Ever seen yourself in a mirror and put that slouch down to fatigue? Think again. A recent survey by the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy has exposed some disturbing figures: 56 per cent of the British have poor sitting posture and 44 per cent poor standing posture. It gets worse: a third of us are round-shouldered to some degree.
Women fare slightly better; 42 per cent having posture problems compared with 55 per cent of men (women expect public scrutiny and pay greater attention to how they sit and stand). They are also more likely to visit GPs or alternative practitioners for postural advice; men probably think it all a bit "silly".
Bad decision. Granny was right: poor posture has considerable repercussions on health. It significantly raises the risk of back problems, which afflict 60 per cent of adults annually and prompt 14 million - that's right, 14 million - GP consultations and 105 million sick days a year. It also increases wear on the lower lumbar spine and the base of the neck, putting muscles, joints and ligaments under added pressure, a recipe in later life for a wide variety of painful conditions, including lower and damaged discs. Many of us will enter old age bent double in agony.
There's more. Bad posture constricts the blood vessels, starving the organs of oxygen and nutrients, cramping digestion. Posture defects may compound existing health problems such as indigestion and asthma by compressing the lungs and stomach.
Blame our "soft" lifestyle. We spend too much time sitting at our desks, in cars or watching TV. We tend to slouch and slump as the lower back muscles tire. Eventually, our hunched positions fossilise as the muscles give in and reluctantly adapt to the demands placed on them.
Poorly-designed furniture is likewise to blame, making a bad situation worse. Most beds are too hard, soft or too old. Kitchens are designed for the average and too high or low for most. Office chairs encourage us to hang over our desks.
Children are particularly vulnerable. At school, five-year-olds use the same chairs and desks as eleven-year-olds. At home, they slump on couches designed for adults twice their height. Like adults, few get sufficient exercise. Just 9 per cent walk to school.
In the labour-intensive, highly pressurised Nineties, not all barriers to sensible posture are physical. As Dorset GP Barry Robinson points out, "tension and stress make people hunch up", dramatically affecting posture. Some patients receiving counselling for emotional problems show marked improvement in levels of back pain.
What to do? Once taught at school, deportment is now the sole preserve of model agencies and schools. But there are steps you can take for yourself that will offer gains not only in health, but in height and poise. Now is the time to learn how to walk tall ...
Get more exercise. Chiropractor Chris Turner recommends aerobics classes to keep muscles firm and joints flexible. Strong stomach muscles are particularly important, accounting for half of lower back strength.
Mimic Prince Charles. Walk with your hands behind your back to "open your shoulders".
Place a 2in foam wedge, tapering to the front, on your chair to tilt your pelvis forward into the correct position.
Buy posture-friendly furniture. The "Back in Action" shop at the British School of Osteopathy, Suffolk Street, London, has a good range.
Ask your GP for referral to a physiotherapist, or call the following for a practitioner in your area. Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique: 0171-351 0828; British Chiropractic Association: 01734 757557; Osteopathic Information Service: 01734 512051.
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