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Generation slouch

Hunched over as you read this? We guessed as much. So why not sit up and take some action?

W

hen one of London’s leading chiropractors, Dr Michael Durtnall, says the back of your neck feels like ‘a block of cement’ as he tries to move it into the correct postural position, you know you need to make some changes.

 

The reason that he’s critiquing my ‘deportment’? I feel like my upper body is falling apart. I’ve had recurring shoulder pain and currently have a neck so stiff, I look like a Thunderbirds puppet when I move my head. And my problems can largely be attributed to poor posture.

 

I pooh-poohed my physiotherapist when he told me this six months ago – I don’t look round-shouldered. But now? After speaking with Dr Durtnall – a neuro-musculoskeletal and postural rehabilitation specialist – I think my physio has every right to do an ‘I told you so’ dance. Fifteen years of hunching over a computer at work mean my shoulders now roll forwards when I’m sitting. Not good. Then there are the hoursI spend, head down, every day, looking at my phone. A shirtless Tom Hardy could sit next to me on the bus and I wouldn’t notice. My neck is paying the price because my head is so rarely lifted these days.

 

Sadly, I’m one of many millions who have bad posture due to a desk’n’tech lifestyle. According to a report by the Health and Safety Executive (hse.gov.uk), more than 3 million working days were lost to work-related upper limb disorders (WRULD for short – aka shoulder, neck, hand and wrist issues) in Great Britain in 2015-2016 alone. And repetitive keyboard work is the second biggest cause, after manual labour.

 

But good sitting and standing posture isn’t just important to help prevent neck and back pain. It can also help you breathe better, digest food properly and maintain flexibility. Time we, ahem, shouldered some responsibility, no?

A quest for answers

Back to Dr Durtnall (chairman of back-pain specialist Sayer Clinics) – who is tutting about how our jobs cause us so much gyp. ‘Desk jobs are the worst,’ he tells me. ‘People sit on the wrong type of chair, feet flat in front of them, chest down and hunched, and chin forward so it’s angulating the lower part of the neck and compressing the discs, which can lead to severe, long-term problems.’ (Oops, guilty.)

 

Personal trainer Sebastian Roberts (from Body Logic Health in London), who specialises in injury rehabilitation, agrees. ‘A bad desk set-up affects your posture because your muscles get shortened, adapting to the way you sit most often,’ he says.

 

In my case, Seb reckons that my pec muscles have been affected by years of my shoulders being tilted forward at work. So I’d need to do exercises to stretch them to enable my shoulders to move more easily – and stay in the correct position.

 

Children run around and use their muscles in all sorts of ways. Rarely do they have issues with chronic back pain

He also notes that, in my day-to-day life, I only use the bigger muscles in my body (the global mobilisers), while those smaller, deeper muscles (the global stabilisers), which are used for postural alignment and control, are, well, asleep. Why? ‘Think about children: they run around, climb trees and use their muscles in all sorts of ways. Rarely do they have chronic issues, such as back pain, which adults can develop,’ Seb explains: ‘Many adults sit for eight or more hours a day, so the stabilisers can become lazy through lack of use.’

 

Ironically, even though I hit the gym three or four times a week, my classes (usually strength workouts) just focus on those bigger muscles, too. And they end up aching because they’re doing all the work. Argh – it’s a vicious circle!

 

The final person I see is Suzanne Wylde, founder of Moving Stretch (a form of resistance stretching that helps improve posture) and author of Moving Stretch: Work Your Fascia To Free Your Body (Lotus Publishing)*. She, too, says my shoulders are rolled forward in a hunched posture, and believes the fascia (the layers of connective tissue that surround the muscle) could be playing a part. ‘If you’ve been sitting incorrectly for years, when you try to move your shoulders into the right posture, you’re pulling against the fascia,’ she explains. ‘As we age, our muscle strength diminishes, but the fascia gets stiffer. So if, say, your shoulders roll forward, your muscles might not be strong enough to battle the stiffness of the fascia holding them in that position.’

Some simple solutions

So how can people avoid developing problems like mine? Seb advises getting
a (free) workplace desk assessment pronto,
while Suzanne advocates building more movement into your day. This can be as simple as getting up from your computer at least once an hour (set an alarm).

 

‘Get into the habit of not staring at your screen if you’re mulling something over, too,’ Suzanne adds. ‘Look away, or stand up while you’re thinking or on the phone. It will help you become aware that you’ve spent hours sitting in a hunched position.’

 

What about when you’re slumped on the sofa with your laptop or phone? ‘Put pillows or cushions behind you to support your whole back, and a big pillow on your lap, so that you can hold your phone or sit your laptop at eye level,’ advises Dr Durtnall.

 

When it comes to checking your mobile phone on buses and trains while you’re on the go, he says: ‘Tuck your elbows into your sides and hold your phone up to eye level. It’s much better for your neck than looking down.’

 

Of course, lots of us carry handbags so heavy that they could be used to weight-train at the gym, adding to the problem. ‘I’ve seen lots of female clients with one shoulder about an inch-and-a-half higher than the other, as they hitch it up to hold a heavy handbag,’ Seb says. This spurs me on to clear my bag of its non-essentials. Eight lipsticks, three(!) pairs of sunglasses, a mountain of old receipts, two tubes of hand lotion and one novel later (I decide to subscribe to an audio book app instead), it’s a little lighter. Dr Durtnall suggests getting a bag with a cross-body strap, so I’m not having to hoik up one shoulder.

 

If you’re a gym bunny, you also need to check your form. ‘People get injured while working out because they’re compensating for bad posture, which requires some muscles to work extra hard,’ explains Seb. ‘For example, they might hunch their shoulders up near the neck doing push ups, or let the lower back drop doing burpees. Work with a trainer, even if it’s just a one-off. They can video you doing moves the wrong and right ways.’ Awareness of your form is key – ‘always use the mirrors,’ he adds.

 

If you’re serious about sorting your posture, Pilates could be a winner. ‘For those smaller, deeper muscle groups, mat or reformer Pilates are both great,’ says Seb. ‘They work on your postural control, using your core, glutes, and the muscles all the way up to the shoulder.’

 

You can tackle issues while you sleep, too. Front sleeping (err, me again) isn’t recommended, as it strains your lower back. ‘Try side-sleeping,’ advises Dr Durtnall. ‘Get a soft, goose-down pillow and push it into a comfortable shape for your head. Then pop a plump pillow between your knees, so they’re the same width apart as your hips and shoulders. This will keep you steady and stop you contorting.’ Better posture: I’m coming atcha!

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DR DURTNALL’S DESK POSTURE TIPS

1 Sit yourself squarely in a chair with a seat that tilts down at the front by 15-20 degrees.

2 Put your feet under the chair, knees below your hips, weight on the back of your thighs.

3 Move forward so your body just touches the edge of the desk. Put your arms on the desk in front of you, forearms level and relaxed. The keyboard should be placed where your hands are.

4 Ensure the centre of your computer screen is at eye level and not too far away or you could end up poking your head and neck forward and dropping your chest.

5 With your head and neck in line with your spine, chest up, chin in, your shoulders will relax and your abdominal muscles will become active.

YOUR POSTURE SUPPORT KIT

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Neo G Clavicle Brace (Posturex), £36/3,600 points Boots.com only (size M), offers adjustable support.

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HoMedics Vibration Neck Massager**, £39.99/3,999 points, warms and vibrates to relax muscles.

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Boots Pharmaceuticals TENS Digital Pain Relief Unit, £59.99/5,999 points, provides effective drugfree pain relief.

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Nurofen Muscle & Back Pain Relief Heat Patches, £4.15/415 points (2 regular), can help relax tight, sore muscles and increase blood flow to the affected area.

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**Available in selected stores.

Words Danielle Hine Photography Rawpixel.com on Unsplash *See how-to videos at movingstretch.com

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