Contrary to popular belief, you were most likely not born with rounded shoulders and therefore overall poor posture. Postural habits begin at a young age, and because the body adjusts and supports whatever habit persists, they stick with you throughout your life. Good postural habits have tremendous long-term positive effects on your overall health. Poor postural habits only worsen with age and ultimately leave you with stooped, rounded shoulders. Luckily you can improve your posture by teaching your shoulders and back to experience proper alignment and allowing your body to readjust to good habits. Focusing on opening your chest, releasing your shoulders back and down, and strengthening the surrounding muscles that support your chest, back, and shoulders are the first steps toward good posture.
Millions of Americans develop a postural problem called rounded shoulders as a result of learned behaviors, poor abdominal and lower back strength, and just simple laziness while seated or standing. Rounded shoulders lead to pain in the neck, mid-back, and head (in the form of headaches) and cause greater potential for shoulder injuries. Rounded shoulders may also cause a hunching of the back, making it difficult to expand the lungs, thereby sapping the ability to breathe to full potential by up to 30 percent. And perhaps most surprisingly, rounded shoulders may cause constipation due to the physical constriction of the intestinal tract.
Patients with rounded shoulders appear hunched or stooped forward and complain of tightness in the neck and mid-back and persistent headaches. To assess whether or not rounded shoulders may be the cause of your symptoms, test the position of your shoulder in one of two ways:
- Lie flat on your back. A positive test occurs if the seam of your shoulder is more than two inches from the floor; or
- Stand in front of a mirror with your hands at your sides.
A positive test occurs if your thumbs point toward your back body rather than your front body.
With your body out of alignment for long periods of time, your spine is subjected to uneven—and excessive—pressure on joints and discs. Your lungs become compressed by the weight of your ribs, and your head may begin to shift forward relative to your body. Consequently, there is an overgrowth of cartilage lining the joints that can create tension in your upper neck muscles and further the stooped posture.
Whether sitting or standing, when you allow your upper back to slouch forward and your shoulder to round into bad posture, the effects of gravity push you further into that position. Consequently your chest muscles progressively tighten and pull your shoulders toward your sternum.
It is easy to set the intention to stand straight but much harder to actually remember to stand straight. To help create good habits, align practicing standing straight with habitual daily activities.
- Choose three activities that you do every day, like brushing your teeth, walking your dog, or drinking your morning glass of water or tea.
- During your three chosen activities, stand straight, focusing on opening your chest, releasing your shoulders down to the floor, and elongating your neck.
- Maintain this straight posture for the entirety of the daily activity. Over time your body will remind itself to stand straight!
Focus on exercises that pull you out of a “hunched” posture and keep you tall and elongated by stretching your pectoralis (chest) muscles to gain mobility in your shoulders and chest and strengthening your mid-back muscles to keep you in proper position.