As we move through the holiday season, we may be super excited about all the wonderful foods that are part of all the different traditions and celebrations occurring this time of year. We may also be cringing just a bit about all the extra calories we’ll be consuming and the additional pounds we may add before year end. Some of us may already be thinking about our new year’s resolution to exercise more. Ugh.
Many American adults make one or more resolutions. Two of the most common are weight loss and exercise. Other resolutions include managing time better, saving more, to stop smoking, spending wisely, more time with family, learning something new, etc. The downside of resolutions is that many fail within just a few weeks of making them. Why? Behavior change is hard. Really hard. We are creatures of habit and familiarity is comfortable, even if it isn’t good for us.
Let’s be more specific and discuss exercise. Why do we fail after starting a new exercise program? There are as many reasons as there are people. Some of the most common are, we try to do too much too quickly, we don’t see results fast enough, or it hurts.
It makes good sense to ease into an exercise program. It is very hard on a body to go from minimal movement to intense bouts of exercise sprinkled in with minimal movement. For example, a person who has a job sitting at a computer most of the day and then sits on a couch for much of the evening leads a very sedentary lifestyle. Even though they may be good at getting up several times a day to take a walk to the break room for coffee and spend part of the evening preparing supper and completing household chores this is still minimal movement. This movement is also very limited in intensity and type of movement. The muscles, circulatory system, joints, etc. are not being challenged. When this person decides to start going to the gym and using the elliptical machine for 45 minutes, three times a week, this is an improvement, but this person still leads a mostly sedentary lifestyle.
Going from the sitting 6 to 8 hours at the office, then jumping on the elliptical is a bit of a shock to the system. A body that is stiff from little movement can be easily injured. Sprinkling in these intense bouts of exercise into a mostly sedentary lifestyle can make success challenging. Less intense activity for shorter periods more frequently is a better way to start an exercise program. Our office worker would likely experience more success by spreading the exercise throughout the day. For instance, they may start the day by getting up early and doing 15 minutes of yoga. Then they might reserve 10 minutes of a lunch break for taking a brisk walk. Finally, they might find 20 minutes in the evening for weight training. This variety of movement and intensity will begin to create a body that is both strong and flexible throughout a wide range of motion of the joints. Only then is a body ready for intense bouts of exercise.
For many people, there is another critical step necessary before engaging in any exercise program, even a gentle program full of variety. This step is essential to the success of any exercise program to prevent pain and injury. A body that is out of alignment will break down eventually. I usually cringe when people compare the human body to a machine, but I’m about to do it. Much like our cars require proper alignment to function, our bodies do too. If a vehicle is out of alignment the tires wear faster and unevenly, belts break, we hear rattling, and it may even become more difficult to steer. When we are out of alignment, our joints wear faster and unevenly, our fascia becomes thick and we hear popping and clicking, some muscles are short and tight, and others are long and weak, our balance can be poor, and movement can feel uncomfortable.
So, what do we do? It is not as simple as just standing up straight. Each of our major joints must be examined to determine if they are in or out of alignment. The first step is knowing what proper alignment is and what it is not. The next step is knowing what to do to bring joints that are out of alignment, into alignment. Unfortunately, this process is not as simple as it is for your car. You can’t pull into the body shop, let the technician make the appropriate adjustments, pay your bill and leave in perfect alignment. It is a little more complicated but still very achievable. We have two hurdles to jump. One, of course, is our body. The second is our brain. Changing both takes time and effort. Our brain is so used to feeling our bodies being in a specific position that even the most out of alignment body can feel very normal. Even when we know what better alignment is, our brain easily settles into what feels the most familiar. This is true even when misalignment may be contributing to the pain we feel. Our brain and our body need repetition and deliberate practice to change.
Before I provide you with the best exercise for reshaping your alignment, I will first cover what proper alignment looks like. You may want to stand in front of a long mirror and play along.
- The feet should be positioned directly under the hip bones.
- The weight should be felt primarily in the heels of each foot and balanced evenly between the feet.
- The middle long bones of feet should point straight forward.
- The knees should point straight ahead and hinge in line with feet when bent.
- The hips should be level.
- The clavicles (collar bones) should be almost parallel to ground.
- The sternum (breastbone) should be perpendicular to the ground.
- Both arms should hang in line with the body with thumbs forward. The middle finger should be able to feel the seam of the pants.
- The eyes should be level.
- The chin should be down. From the side view, an imaginary line from the eye to the base of the skull should be parallel with the ground.
- From the side view, the ankle joint, knee joint, hip joint, shoulder joint and the ear should fall in a plumb line.
- From the side view, the tailbone should tilt away from the body. There should be a low back curve that allows the top of the tailbone to tilt towards the body and the bottom of the tailbone to slope away from the body.
These are some of the major body points you can actively work on to improve your body alignment. Just to be clear, you don’t want to find perfect alignment and stay in it always. Your body should be comfortable in and naturally fall into ideal alignment as much as any other posture.
Since you are probably in front of a mirror right now, see if you can identify any of these common issues I see in many of my clients.
- Feet are positioned wider than the hip bones
- One or both feet turned out.
- One or both knees are turned inwards.
- The tailbone is positioned vertically with a flat low back curve.
- One or both clavicles are angled.
- One or both arms hang in front of the legs.
- The back of the hands face forward.
- The head is forward from the shoulders.
- The head is tilted back with the chin up.
So, what is the exercise that can improve your alignment, as well as a host of other great benefits? With a few modifications, the squat. Here’s how:
- Start by finding your best possible standing alignment from head to toes.
- Stand with your feet directly below your hips and pointing straight forward. Keep the weight in your heels and balanced evenly between both feet.
- Engage your thigh muscles as necessary, so your knees also point straightforward as they bend.
- Find your low back curve.
- Start the squat by moving your tailbone backward. The motion should feel like you are aiming to sit down in a chair that is just a little too far away (without actually sitting).
- Your knees should never move forward past your toes. Keep your shins as vertical as possible.
- Keep your head and chest upright.
- You can use your arms as needed to maintain your balance at first.
- Go slow and only go as low as you can comfortably manage your balance and knee alignment on the way down and the way up.
- Stand all the way up each time aiming for the best possible alignment in your entire body.
- Make every movement mindfully. Never compromise alignment for speed.
Here are a few more ideas if you are having trouble.
- Place your hands on a table, counter or back of a chair for balance.
- Place your hands on your thighs and slide them down your legs as you squat slowly and purposefully. Feel your knees pointing straight forward. Stand in front of a mirror if needed.
- Start by dipping down just a few inches trying to go a little bit lower each time.
- Sit down onto a chair and stand back up in proper alignment and without using your hands.
Here is a short video to help you see what a well-alligned squat looks like.
Most people want to know exactly how many they should do each day. My answer is as many as you can. If they still have a questioning look on their face, I say to shoot for 100. The look on their face usually changes to shock or surprise. If you are only squatting down a few inches and coming back up, you can easily do 30 in a couple of minutes. The better you get a keeping your knees in the right place, the faster you can go. The focus should ALWAYS be on alignment and not on depth or speed. Once you have the alignment perfect, go deeper. Once you can go down as far as possible without having to shift the knees forward increase your speed. Then, increase your repetitions.
I always make one more VERY IMPORTANT recommendation. The 100+ squats should be spread out over the entire day. A few here and a few there. The brain and the body learn better with spaced practice. I have clients who do squats while on phone calls, while their coffee is brewing in the morning, while they brush their teeth, before and during walks, and many other creative bits of the day. The key is to sneak them in where you can and while doing something else. Then you don’t have to carve out particular time to work on your alignment.
We can make this exercise even better by working on the shoulder and head alignment at the same time. I recommend you don’t add these until you have the legs perfect. When you’re ready, add the shoulder stretch. When you come to the standing part of the squat turn your palms up and move your hands behind you, leading with the thumbs. Gently pull the shoulder blades together keeping the shoulders down away from your ears. Bring your thumbs and fingers as close together as possible behind you. Be sure not to thrust the bottom of your ribs forward. The breastbone should remain perpendicular to the ground. Don’t compromise this alignment trying to reach your hands together. When you move back into the squat, let the arms move into a relaxed position or a position to help you balance always trying to keep the palms facing forward or up. Once you have this perfected, add the head. As you come up to standing, gently tuck the chin and lift the ears straight up while noticing the weight in your heels.
Many people who have a flat back or tucked tailbone experience a pinching sensation when doing the squat exercise. This is part of retraining the low back curve. Never push into this sensation. Instead, think about extending the body up and elongating the space between the tailbone and head as you come up. As you do this explore how far you can go before you feel the pinch. Continually move into the curve as much as you can without the pinch. Apply this same thinking to any discomfort you feel in your hips or knees.
This exercise will do much more for you then just realign your muscles, fascia, joints and all your other tissues. It retrains your brain as mentioned earlier. The more your brain feels this proper alignment, the more your body will naturally fall into this alignment.
Other great benefits of the squat exercise include:
- The repeated contraction and relaxation of the muscles act like a sponge, pulling more blood into the capillaries. The more blood you have flowing through your muscles, the healthier they will be.
- You’ll build muscle. Improving your strength will prepare you for other modes of exercise as well as burn more calories.
- You will balance the tension of the pelvic floor muscles which are important in urinary health nad function.
- Your heart and circulatory system will be challenged in a different way than walking. The contraction and relaxation of the muscles move the lymph. Your lymphatic system rids your body of wastes and relies on pressure changes in the body to push the fluids through. There are many lymph nodes in the groin and abdominal area, so squats are ideal for promoting lymph flow.
- It is excellent for improving balance. Try the exercise without shoes as much as you can to create more flexibility in the feet. Our feet are designed to be flexible and help us know where our body is at all times. This is critical for good balance.
To wrap up…
Do as many squats as you can throughout December, and you’ll be much more prepared to begin any exercise program you want in January!
If you feel like your body has extra challenges and you need help finding your best alignment, contact me. As an occupational therapist I am familiar with all types of abilities and disabilities. I can help design a movement program that meets your abilities and provides the just right challenge for you.
Mayer Wellness & Myofascial Release, LLC