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The Fat Girl's Guide to Great Posture
Posted by Toni in Health + Beauty
Image from a Cornell University Library collection (circa 1920), demonstrating correct posture

If we had a dollar for every time someone ordered us to stand up straight, we could probably treat our girlfriends to a round of caramel macchiatos at Starbucks. Turns out the straight-backed drill sergeants in our lives were on to something, since poor posture can lead to a host of physical problems - from misalignment to pain. Bad posture also feels yucky, and let's be honest: it doesn't look all that great, either. The extra pounds we carry coupled with today's increasingly sedentary and stressed-out lifestyles means we fat girls need to pay extra attention to this issue. Good thing we spoke to a few experts skilled in several disciplines, who give it to us (ahem) straight on how to regain and maintain great posture.

"Many people predominately drag their bodies and lead with their heads," says Liz Weaver, a martial arts instructor and founder of BreakPal.com, a† site dedicated to "workplace wellness" through better body positioning. While we're naturally supposed to walk from the heel of the foot to the ball of the foot, many of us walk head first with our backsides sticking out. "This wears out your lower back because itís in an unnatural position," she says.

Ginger Garner, a physical therapist and founder of Professional Yoga Therapy Studies, sees similar imbalances in her female-focused practice, along with sloping shoulders, weak upper back muscles, tight chest muscles, and excessive rounding of the upper back. "These problems can be caused by 'occupational† hazards,' from ill-fitting desks or chairs at work to carrying or nursing children to everyday tasks like housework," she says. When you add extra pounds to the mix, a few unique problems crop up, such as excess sway in the lower back and strain on the upper back due to larger breasts. "You have to work harder - against a heavier body - to correct and keep good posture," she says.

The good news is, absent any structural problems or medical conditions (check with your doc if you're at all unsure about making any new moves) you can improve your posture relatively quickly by switching out some bad habits for better ones. Personal trainer Elena Ciccotelli (aka TrainerDiva) knows all about forming good habits in her work with clients. "It takes your body about 300 repetitions to form a new skill, and about 5,000 repetitions to reformulate a skill," she says. "This explains why it takes such a long time to break bad habits, so be patient in your quest for better posture. It's completely possible to transform slouchy shoulders into sexy, confident shoulders with a lot of practice." And once you're there, "good posture is actually easier to maintain than bad posture," says Garner.

"I use the term 'body geometry' to help my clients visualize their best posture, the position that will have them feeling their best throughout the day," says Christine Binnendyk, a master Pilates trainer at the Nike World Headquarters and author of the forthcoming book Ageless Pilates:
Imagine a rectangle over your torso. Your shoulders should line up to form the top edge; your hipbones line up to form the bottom edge. If one hip rides up, it'll displace the shoulder on the same side. If your right shoulder rides up, you'll shift your left leg out to counterbalance that shift. Over time, these little changes and counterbalances add up to major energy drain. Level out your rectangle, and you'll be better balanced and more energetic.

"Good posture has nothing to do with pulling the shoulders back," says Garner, who suggests another simple way of thinking about - and correcting - how we stand. The key, she says, is "engaging the transverse abdominis (TA) muscles by drawing your belly button into your spine without moving the spine and drawing the shoulders slightly down and shoulder blades down into a V-like shape. This will help engage the proper stabilizing muscles of the spine."

"Posture is about body awareness, which means just being mindful of your body," says Weaver. "Just pay attention when youíre really into a project, and listen to what your body is telling you. If you have pain in an area of your body, itís trying to tell you something."

Here, we share some common posture problems and our experts' tweaks. Keep in mind that you know your body best, so avoid any new moves that don't feel right from the start, and check with your health care provider, both to rule out any structural or medical causes of poor posture, including scoliosis, and to get suggestions on an appropriate posture expert for your needs, which may include a chiropractor, physical therapist, or other professional.

If you sit all day

Strengthen the legs

Girls, are you sitting down? Of course you are - everybody is nowadays, whether at work or surfing the 'net or watching TV at home. But wait till you hear this: "People who spend the better part of their days sitting end up with weaker leg and glute (butt) muscles," says martial arts instructor Warner. "But those muscles are there for a reason, and they're bigger for a reason: to work harder and to do bigger jobs." Yes, you heard it here first: we're supposed to have strong, muscular legs and glutes! (Take that, mass media ideals!)

Warner suggests practicing the "horse stance," (here's a video demo by Warner, with an added Tai Chi breathing technique, and here's a detailed written explanation to help you visualize it). "Your legs and glutes will start to burn right away, and thatís how you know youíre doing it right," she says. Warner suggests getting up and doing the horse stance every 30 minutes if you work in an office, for about 60 seconds, shaking your legs and walking around afterward (don't overdo it, of course, depending on your fitness level). You can do the horse stance at the kitchen counter while cooking or get up and do it during television commercials each evening. "A 60-second interval a few times a day will make a tremendous difference," she says.

Support your core

Ciccotelli recommends an isometric, or static move called the plank (here's a video demo). By holding your body in this position (while remembering to breathe, since the tendency is to clench and hold the breath), your body is engaged by working to hold you off the floor. She suggests starting with 10 seconds and working up to 30 seconds at a time. If your lower back hurts in this position, lift your pelvis toward the ceiling so your body creates a V. As your abs and back become stronger it will become easier to position yourself in a straighter line.

Find your ideal chair

"Because we spend so many hours working, which in our society now includes a lot of time sitting, a good office chair is essential," says yoga therapist Garner. "Good" doesn't have to mean dropping a grand on an Aeron chair, however; finding a chair that fits you and your computer setup is what matters.

Garner's tips for finding the perfect chair:

*The feet should reach the floor, or you can place a footstool under the chair so your feet are completely supported
*The chair should not have a solid low back support - good chairs will actually have an adjustable back rest that moves up and down or a cut out where the buttocks can stick out through the cutout Ė hence providing the proper curve for low back support
*Forget the arm rests--you donít need them. Save yourself $50 or more and donít bother with them, unless you are actually going to sit in the chair, rest your arms on them, and do nothing at all.
*Look for a short seat pan (where you rest your bum). It's usually too deep for women of average height (meaning less than 5í7Ē). This will prevent problems like sciatica, which is common for smaller women who get stuck in typical corporate chairs built for men.

After reviewing "literally thousands" of chairs online, Garner found her perfect chair for 70 dollars. "It has a padded backrest and seat pan, adjustable height for workstations of different height or different work requirements, a ďcut outĒ for the bum, and a short seat pan (itís a stool, so itís actually round!)"

Ciccotelli suggests using a stability ball instead of a chair "as often as possible to improve your overall balance, stability, and posture." Just be sure to find one you can sit on comfortably without rolling off.

Work your upper body with Pilates at your desk

Dumbwaiter: "If your shoulders droop a bit forward, Dumbwaiter is for you. Sit or stand tall; glue your elbows to your ribcage with your palms facing up. Keep your elbows at your sides as you rotate the arms outward,†like you're serving a drink to people on either side of you. This move draws your shoulder blades together, while opening your chest."

Wings: "Do you hike your shoulder up whenever you're reaching for something? Wings is for you. Set yourself up like dumbwaiter, but with your palms facing down. Keep your shoulders low as you float your elbows wide -- it'll seem like you're flapping imaginary wings. This move loosens up the muscles aroung your shoulder blades, allowing you to reach your arms more comfortably. It helps in eliminating neck tension and shoulder strain."

Behind the wheel

Yet another way in which we sit all day, for many of us while driving to and from work. "Pretend your shoulders are pinned to the seat," says TrainerDiva Ciccotelli.

Take it easy while texting

"Many people don't realize there is a strong connection between neck posture and back posture," says Ciccotelli. Even slightly leaning your head forward for long periods can negatively impact posture (by causing rounded shoulders and improper trunk stabilization). Unfortunately, this is exactly the head position most people use while texting, so she suggests keeping your head up the next time your mobile device dings.



One easy way to lighten your load

Keep only essential items in your purse; who wants to look like a bag lady, anyway? If you simply must lug everything with you, Binnendyk suggests a messenger-style bag that crosses the body, or splitting your belongings into two bags while traveling to balance the weight evenly. "If you need to lean, itís time to purge," she says.

The Well-Endowed Pain in the Neck

"Every gift comes with a bit of salt, doesnít it?" says Binnendyk. Sometimes, large breasts come with neck and back pain, so a proper bra fitting is essential. "Well-placed straps in a good foundation garment will make a world of difference," she says, adding that sexy bras are fine for a night out or a romp around the bedroom, but stick to functional comfort the rest of the time. "Think about it this way," she adds. "If the girls are riding higher, itís easier to stand up straight. The less forward lean that you have, the less back and neck pain youíll feel." After bra shopping, try the Dumbwaiter and Wings Pilates techniques 3-4 times per week.