“Walk tall, walk straight and look the world right in the eye!” (Val Doonican).
In this final blog in our posture series, today we explore how aging affects our posture.
Walking tall as we age
Correct posture – walking erect and tall - should be the aim of every person who wants to retain an upright stance as she/he ages. However, for many people this is can be a real challenge. As with so many other issues in healthy ageing there are constant and immutable changes that occur simply because they are a normal part of the ageing process. Erect posture is one of the things that can often deteriorate, but there are a number of things we can do to delay or minimize the changes in posture as our bones, joints and muscles are altered by age. First, let’s understand what happens as we age.
What happens to our spines as we age?
Our spines begin to change as we age and some changes, such as loss of height, may be a normal part of the ageing process. The vertebrae and discs that act as cushions between the bones of our back start to lose their hydration and thin out over time. This results in shrinking in size which has a definite effect on our height. Also, the cartilage and connective tissues in our spines can start to lose thickness and elasticity. As a result, we can expect to lose height and change our gait, all of which is not particularly appealing but is a natural progression.
Our bones, muscles and joints are all part of the musculoskeletal system that defines our posture. Age has a pronounced effect on all three and over time the back tends to curve forward, resulting in an increasingly stooped posture.
Factors which can have an effect on your posture.
Osteoporosis and bone density
Osteoporosis is a condition that causes the bones to become weak, brittle, and thin as a result of loss of bone density. There is loss of calcium in the bones and this can result in the loss of density. There can also be a slight reduction of size of less dense bones in the spine that could contribute to posture and a reduction in height. In addition, if the bones are brittle and weak, they are more susceptible to fractures. The vertebrae may then fracture due to the pressure of lifting an object or a fall. Sometimes, this can cause the front portion of the vertebra to collapse, creating a wedge shape. The back portion of the vertebra stays as it is, so the spine curves forward.
An additional postural change is that of the Dowager’s Hump, which is a rounding of the upper back. This makes it very difficult to stand erect and the person has to strain to lift her/his head and look straight ahead. This condition is more common in people with osteoporosis and who have developed a spinal wedge or compression fracture in that region.
During the weekly supermarket run, we often sees elderly shoppers leaning over their shopping trolleys. This could be as a result of spinal stenosis, which is usually a result of the normal wear and tear of ageing. This is a narrowing of the spinal canal, which puts pressure on the spinal cord or nerve roots. Sitting or leaning forward can reduce some of the pressure on the nerves, providing relief from the symptoms and, if this becomes a habit, can result in a deterioration of your posture.
Unfortunately and annoyingly, for many people, our body composition also alters as we age and this can be seen as change from a lean body to one with more fat. The fat tends to be concentrated at the waist which results in a redistribution of weight. This can contribute to the changes in the spine and in the way we stand and walk.
Fear of falling
One of the major fears as we age is of impaired mobility and of taking a bad fall. The possibility of taking a nasty tumble increases as your posture decreases. If the posture in the upper back begins to worsen, the spine becomes distorted and you start to lean forward with your head placed further in front of the body. This makes balance and keeping your physical equilibrium far more difficult. This can often be prevented through proper postural corrections which have been shown to improve balance.
Posture can be improved!
There’s good news: poor posture with its resultant problems is not a foregone conclusion and, as with most age-related changes, there are things that we can do to delay or relieve the changes. Posture can be improved at any age!
The best defense against age-related changes in your posture is being proactive!
• First of all, avoid being sedentary for long periods of time; simply getting up and moving around every so often allows your muscles to stretch out and stay flexible.
• Core exercises are perfect for this as they help keep you balanced, stable, and increase your overall body strength.
• You can also do some weight-bearing exercises at home, like walking or climbing stairs to help reduce any breakdown in your vertebrae.
• Another factor in postural changes with aging is the stiffness that develops with reduced activity; this is why older people are no longer as flexible as they were when they were younger. The best way to combat this is by remaining active.
It is also worthwhile to strengthen the muscles around the spine to keep the back in an upright position. The two thick columns of muscle, one on each side of the spine, are the most important when it comes to retaining or regaining your youthful upright position. These are the spinal erectors which are responsible for keeping the spine erect. By strengthening the spinal erectors, you’ll be able to hold your back straight more easily.
Here are 6 easy ways to improve your posture as you age
1. Exercise The more regularly you exercise, the more your posture can improve. We used to think that when you age you lose muscle and nothing can be done to change that; however, it has now been reliably demonstrated by research that eating a little protein (such as a boiled egg) within 30 minutes of exercise (20 minutes of vigorous exercise is enough) has been shown to ‘regrow’ muscle mass. It’s never too late to start to exercise!
2. Diet Maintain a balanced diet with an emphasis on lean protein, vegetables and fruit.
3. Minerals and vitamins Include calcium and vitamin D in your diet to improve bone density.
4. Limit alcohol use.
5. Do not smoke.
6. Mindful Be aware of your posture and although it is not always easy to change a lifetime of slouching and slumping, try to maintain a straight back and upright posture.
Here are just a few of the benefits you will reap with good posture:
• Stay balanced and decrease chances for a fall. When older people are being more mindful of their posture, they have better balance and less risk of falling.
• Lift spirits and decrease feelings of depression. Having proper posture improves your circulation, which better oxygenates your body and leads to a positive mood and perception. Studies have even shown that those who stand and sit upright have more energy and are more confident in life.
• Improve blood flow and help with digestive issues. Sitting up straight while you eat can aid in digestion, as your organs aren’t being compressed by slouching.
It is definitely worth the effort as poor posture habits affect your mobility and function during your daily activities. If this is not corrected by posture exercises, it can lead to pain in many places including your neck, back, hips and knees. This is referred to as postural pain syndrome which can usually be relieved by stretching, taking a walk or lying down for a rest.
So, starting today believe in healthy aging and be aware that “with every step [you] take, every move [you] make” is a step in the right direction; make a conscious decision to stay as upright as possible so that you can continue to “look the world right in the eye”!
Miriam Lipshitz is the Back into Shape team IDD technician, clinical receptionist and blogger. She is a South African qualified and experienced teacher by profession with wide ranging experience in research and writing.