Like many things with health, posture is something we generally take for granted. For most people it’s not until we’re in pain or have some level of quality of life influencing event that we really start to think about our posture. But is it possible for poor posture to lead to a long-term problem…?
Well before we get to that, let’s talk about what posture is and why it’s such an important aspect of life.
The most basic requirement of our posture is movement. Through evolution we’ve been required to adapt to our environment. When we left the trees and started roaming, we needed to be able to hunt. Whilst there is always debates over our evolutionary history, one theory is as we left the trees and started consuming a diet higher in protein, we had a need to hunt, but we were slower and weaker than most predators.
To get around this, we evolved to hunt in the hottest part of the day. Our cooling systems, such as sweat and sodium control, became enhanced and allowed us to become creatures of endurance. We became upright reducing our surface area exposed to the sun helping our systems cool.
Becoming upright with a vertical posture resulted in us being able to hunt for long periods and challenge other predators for the protein we needed to further evolve our brains.
The development of our spinal curves away from the C-shape of an infant into the S-Like pattern increased our flexibility. Throughout many species it’s observed these curves allow for movement in many ways. Look at the brolga or flamenco and the amazing movement they have within their necks. The ability to move in any way shape or form.
Our spinal curves help with this flexibility allowing us to have freedom of movement in many different directions. In fact healthy neck movement includes 180 degrees of rotation, 160 degrees of flexion and extension and 90 degrees of lateral bending.
An often forgotten aspect of posture is the importance of shock absorption. A spine with nice flowing curves acts like a piano accordion bending and stretching with every impact acting like a spring to absorb the forces of running on two legs.
These spring-like mechanisms are found throughout our system. Our feet have several of these mechanisms alone!
Without these mechanisms, shock would be thrown into our skeleton’s with every single step placing a load on our skeletal system that would most likely eventually lead to stress fractures.
Without doubt, in all my years of clinical experience, lecturing and educating, without doubt the links between brain function and posture are the least commonly known. In fact I still see people everyday who come in who are given ridiculous exercises to improve their posture by people who fail to understand the mechanisms that drive our upright posture.
To understand this, you again need to understand evolution. As we have evolved so has the development of our brains. In fact we now reference the human brain as having three distinct regions. These go by various names but generally all refer to the same thing:
- Forebrain, midbrain, hindbrain
- Prodencephalon, mesencephalon, rhombencephalon
- Neocortex, Limbic or mammalian, reptilian
For now, we’ll keep it simple and refer to the three sections as the Neocortex, Limbic and reptilian brain.
The reptilian brain is our most primitive brain controlling many of our automated responses such as the flight or fight response. It’s believed to have first developed in fish around 500 million years ago!
The limbic system first developed with the emergence of mammals approximately 150 million years ago so is often referred to as mammalian brain. It’s the key area responsible for emotions, fears and memory.
The Neocortex, or new cortex, is the most recent development having first appeared with the arrival of primates. This area gives us our executive function, goal planning, reward, social behaviours and many more. It’s the area that has given rise to the development of society and cultures.
So, what does this have to do with posture…?
As our brains have developed and evolved so has the tone we hold in our extensor muscles. This tone is what brings us upright. As we have further evolved our neocortex from primates through to humans, we can see our postures become less hunched, our arms have externally rotated and our eyes are more level.
This upright, chest out posture is a result of the neocortex development over the last 2-3 million.
Posture and our neck
As our posture comes forward, our head protrudes out increasing the workload on our neck. In fact leaning forward can exert 3.6 times more workload on the neck than being in an upright posture! Over long periods of time this can result in a strenuous load on the neck muscles.
For most this doesn’t create an issue in the short term unless muscles fatigue quickly. But long term this can result in systemic changes that affect the neck, the jaw, the shoulders, the back and even the feet! In fact, this posture changes can further affect the brain resulting in a continuous feedback loop.
So what can we do?
So is it all doom and gloom if your posture isn’t right…?
Well, the sooner you get to it the more likely the chance of successful correction is. Successful correction does not depend on doing specific strengthening exercises, although in some they may help, or ludicrously crazy braces.
Identifying if your problem is a postural fatigue issue or a brain health issue is always the best place to start! Correct diagnosis is always paramount to successful treatment.
Here’s our top tips for assessing your posture:
- If you can stand correctly for a short period of time you most likely don’t have a posture problem you have a fatigue problem
- Stand straight against a wall, if your bottom, mid back and head don’t all touch at the same time in a relaxed posture you most likely have an anterior head carriage (movement)
- If biting down on an icy pole stick improves your posture you probably have a jaw derived problem