Perfect perky posture is out. The sag is in.
Shoulders are rounded, hips and head are thrust forward, the spine is curved. It’s become fashionable to – insert shrug here – stand like you just don’t care.
"It’s that vacuous look, that ‘I don’t have to pay attention or look interested in life’ look,’’ says Patti Wood, a body language expert who performs posture analysis for magazines such as Us Weekly and Cosmopolitan. "It’s not cool to care.’’
It may be all about the slump, but beware the hump. Today’s S-shaped trendsetters could be tomorrow’s fashion victims. Poor posture puts a strain on the spine and its supporting muscles and ligaments. Muscles adapt to a sloucher’s round-shouldered position, resulting in chest muscles that are short and tight, and back muscles that are stretched and weak.
The sustained stress of slouching can make you more vulnerable to serious injuries. Poor posture has been linked to knee and hip pain, pinched nerves, herniated disks, rotator cuff tears and even digestive problems, fatigue and reoccurring headaches. Research shows that slouching uses five times more energy than standing up straight, causing muscle tension and cutting blood flow to the brain.
Suddenly, slouching doesn’t seem so sexy.
"If they’re doing it for fashion, they’re going to have some aches and pains later,’’ says Dr. Andrew Sherman, an assistant professor of rehabilitation medicine at the University of Miami’s School of Medicine who works with patients with spine and back injuries. "Literally half the patients that come in with upper neck, back and shoulder problems have this poor posture.’’
For many adults, it’s the career, not the cool factor, contributing to the slouch. We slave over a computer with a telephone tucked unergonomically between chin and ear or hunch caveman-style over our BlackBerries and iPods, thumbs flying. Combined, the paraphernalia of modern living that we lug around – mobile phones, laptops, briefcases – can weigh five pounds.
Back pain is the nation’s No. 1 cause of disability. It will affect four out of five adults at some point in their life. Are you sitting straighter yet?
"Everybody now has laptops and everybody has to look down to see them; nobody sits straight in chairs anymore,’’ says Nancy Gilman, a physical therapist and southeast region director for the Florida Physical Therapy Association. "I see patients in their 20s with back problems, even teenagers. It mainly has to do with poor posture, poor body mechanics, poor lifting. People are in a seated position for too long.’’
As children, we instinctively have good posture. It’s natural. As we grow older and start to sit more often, however, we pick up bad habits and mimic older, less erect adults. We knock ourselves out of alignment like aging cars that won’t drive straight anymore.
A pain-free back isn’t the only potential benefit of good posture. Standing and sitting upright can also give you better sleep, stress relief, a flat stomach, better sex and a sharp jaw line. Some physical therapists and chiropractors say it also will help you breathe better.
If that isn’t enough to send you scurrying to the nearest Pilates class, then how ‘bout this: You’ll look smaller. Poor posture makes your tummy stick out; align your body right and you could take five to 10 pounds off your appearance.
But you have to work at it.
"It’s easier to slouch, it’s harder to maintain good posture,’’ Sherman says. "You can try to hold your shoulders back, but it’s hard to think about posture 24 hours a day. It’s better to carve out a half-hour of exercise three times a week that targets the back.’’
Forget about balancing books on your head. Sherman’s patients use weights, cables or bands to provide resistance and balance. They focus on their upper back muscles with exercises that simulate flying and rowing.
"Most people go to the gym and spend 15 minutes doing bench presses or curls or riding a bike,’’ Sherman says. "In fact, all they’re doing is making the problem worse. They’re not doing anything for their upper back. Most of the time I spend with patients is reeducating them. You have to do a balanced exercise program and not neglect the upper back.’’
At the very least, Gilman, the physical therapist, urges patients to practice chin tucks and shoulder rolls at their desks.
"When you take a break, do the opposite of what you do all day,’’ Gilman says. "If you sit hunched forward, stand and stretch back.’’
A few shoulder shrugs throughout the day and you just may make it to work more often. Back pain is second only to the common cold as the cause of worker absenteeism, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Marc Resnick, director of Florida International University’s Human Factors and Ergonomics Laboratory, spends his time teaching and studying how to prevent workplace injuries like back pain. He says poor posture – along with repetition (how long you sit or stand and do the same thing) and force (how hard you punch those keys) – is the leading cause of problems. The lab works with companies to come up with solutions like the mops and scrub brushes with extended handles it created for housekeepers at Disney hotels so the workers don’t have to bend over as much.
Ergonomics has been a scientific discipline since 1949, but it’s only within the past couple of decades that it has shifted into offices. Today, Resnick and his crew redesign work stations by raising or lowering the top of computer screens to an inch above eye level and making sure workers’ feet are flat on the floor. They train people to take breaks often and stretch, breaking up the repetition of their movements.
"One of the things making our lives more dangerous from an ergonomics point of view is simply that people think, ‘Well, I’m only e-mailing one to two hours a day at a time, so it can’t be bad,’" Resnick says. "But when you put it all together, your fingers are doing the same thing.’’
Companies can spend thousands of dollars on an ergonomically correct chair, footrest and mouse for just one worker. But there are cheaper alternatives: Large towels can be rolled up to use as lower-back supports, a three-ring binder can slide underneath a monitor to raise or tilt it and phone books can be used as footrests.
Recently, Resnick proposed studying back pain in fashion models, but the modeling company he approached rejected the idea.
Fashion trend spotters trace today’s leaning look to the current casual, looser fashions. A flowing blouse or skirt looks better when it clings to you in all the right places; a sultry slouch is what makes that silhouette look cool. Unlike the sporty, upright power-suit profiles of Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford in the ‘80s and ‘90s, today’s fashionistas are all about luxury and lounging.
The slouch seems to say, "I’m so rich and beautiful I don’t have to shout about it.’’
"It’s the anti-Pamela Anderson,’’ says David Wolfe, creative director of the Doneger Group, a New York consulting firm that analyzes and forecasts trends for retailers and designers. "This represents the backlash of the inflatables. People who get into fashion go the whole way with body language.’’
Wolfe predicts that fashions – and postures – will swing away from sloppy.
"It may take a couple of years,’’ Wolfe says. "Clothes coming in will be simpler, more luxurious. Maybe they’ll bring with them a new body language. By then, of course people might be so slumped over they’ll be falling out of their chairs.’’
(c) 2005, The Miami Herald.
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.