Most of our parents drilled into our heads the importance of proper posture; yet modern day life causes us to frequently ignore these great recommendations. What's worse, many of the posture-correcting strategies our parents taught us turn out to be wrong anyway.
Kathleen Porter, author of Natural Posture for Pain Free Living, is an expert in teaching the principles of posture, and she believes the majority of pain experienced in the world is posture related.
While working as a massage therapist and yoga teacher in 1994, she came across an article written by Jean Couch, in which she discussed and described the skeletal alignment in groups of indigenous people.
Intrigued, Kathleen began studying with Jean, and eventually traveled through Indonesia, Southeast Asia, South America, and northern Portugal, studying the posture of native peoples for herself.
"As I learned from studying them and from Jean, I started incorporating these principles more and more into my own life, and then started teaching this to others.
I've written a couple of books. It has just been absolutely transformational," she says.
"I gave up stretching. I haven't stretched in close to 20 years, yet I am more flexible and pain-free than when I was working so hard at trying to be that way."
Turning Sitting into a Physical Activity
Sitting is the new smoking. About 10,000 studies have now established that chronic sitting is an independent risk factor for poor health and early death. It can also be a significant factor in back, neck, and sciatic pain.
I personally suffered from back pain for many years. None of the treatments I tried made any significant difference — until I began to restrict my sitting to less than an hour per day. Then the pain suddenly disappeared.
Below are two videos I did for our 18th anniversary exercise update that show my solution to completely resolve my back pain, and I do mean 100 percent. My stand-up desk is the first video and my daily beach walks that help me log about 63 miles a week is the second.
How You Sit Makes a Difference
Although I now limit my sitting to under one hour a day when not on a plane, Kathleen believes HOW you sit can have a significant impact on the risks of sitting.
"Believe it or not, there is a way to sit and make it into a physical activity," she says.
"I, sitting right now, have my feet planted on the floor. I'm sitting on an aligned pelvis. There's nothing stressful in the way that I'm sitting because my body is aligned.
Energy is flowing through my body. I'm not using muscles other than the most basic muscles I would use. It's mostly my core that's stabilizing my upright posture, but there's no effort or strain here.
Now, I would run into trouble immediately if I started to tuck my tailbone under. That's the problem with sitting."
Most people tend to either tuck their pelvis and collapse, or they try to counteract the tendency to slouch by lifting their chest and pulling their shoulders back, which results in tension.
"Often, if you have a sitting-kind of job, you're spending much of your day swinging back and forth from one to the other, not knowing that there is this beautiful, peaceful, and relaxed middle place.
If you know how to align your bones and let them support you, it's easy. There's no effort involved and it's not stressful," she says.
I believe avoiding sitting is an important aspect of health and can be key for reducing pain, but as Kathleen points out, standing up may not improve your pain unless you also stand correctly.
I could not agree more strongly with Kathleen and her book helped me learn how to stand properly. Most people don't know how to sit; nor do they know how to stand with correct posture. Kathleen's book illustrates proper posture quite well, providing many diagrams that make it easy to understand the principles behind good posture, both when sitting and standing.
Basic Principles of Proper Posture
Relearning proper posture is an unfolding process that requires a commitment to learn the information and put it into practice.
"The word 'practice' is key, because you just have to keep practicing it over and over until it becomes more natural and more automatic," she says. "When I first learned this I was pretty upset, because this information was so opposite from what I had been trained to do and teach as a yoga teacher.
One of the real silver linings of learning this is the fact that it is a pathway. It's a touchstone to mindfulness, because it requires a willingness to be mindful in order to put it into practice. Mindfulness and alignment [go hand in hand]. You really need them both."
According to Kathleen, it all begins with the pelvis. It forms the foundation for everything above it. Your sacrum is located in the back between the two sides of your pelvis. At the top of the sacrum is the sacral platform that your spine sits upon.
If you change the position of your pelvis, you change the angle of that platform and the angle of your spine, and muscles go through a number of adjustments to compensate for the fact that your spine is no longer acting as a largely self-supporting structure.
"There is this quality, this natural phenomenon, [the] ground reaction force," Kathleen explains. "You can experience it right now if you're sitting or standing. Take your right foot and start pushing it down into the floor. As you push your foot a little harder, you'll notice that it generates this action and sensations in your leg.
If you push down hard enough, you'll feel there are sensations coming all the way up into your hip and beyond. This is ground reaction force. It relates to Newton's Third Law of Motion, which says that for every action, there is an opposite and equal reaction.
If you wanted to, say, jump, you wouldn't just jump, you'd crouch down, you'd generate this connection, and then you'd push off. If you wanted to jump higher, you'd crouch lower and push off harder. This is how our bodies are designed to work.
What has happened to modern people with much more sedentary lives and a disconnection from knowing how our bodies work naturally, we tend to just shuffle along on top of the surface of the earth. We haul ourselves up out of a chair. We drop ourselves down onto a chair.
We have this sort of cascading effect of embedding unhelpful, unnatural movement patterns, which degenerates our physical structure over time. That's why people, as they age, start to often look so collapsed. That's not an inevitable feature of aging."
'Sad Dog, Happy Dog' Postures
The descriptions for "sad dog" and "happy dog" came about as a result of working with children, who are easily embarrassed or amused by words like "pelvis" or "pubic bone." Similarly, many adults have trouble with more technical terms like anteverted or retroverted. Kids understand the "sad dog" posture though, because a sad dog will tuck its tail between its legs. As you "tuck your tail," i.e. tuck your pelvis forward, you'll notice your spine starts to collapse down into your pelvis. This stance also tends to trigger the reaction to pull your chest up and your shoulders back.
"This is somewhat militaristic, but it's also the way I was practicing and teaching yoga. It's what is taught in a lot of dance programs and in a lot of athletics. It's sort of the American way of opening up the front of the body, without realizing that when we do that, we close, narrow, and shorten the back," she says.
What you're aiming for is to have your front and back equally wide and equally extended, and it all begins with the position of your pelvis. If you rotate your pelvis toward the back, so your pubic bone is down and your sit bones are wide and behind you, it's sort of like you're wagging your tail. This is the "happy dog" posture.
"The pelvis comes into play in the same way in standing. In my book, I have illustrations of how to move the pelvis like a church bell so that it brings the legs into a vertical line, because that's where our legs need to be. From there, you want to start to learn how to isolate the movement of your rib cage, so you discover that your ribcage can actually move independent of your pelvis, and you can learn how to rotate your ribcage forward rather than lifting it. When you lift up your chest, you're actually tipping your ribcage back.
Kathleen notes that while collapsing in the front is known as slouching, lifting your chest and arching your back is actually slouching in the other direction, because it has the same effect on your spine. It's just a question of which side of the spine — the front or the back — is being compressed.
Simple Posture Exercises
Three helpful exercises that bring home this point and help engage your core are as follows:
Next, wiggle the back of your armpits up towards the ceiling, and feel your spine lengthening. Also notice the position of your chin. By bringing you chin down, the back of your neck lengthens and the cervical spine that goes through in the middle of your neck opens up. When you lift your chin up, you shorten your cervical spine.
"This is one of the most essential basic movements that helps retrain the body back to where it started," Kathleen says.
Note that the fibers of the TVA are horizontal while most skeletal muscles are vertical or diagonal. As you work with this core muscle, you'll feel its contraction as a horizontal squeezing; as your sternum moves toward the back, you'll feel your waist narrowing as this muscle engages.
As noted by Kathleen:
"[Y]ou want to engage this muscle all day long. You can do it in a car. You can do it when you're working at your computer. You can do it while having a conversation... As many times a day as you can, be mindful of your body as an aligned being. Not only are your bones aligned but you are aligning yourself with your true nature as a part of this earth. Let that be an awareness that is continuous and without interruption."
Some find mindfulness reminders helpful. One app called Mindful Mynah will allow you to set a chime or bell to go off at regular intervals, reminding you to tune into your body and correct your posture.
"Doing it cultivates your capacity for mindfulness," Kathleen says. "My own personal capacity for mindfulness has just exploded with this focusing on my bones as my basic support."
Pretend you're holding a shawl behind you and you're about to wrap the shawl around your shoulders, but just before the shawl comes into contact with your back, move your back into the shawl. In other words, your breastbone or your sternum slides backwards towards your back. As you do that, you will feel an action through your abdomen. These are your core muscles, primarily your transversus abdominis (TVA) muscle coming into action. This is your real core. The TVA is the deepest abdominal muscle, which acts like an internal corset.
A simplified version of that exercise is to simply imagine your sternum moving back towards your spine. As you do so, you will feel your core engage, stabilizing, and elongating your spine. When I do it, my chin also tends to fall into place automatically. When your spine is elongated in this way, it helps prevent and may even help reverse kyphosis, lordosis, and other distortions of your spine that occur as a result of a collapsed posture.
A similar exercise is to bring your arms overhead but in front of your head, clasping your hands together. Avoid bringing your arms back behind your ears as that will cause your back to arch. Remember to rotate your pubic bone downward into "happy dog" pose. When your pubic bone is aiming down, your pelvis is naturally rotated forward. From there, put your arms out in front and lengthen your spine so you feel your ribcage lifting up out of your pelvis. Remember, the lengthening you seek is of the spine in your back, not along your front.
Bend Like a Baby
The best exercises focus on natural ways of moving, and toddlers are the "gurus" of proper movement. Bending is an excellent exercise, provided you do it correctly. If you observe a toddler, you'll notice they always bend by sticking their butt out behind them, with the knees bending outward toward the pinky toes. As Kathleen notes:
"[B]ending is not in the spine, either rounding the spine or arching the spine. The spine stays stable as the pelvis rotates over the heads of the femur bones in the thighs."
As you bend this way, not only does it protect your spine and tone your leg muscles, it also strengthens the arches in your feet. Many have foot problems that can contribute to pain, including pronated ankles and flat arches. Bending this way helps to strengthen the muscles that lift and hold your arches up, and engages the toes.
"For a lot of us, toes are just these appendages that we don't do anything with because they're in shoes all the time. But if you look at the toes of young children, their toes are grabbing at the ground. They help you balance. They're there to help you propel yourself forward and to help distribute the weight that doesn't come down through the heels," Kathleen explains.
When Bones Are Aligned, Your Muscles Become Elastic and Supple
The basic kettlebell swing is an excellent exercise that brings bending and strength training together. It's crucial to do them with correct posture though. Unless you already have good posture, you'd be better off focusing on learning how to move naturally — things like bending to pick something up or to tie your shoelace, getting up and down out of a chair, or lifting a laundry basket off the floor. Other daily activities that offer plenty of opportunity to practice natural movement posture include weeding your garden or cleaning your house.
As a general rule, it's important to remember that your musculoskeletal system involves both muscles and bones. So while many focus on building stronger core muscles in the hopes of improving posture, you also need to properly align your bones.
Kathleen used to have to do a lot of stretching to remain pain free and supple despite teaching yoga, and the tendency to have tight muscles is actually a side effect of poor skeletal alignment, she discovered. Once she addressed her posture, she didn't have to stretch anymore.
"One of the jobs of the skeleton is to provide the structural framework of support... Our organs are often smashed together, pulled, and distorted in various ways because our skeleton is misplaced. If I am strengthening some muscles too much, the tightness, contraction, and the shortening of the fibers of those muscles will pull and hold my bones out of alignment. By the same token, if I have muscles that are too weak and stretched out, they won't support the bones in that alignment," Kathleen explains.
"It helps to know that because the muscles attached to the bones, if you change the position of your bones, then certain muscles are going to be too tight and certain muscles are going to be too long and stretched out. [But] when your bones are aligned, muscles become elastic. All the muscles in your body take on their intended configuration."
To learn more, I highly recommend Kathleen's book, Natural Posture for Pain Free Living: The Practice of Mindful Alignment, which goes into far greater depth and covers many other aspects of posture not covered in this interview. As the subtitle reveals, one of the keys of success is the integration of mindfulness and posture — to become aware of where your pelvis, spine, head, neck, and shoulders and all the rest of your body is positioned in any given moment. You may also find more information on her website, NaturalPostureSolutions.com.
In closing, Kathleen offers the following down-to-earth suggestion:
"Go to the playground; watch children and how they move... Start moving naturally, and bring this back into how you work out at the gym. There is a lot of stuff that people do that is just not a good idea, period. But we've just been so conditioned into believing that we're supposed to be exercising and working out instead of just simply climbing a ladder to clean the gutters, and doing it in such a way that reinforces the way we move. So much of the exercise that is done is done as a way to release the tension that we have in our bodies from the misalignment that we have in the first place."
The recent case of an American toddler diagnosed with type 2 diabetes highlights the severity of the problems our modern processed food diet causes. According to Reuters,1 the three-year old girl, who weighed in at 77 pounds, is one of the youngest persons ever diagnosed with this obesity-related disease.
In the past, type 2 diabetes was referred to as “adult onset” diabetes, and most patients were in the senior category. But as our diets and lifestyles have changed, so has the disease.
And, while lack of exercise is certainly a factor, one would be hard-pressed to accuse a two-year old of being too sedentary. Clearly, diet plays a more important role in individuals this young. So what’s wrong with children’s diets these days?
Many Babies Are Raised on Sugar
In short, most babies and toddlers are fed far too much sugar right from the start. Many parents fail to realize that infant formulas can contain significant amounts of added sugars and starchy fillers,2 which paves the way for chronic disease from day one.
Last year, data3 from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that more than 29 million Americans were diagnosed with full-blown type 2 diabetes,4 a statistic researchers predicted in 2001 wouldn’t be reached until 2050.5
A more recent study,6,7,8,9,10 which also for the first time included estimated disease rates for certain minority groups, suggests as much as HALF of the American public may have either prediabetes or diabetes.
Diabetes rates have also soared in other countries. In the UK, rates have risen by 60 percent in the last decade.11
When you start investigating the diets of babies and young children, these statistics become less surprising. In fact, they’re to be expected.
One in four Americans eats some type of fast food on a daily basis,12 and nearly half of the money Americans spend on food is spent on fast food meals.13 More than one-third of school-aged children and adolescent eat fast food on a daily basis.
“More than 12 percent of the children and adolescents surveyed got over 40 percent of their calories from fast food, which was defined as ‘restaurant fast food/pizza,’ according to the data brief from the NCHS, a unit of the CDC.
‘It is certainly a significant amount and it would be more concerning if someone were not astonished by that number.
It is a sign we have some work to do to help families come up with practical solutions,’ said Dr. Esther Krych, a pediatrician with the Mayo Clinic's Children's Center...”
An estimated 56 percent of 8 year-olds also drink soda on a daily basis, and once the teenage years come, some kids drink at least three cans of soda a day.15
Analysis Confirms Fructose Is Primary Driver of Diabetes
Processed food and sugary beverages are now taking its toll on ever younger people as these younger generations are raised on such foods and drinks from a very early age, and this is why disease prevalence has exploded.
A meta-review published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings16,17,18 recently confirmed that calories from fructose (think high fructose corn syrup) and other added sugars are the primary drivers of prediabetes and diabetes.
Processed fructose and other added sugars not only worsen insulin levels and glucose tolerance, they also promote a number of different markers for poor health, including inflammation and hypertension (high blood pressure).
As a standard recommendation, I strongly advise keeping your total fructose consumption below 25 grams per day, which is about six teaspoons. If you have no signs of insulin resistance you should be able to consume fruit liberally even though it has fructose.
If you have signs of insulin resistance such as hypertension, obesity, or heart disease, you’d be wise to limit your total fructose consumption to 15 grams or less until your weight and other health conditions have normalized.
According to this meta-review, the research clearly shows that once you reach 18 percent of your daily calories from sugar, there’s a two-fold increase in metabolic harm that promote prediabetes and diabetes.
Babies and toddlers really should have no added sugars at all. It’s completely non-essential for their growth and development. Breast milk is ideal, and even if you cannot breastfeed, there are far better alternatives than commercial infant formula.
Buying donor milk is one option. You can also make your own infant formula using whole ingredients like whole grass-fed raw milk or goat’s milk.
Antibiotics May Play a Role in Rising Diabetes Rates
According to a recent study,19,20 type 2 diabetics tend to have been more overexposed to antibiotics in the years prior to their diagnosis compared to non-diabetics.
This is yet another fast food factor that places young children at increased risk of diabetes and related health problems. Antibiotic overuse in food production has also led to the current scourge of antibiotic resistance.
Antibiotic exposure is one reason why I don’t recommend eating foods from factory farmed animals, as they tend to be raised on antibiotic growth promoters.
Each time you or your child eat food made from such animals, you’re getting a small dose of antibiotics that, over time with regular consumption, can upset your gut flora and have a notable impact on your weight and metabolism.21
While a small number of restaurants have taken steps to limit meat raised on antibiotics, the vast majority of fast food restaurants and major restaurant chains have not.
A recent report22,23,24 produced by six consumer interest, public health, and environmental organizations warn that 20 of the 25 restaurant chains surveyed have failed to take any affirmative action on this issue, and are still serving meat and poultry raised on antibiotics. Chipotle’s and Panera Bread were the only two restaurants, according to this report, that publicly affirm the majority of the meats served come from antibiotic-free producers.
Pesticides in Processed Food Also Raise Diabetes Risk
Pesticides and herbicides are another factor that has now started to come to the fore as a major driver of chronic disease — including diabetes. According to a recent analysis25,26,27 of 21 studies, exposure to pesticide — regardless of type — was associated with a 61 percent increased risk for any type of diabetes. Twelve of the studies focused on type 2 diabetes specifically, linking pesticide exposure to a 64 percent increased risk of this type of diabetes.
"This systematic review supports the hypothesis that exposure to various types of pesticides increases the risk of diabetes,” the authors wrote, adding that: "Analyzing each pesticide separately suggests that some pesticides are more likely to contribute to the development of diabetes than others.”
Among the pesticides more clearly linked to diabetes were:
Toxic Glyphosate May Be a Major Health Threat in Food Supply
One of the most widely used herbicides in the US is glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup. In late March, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is the research arm of the World Health Organization (WHO), reclassified28 glyphosate as a Class 2A “probable human carcinogen,” based on evidence showing it can cause non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and lung cancer in humans.
Previous research has also linked glyphosate to an increased diabetes risk, along with a slew of other chronic health problems, including Alzheimer’s disease, which some believe may be yet another form of diabetes — basically “brain diabetes.” Swedish researchers recently confirmed that controlling your blood sugar levels appear to be an important aspect of dementia prevention for type 2 diabetics, who are at an increased risk for neurological degeneration.
The study included nearly 350,000 people, and blood sugar levels were tracked using hemoglobin A1C tests. This newer type of test provides you with an average blood sugar level over the past several months. As reported by MedicineNet.com:29
“After taking other variables into account, the study found that those with HbA1c levels of 10.5 percent or higher were 50 percent more likely to be diagnosed with dementia compared to people with HbA1c levels of 6.5 percent or less.”
Make Your Family’s Nutrition a Priority
It’s important to keep offering healthy foods to your child, even if they refuse them or seem to not like them. It can take 10 to 15 food exposures before a child becomes familiar with and likes a certain food, so persistence is important. Food is a part of crucial lifestyle choices first learned at home, so you need to educate yourself about proper nutrition and the dangers of junk food and processed foods in order to change the food culture of your entire family.
One of the basic keys to good health and disease prevention is to eat real food... This may be particularly true for diabetes prevention, as processed foods and fast food contain not just one but several components shown to promote metabolic dysfunction and obesity.
This includes processed fructose and other added sugars, trans fats, antibiotics, and pesticides, along with other artificial ingredients, such as artificial sweeteners and MSG. A 2012 study found that both of these additives cause an increase in fasting blood glucose levels and contribute to the onset of diabetes. When it comes to meat, it’s important to make sure it’s antibiotic-free and organically raised.
Ditto for other animal products like dairy and eggs. While some grocery chains offer grass-fed meats nowadays, your best bet is to connect with a local farmer that raises animals according to organic standards, allowing them to roam freely on pasture. Other foods are also best sourced from organic and local sources, to avoid undue pesticide exposure. In the US, the following organizations can help you locate farm-fresh foods:
Weston Price Foundation30 has local chapters in most states, and many of them are connected with buying clubs in which you can easily purchase organic foods, including grass fed raw dairy products like milk and butter.
Local Harvest – This Web site will help you find farmers' markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area where you can buy produce, grass-fed meats, and many other goodies.
Eat Well Guide: Wholesome Food from Healthy Animals – The Eat Well Guide is a free online directory of sustainably raised meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs from farms, stores, restaurants, inns, and hotels, and online outlets in the United States and Canada.
FoodRoutes – The FoodRoutes "Find Good Food" map can help you connect with local farmers to find the freshest, tastiest food possible. On their interactive map, you can find a listing for local farmers, CSAs, and markets near you.