by Adam Brown BScPT, MClScPT
Advanced Practice Physiotherapist
updated Nov 16, 2023
This is among the most asked questions in our physiotherapy clinics. Patients understand that their mobility and posture has changed as they have aged and want to know if they must accept it as a consequence of simply getting older, or if they can take control and improve things.
The answer unequivocally is YES! You can absolutely improve mobility and posture. But perhaps not in the way you assume is correct.
As physiotherapists we understand that many of the changes that people assume are an inevitable consequence of aging, are in fact perfectly understandable (and optional) adaptations to the average lifestyle of the aging Canadian. While some changes are inherent in aging, most can be avoided by remaining physically active and looking after your mind and body with good nutrition and stress management.
Most patients who are interested in changing their posture note that they have developed the typical forward head and rounded shoulders that is often coupled with a rounded thoracic spine (mid back) and a less flexible rib cage, than they had in their younger years. If you were to step back and look at what many of these people are doing on a daily basis you could see these changes as perfectly rational adaptations to the stresses placed upon the body.
Our bodies are very efficient biological systems that do not preserve tissue or function that we do not seem to need. Evolutionarily speaking it is much too metabolically expensive to maintain tissue that has been deemed unnecessary. In short, if you sit at a computer for 8 hours a day and the rest of your activity does not adequately challenge the full range of motion of your joints or working length of your muscles, your body will adapt to that routine. You will become ideally adapted to your daily physical movements, positions, and posture.
If this sounds depressing, stay with me, there is some good news.
The same biological systems that have adapted to sitting at your desk, can remodel and adapt to a different way of living. All you need to do is provide the right kinds of stress on a consistent basis to signal to your body that changes need to be made so that your body can support your way of life.
So while most patients ask how to change their posture so that they can do activities that require better mobility, the actual answer is to design your physical activity and lifestyle to get the postural changes you need.
Many patients assume that postural change will be accomplished by static stretches of all of the tightened muscles. While this is one way to signal to your body that a change is required, it is not the most efficient way. A program of movement and resistance exercise that works your muscles throughout their maximum range of motion utilizing a wide variety of positions and postures will be more effective. These types of programs simultaneously can build strength in weakened areas and mobility in shortened or tight structures.
A physiotherapist can help to advise you on where to start and how to avoid injury as you begin the process of introducing new (or long forgotten) movements into your physical activity routine. They can produce a program that progresses through levels of difficulty, respecting the timeline required for physical adaptations.
How long will it take?
A common but misguided question. If you want to build and maintain great posture and mobility, you need to keep moving. Inherent in the question is the notion that once they achieve better posture they can move on. The reality is that our body is constantly adapting to the stress, or lack of stress we place on it.
This is the real essence of “use it or lose it”.
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