are lucky and have a job that allows you to move for a large portion of the day, sitting may not be an issue unless when you do sit, it is not in good alignment. You may have access to ergonomic chairs in your workspace, but do you know how to adjust them for you? In my experience, many people either do not know how or do not take the time to adjust their chairs to their individual needs. As a result, there is less than ideal positioning for many hours at work, day after day. Even in the best possible alignment, prolonged sitting is shaping your body in a manner that makes movement more challenging.
Next, let’s reflect on travel. How well does the seat of your car (your car furniture) support you in proper alignment? I’m not asking if you are comfortable. Are you in proper alignment? There is a big difference sometimes. Sitting in a car, especially if you are in the driver’s seat, there is a lot of asymmetrical action going on. There is rarely adjustable lumbar support unless you can afford a car that has that fancy option. Even then, most cars are made with the average man in mind, so car seats are not always adjustable enough to meet everyone’s needs. Next time you are driving, evaluate your sitting position. Are you able to achieve a nice curve in your lumbar spine and stack your head on your spine appropriately? Is your weight evenly distributed through your hips? Or, are you spending your travel time in an awkward posture with your tailbone tucked and your head and shoulders rounded forward?
Let’s briefly touch on leisure and community sitting options. Most restaurants, movie theaters, church pews, coffee shops, etc. do not supply furniture that supports and promotes proper alignment. It is up to us to notice this and do the best we can with what we have. I’m not suggesting you don’t enjoy these wonderful establishments, just be aware how they may be contributing to your posture habits.
Finally, let’s look at our sleep habits. Finding a pillow that fits is like finding a good pair of jeans. They are tough to find, but once you do, it’s magic. Mattresses are tough, too. If we are all essentially built the same, then why do we prefer different mattresses and pillows? I hypothesize it is how tight our muscles and fascia are that guides our mattress choices. Little children can fall asleep anywhere and wake up ready to move and play. When adults fall asleep on the floor, we wake up in pain and hardly able to walk. What are your sleep habits? Do you curl up into the same “C” shape you sit in at work and on the couch? Is that the most comfortable position? Hmm…
I recently worked with a man who came in with shoulder pain from an accident over a year old. He was frustrated that it was still not healed. His posture in both sitting and standing was a “C” shape. He had very rounded shoulders and a tucked tailbone. When I asked him about his sleep habits he said he was having problems, but he bought an adjustable bed, and it was much better. He explained how he adjusted the head of the bed up about 30 degrees and adjusted the knee area up so his knees were bent too. This creates a… say it together… a “C” shape. So, no wonder this position felt better to him than lying flat. Fortunately, he was in my office to improve his overall wellness in addition to addressing his shoulder pain, so he was very open to any suggestions I had for him. Once I explained to him that it may make him feel better in the short-term, it is likely contributing to his problems and may make matters worse in the long-term.
How does this “C” shape affect your body beyond the obvious? Constant sitting, especially sitting with the pelvis tilted back, or the tailbone tucked under leads to tight hips, thighs, knees, and ankles. Everything above your hips is affected as well. Constant sitting with the body out of ideal alignment leads to the shortening of muscles and reorganization of your fascial system. The facial system is designed to support and protect you. It functions best in the alignment our bodies we designed for which includes a neutral pelvis, a nice low back curve and the head stacked on top of the spine. When the fascial system detects constant deviation from the norm, it will reorganize to support this less than ideal position. To do this it must become more rigid. If your fascial system is stiff in places, you will feel it. Soon it will start to feel normal to you and will adopt this position in all your activities. Moving your body in poor alignment creates tremendous wear and tear on your body’s moving parts, especially when you ask it to do heavy or repetitive work.
Remember the client with the sleep number bed? His shoulders were so rounded forward that when I asked him to stand comfortably with his arms at his sides, the backs of hands were facing me. This position was his normal standing position. In proper relaxed alignment, the thumbs should face forward, not the backs of the hands. He was injured doing bench presses. Imagine asking a shoulder in this misalignment to do heavy work? Remember, multiple risk factors increase the likelihood of injury. In this case, we have three risk factors: awkward posture, heavy weights, and repetition.
Am I advocating for you to get rid of your couch? I’m not getting rid of mine, and I’d never ask you to do anything I’m not willing to do myself. So, what is the answer? Analyze your risk factors and make choices to minimize them. If you don’t want to give up your T.V. time, then vary your postures. Give yourself and your family members options. Minimize your time in any one position. Provide large pillows to sit or lay on the floor. Getting up and down from the floor and sitting cross-legged are great ways to move and stretch the hips. Try sitting on the floor and leaning against the couch. You can find meditation pillows that provide a comfortable option for sitting on the floor with or without leaning on the wall or couch. You can continue to sit on your couch but find as many different sitting positions as possible. Use different shapes and densities of couch pillows to support you. Regardless of the position you choose, always try to honor the curve in the low back.
If you are bending your body into a “C” shape when you are on the couch and flattening the low back curve, then find ways to counter or do the opposite of the “C” position. If it is uncomfortable to sit or stand with a low back curve, then you likely have some work to do. If you feel pinching sensations the low back and hips, the muscles are probably overstretched in your back and tight in your front, and your fascia has reshaped itself to support a flatter back. What can you do? It’s never too late to start moving differently and changing the physical forces your body experiences throughout the day and night.
Moving differently in your daily life is the best option, but it is not always realistic to change your entire home and work environment. Start slowly. Even small changes like putting your coffee cups on a higher shelf can integrate shoulder movement you would not normally get in an average day. Mobilizing your shoulders can help with neck and upper back pain. Another idea is to put your towels on a lower shelf in your bathroom or linen closet. This change encourages you to squat to reach your towels. Squatting strengthens your legs and stretches your hips. It is better to move more all day long then to cram all your movement into a thirty-minute exercise session.
Choose an exercise program that focuses on proper postures such as yoga or tai chi. Avoid exercise such as cycling as this creates a “C” shape in the body. If you love cycling, work hard to counter that posture with back, and hip extension stretches. An important note here is that you can’t spend your home, work, travel and leisure time in awkward postures and expect that a few hours of exercise a week will keep you in great shape. It is much more likely that your muscles and fascia have adapted to the awkward posture and you are creating extra wear and tear on your body when you are exercising. Move more, all day long in good alignment and you’ll get more from your workout.
Finally, getting bodywork, especially myofascial release, can help you open your fascial system after years of poor posture and help you move into better habits with ease. Having an expert observe your posture while still and during functional tasks can help you better understand your habits. The connection between your body and your brain is powerful and we can’t always identify our own postural issues. What feels comfortable or normal to you may not actually be the best alignment. An expert can help you analyze your physical forces and support you as you move into the best possible movement and postural habits.
Our furniture is one very powerful physical force that shapes our lives. The key is awareness and continually making small choices that shape the body and the life we desire.
Amy Mayer OTD, OTR/L, RYT 200