A body that moves with ease and grace. That’s what we all want. We’re actually born that way, but then life happens. We sit at desks all day, lock our necks over phones and hang heavy purses from our shoulders. And when we exercise, our good intentions can do more harm if we tense the neck while lifting weights or round our shoulders while power walking.
We all pick up bad habits that put our bodies out of balance, causing pain and sometimes injury. “We tend to focus on the task instead of our body,” notes Kelly McEvenue, who teaches the Alexander Technique (which focuses on reorganizing the body’s coordination) to actors at the Stratford Festival in Ontario. How can we undo the damage – or prevent it altogether? We consulted experts, from massage therapists to chiropractors, who help soothe the aches of modern life. They offer a decidedly modern workout based on effortless moves you can do anywhere (no leotard required).
These exercises work by diffusing tension before it evolves into a chronic problem. “The key is to break the pattern of the bad habit while you’re doing it – don’t wait for next Tuesday’s yoga class,” says Toronto chiropractor Bojan Vitko. This might mean being more aware of your body when you are sitting at the computer – breathing deeply and stretching. You also need to realize that your body is an interconnected whole, not a collection of isolated parts. As the song goes, the leg bone’s connected to the hip bone. “If the neck and upper back are stiff, you’re going to be susceptible to computer wrist,” says Vitko.
Overusing one part of your body – such as leading with the same foot or working a mouse – creates an imbalance that predisposes you to injury. “A mechanic will tell you to rotate your tires so they’ll wear evenly and last longer,” notes Diane Bruni, director of Toronto’s Downward Dog Yoga Centre. “If you use your body unevenly, you’ll wear some of your parts away.” Especially ligaments and joints. Bruni, who is also a shiatsu therapist, advises people to strengthen their weaker or less-used side. Try holding the phone or even the blow dryer on your other side.
With every movement in your day, you should involve as many parts of the body as you can to keep all of them strong and flexible. For example, don’t just turn your neck to look behind you; allow your shoulders and upper body to move as well.
Here’s a list of some of the most common, tension-causing bad habits – and their movement antidotes. When you notice you’re sinking into one of these no-no’s – letting your belly go or scrunching the phone to your ear – straighten up and try one of these moves. But don’t just power through the exercise. Concentrate on every movement and try to be aware of how you’re moving or holding your body in a different way. If you practise these tension relievers regularly – at least once a day – you’ll loosen up, feel more balanced and move with poise. You’ll soon find that daily aches and pains don’t have to be part of a kid-holding, computer-using, purse-carrying life.
Holding your hands clenched over the keyboard all day can lead to aching wrists and eventually the dreaded repetitive strain injury, carpal tunnel syndrome.
For his mouse-driven clients, Toronto shiatsu therapist Mark Kremko suggests the carpal tunnel prayer. Hold your hands in prayer, palms together, elbows out. Push palms and shoulders down. Do the same thing with the back of your hands touching and fingers pointing up. Then with palms together and the fingers pointing down, slowly try to move the fingertips upward while keeping the shoulders down. This stretch gets you out of habitual tension-causing positions.
Unless you use a speaker phone or operator’s headset, you probably suffer from this telephonic malady. Scrunching over the phone can lead to pain in the neck and even tension headaches.
Try this exercise from Toronto’s Marion Harris, pioneering practitioner of the bodywork technique Feldenkrais, which is based on reeducating your body’s posture and movement to move more comfortably. Changing the pattern of how you move your head and eyes gives greater mobility to the neck. With the fingers and heel of your right hand, gently push down on the muscle on top of your left shoulder at the base of the neck. Slowly drop head and ear to left shoulder. Then bring your head up again. Lift your left shoulder, then lower it. Now drop your ear to the left and at the same time, lift your shoulder. Then bring head up and shoulder down. Still holding onto the shoulder, fix your eyes on a point in front of you. Then lightly turn your head to the left, then the right, keeping your eyes fixed straight ahead. Turn gently if you hear crunching noises you’ve gone too far. Pause. Without moving your head, look to the left, then to the right as far as you can comfortably. Now do the entire sequence on the right side with the left hand gently pressing the right shoulder.
Your shoulder was not meant to be a hook for a strap, but that’s how it’s often used. The result of purses, heavy or light: muscle tension around the neck and upper back, which can lead to spasms and sloping shoulders.
First, lighten your load. Try placing the purse strap diagonally across your body. Even better: carrying the purse by its handle or chucking it altogether. Backpacks are best, if they’re not so heavy that they interfere with walking. To stretch your shoulders, Yvonne McKinley, a movement therapist at HealthWinds Wellness Centre in Toronto, recommends this exercise: while standing with knees slightly bent, interlace fingers behind you. Rotate shoulders back and down, moving shoulder blades toward spine. Try to lift arms up and look straight ahead.
mom’s slouch and computer hunch
Whether you’re sitting at a computer or holding a child, your shoulders tend to round. Not only will slouching cause you pain in your upper back, it can eventually lead to dowager’s hump.
Side bends are the perfect antidote for slouching, explains McKinley, as they pull your torso into alignment. So get off your chair or put the kid down. Stand up with feet hip-width apart, take a deep breath and lift your arms overhead. With a straight back, lean to the right side while exhaling and without moving hips. Return to centre. Then lean to the left, remembering to extend the neck up and away from your shoulders. Come back up. Then lower your arms until they extend straight out to the sides at shoulder height and twist your torso by moving the right arm toward your back, then the left arm. Repeat six to eight times. While standing, raise arms overhead again and keeping shoulders down, do a slight back bend while pressing hips slightly forward.
If you’re wearing out your heels on one side or the other, you’re bearing your weight unevenly. Foot specialists contend that pronating – walking on the insides of your feet – causes most foot problems, such as corns, calluses and heel pain.
To make sure your feet hit the ground evenly, Harris says you need to strengthen the arches and the stirrup muscle that goes around the ankles. Place feet eight to 10 centimetres apart. With toes flat on the floor, rise up as far as you can, keeping ankles strong and straight. Go up and down slowly six times without letting heels touch the floor.
By midafternoon do you feel as if your tummy hangs somewhere over your thighs? If you’re like many people, your stomach and back muscles may not be strong enough to let you stand straight all day. Letting out your belly can cause more than an unfashionable bulge; weak abdominal muscles can make you vulnerable to all-too-common lower-back problems.
Moira Stott, owner of the Stott Pilates Studio in Toronto, recommends the single leg stretch, which will help you become more aware of your abs than plain sit-ups can. Lying on your back, with spine flat on the floor and abs sinking toward spine, bend knees into the chest. Place right hand on right ankle, left hand on inside of right knee. Inhale, lengthen the back of the neck and slightly drop your chin, exhale and contract your abs as you lift your upper body and extend the left leg straight out and as low as you can hold without arching the back. Keep your torso up as you alternate legs, doing 10 sets. C
What’s good posture? Many of us think it’s standing straight with our chests raised and shoulders back. But according to Feldenkrais expert Marion Harris of Toronto, it’s not good to walk in that position. When you do, your foot moves forward first, your heel pounds the floor, then the rest of your body must catch up. To change those old patterns, try this:
* Walk backward slowly, taking six to eight paces. Then notice how your body moves and feels. Most people distribute their weight evenly when walking backward.
* Pause, then walk forward, trying to bring those new sensations into your regular walk. Repeat a few times. As you repeat the movement, you’ll notice your body weight stays over your foot more evenly so as your foot hits the floor, your heel isn’t pounding the ground. Your chest won’t feel so rigid, and you should feel more comfortable.
To stand tall and walk tall, you need strong abdominal muscles – that includes lower, middle and upper abs. To work the lower abs and make you more aware of your abdominal muscles, Toronto yoga expert Diane Bruni suggests starting with (believe it or not) Kegel exercises, commonly used to help incontinence as well as improve your sex life. If you do them carefully and powerfully, you’ll engage your abdominals. Clench your perineum (the muscles between the vagina and anus) as tightly as you can, release and repeat as often as you think of it.