Cool! The other day I happened to notice a group of teenagers hanging out at the mall. Boy, did they look cool. With slouched shoulders, jutting hips and necks hanging forward, they were the quintessence of today's cool. Not a single one stood erect.
But then, why should they? Not when the posture of their parents is so generally atrocious. Everywhere I go, I see adults slumping like rag dolls, and I have to stop myself from yelling out like an Air Force officer, "Ten-shun!"
Think about it. The first thing people often notice about others is not their eyes, not their hair, not even their clothes. It's their posture. And it screams messages about who they are. Someone who stands erect gives off an aura of pride and self-confidence, while someone who slumps and stoops looks like he's ashamed to be taking up space.
One of the most enduring childhood memories of my father is his posture. An Air Force pilot, he epitomized strength and confidence. His posture commanded respect and rubbed off on me. My posture today is in large part the result of his influence.
But good posture is more than just good looks. The best reason to improve your posture is your health. As far as I'm concerned, posture has to be considered the most overlooked aspect of a healthy lifestyle. Because what begins as merely an unsightly stance or carriage can lead to authentic health problems if not corrected.
To check your posture, stand sideways in front of a full-length mirror. Imagine a plumb line down your side. If your posture is correct, your ear, shoulder, hip, knee and ankle should all be on that straight line.
Now, stand with your back to a wall. Both your shoulder blades and the back of your head should kiss the wall.
If you're like most people, you won't have passed this test. And if you failed, when you sit at your computer, or watch TV, or drive, you'll probably have hunched shoulders, a rounded back and a forward-leaning head. No wonder you may often complain of headaches, backaches and neck aches. Why? You haven't been properly supporting your head or spine. Instead of your musculature holding your body erect, you're relying on ligaments and bones, which aren't designed for that purpose.
Interestingly, even those who work out religiously aren't immune to poor posture. Whether you lift weights, ride a bike, run, or cross-country ski, the motions involved probably don't require good posture. But yoga does, because it frequently requires you to expand your chest and pull your shoulder blades back.
Still, yoga is not the only cure for poor posture. My prescription is to strengthen your rhomboids, which are the muscles between your shoulders. Even people who lift weights rarely remember to work their rhomboids.
To locate your rhomboids, pinch your shoulder blades together. The contraction you feel is your rhomboids. Then, to strengthen them through isometrics, pinch them several times a day and hold for a count of five each time.
Another good rhomboid exercise comes from my friend Richard Bernstein, a chiropractor who specializes in posture. It can be done by sitting in a chair and leaning forward so that your chest rests on your thighs. Let your arms hang down to the floor. Squeeze your shoulder blades together while slowly lifting your arms out to the sides until they are slightly higher than shoulder level. Pause, inhale and lower them back down.
I also recommend working your spinal erectors, the muscles alongside the spine. You can do this by lying face down on a carpet or mat and lifting one leg and the opposite arm, holding for a count of 10; then lift the other arm and leg.
Of course, even those with generally excellent posture benefit from some external tools. When I'm on a plane, I immediately grab one of those little pillows to stuff behind my lower back. I do that because, no matter how erect I hold myself, I can't fight the convex curve of the airline seat, which creates a hollow area that leaves my lumbar area unsupported. The pillow makes a nice filler.
While driving, I keep my seat back straight up. Tilting the seat too far back causes me to lean awkwardly forward--which leaves the lower back in limbo and the neck contorted.
At my computer, I take care to sit with my feet comfortably on the floor, while my desk is at a height that allows me to keep my shoulders relaxed. And my monitor stares back at me from about nose height. If necessary, I use a lumbar support.
The truth is that very few people naturally sit or stand straight. The other 98% of us have to work at it. But we should because the payoff in terms of well-being and self-confidence is so high.
Besides, we owe it to our children, for whom we are supposed to be role models. If we slouch, so will they. But if we stand erect, we can show them what it really means to be cool. Right, Dad?
Copyright 1998 by Kathy Smith
* Kathy Smith's fitness column appears weekly in Health. Reader questions are welcome and can be sent to Kathy Smith, Health, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. If your question is selected, you will receive a free copy of her book "Getting Better All the Time." Please include your name, address and a daytime phone number with your question.