Becoming stooped with age, developing a Dowager’s hump or having postural hyperkyphosis — all describe the gradual hunching that can occur to the spine with age.
An article in the Journal of Orthopedic Sports & Physical Therapy estimates that between 20 and 40 percent of older adults have hyperkyphosis. The International Osteoporosis Foundation reports that although it is common to become more stooped with age, the changes to the spine can affect balance, increase the tendency to fall, cause pain, and affect breathing and self confidence.
“Around age 45 people begin to lose muscle mass, and women in particular will lose muscle if they are not active and exercising,” said Jennifer Miller, DPT, of Samaritan Physical Rehabilitation in Newport. “A lot of our daily life is set up to be in a forward position and if you don’t actively work your muscles your body will eventually succumb to gravity.”
Fortunately, Miller reports that a stoop is not inevitable — awareness and exercise can help.
Staying in any one position too long is a major enemy of good posture and back health. The main culprit tends to be too many hours in front of the TV and computer. To help improve your posture in your day-to-day life, Miller recommends being aware of how you are sitting. If you notice any back or neck pain, check the ergonomics of your environment. Does your computer monitor need to be raised? Does your steering wheel need to be lowered? Do you need a pillow behind your lower back on the couch? Aim for an upright, active sitting position with your ears over your shoulders and your jaw parallel to the floor.
It is also important to avoid sitting in one position for long periods of time. If you need to sit in one spot, set a timer for 15 minutes. When the timer goes off spend 30 seconds shifting and stretching before returning to your task.
A study published by the International Osteoporosis Foundation found that women in their 50s who performed extension exercises of the back muscles three times a week had a significant improvement in the alignment of their spines. The group also delayed the progression of a stooped posture compared to those who didn’t perform the exercises.
The best exercises to keep your back strong are the ones that you’ll actually do. Miller recommends starting with one of the exercises below, and once it’s part of your routine, adding another.
“Everyone should be working on their posture the rest of their lives,” said Miller. “The literature is clear: any exercise is better than none and you don’t have to do a lot to get some pretty significant results.”
3 Exercises to Try
When you’re ready to add exercises, Miller recommends starting with these three:
Shoulder SqueezeMiller recommends doing shoulder squeezes to help your posture as you sit at a desk or watch TV. Sit upright with your shoulders relaxed down from your ears. Squeezes your shoulder blades down and back so your chest is thrust forward, and release. Engage your stomach muscles and try to keep your lower back neutral when you squeeze, not arched. Do 10 shoulder squeezes every time you think about it, all day long.
Chin TuckThis is a good exercise to elongate the back of the neck and help counteract a jutting chin. Lie down on the floor or stand with your head against the wall. Keep the back of the head on the surface as you gently tip your chin down and pull back. Think of trying to purposefully make a double chin and stretching the back of the neck out long. Hold briefly and release, 10 times. You can do chin tucks all day long.
Chest StretchTo help stretch chest muscles that have been curled up, lie on your back with your knees bent, your arms straight and slightly above your shoulders in a T shape. Rotate your thumbs toward your head. Keep your lower back neutral, not arched off the floor. Lie relaxed in this position for 30 seconds or as long as it feels good. For added stretch, you can lie on top of a foam roller or rolled up towel that extends the length of your head and spine. Do a chest stretch at least once a day or as often as you like.
If you have back pain that is interfering with your life or your ability to do your job, talk to your doctor about a referral for physical rehabilitation. A therapist can help you create an exercise routine to strengthen key muscles.