Chapter 43: It’s the Stoop, Stupid!

From Homo erectus to Homo bentus in only two million years.

Now you might think that nothing could be easier than standing or sitting up straight; turns out, nothing is harder. That’s why, lately, I’ve been strapping on a BackTone 4000 Posture Trainer, an apparatus that looks like a shoulder holster but without the gun. What the BT 4000 does is beep every time its wearer (me) slouches or stoops. I turned to a device because one day I spotted a stranger in a passing mirror, someone who sort of looked like me and dressed like me but whose visible “chicken head” startled me and made him seem a stranger, someone carrying on, but no longer effortlessly; somebody who was not me because I felt fine.

All my life, instead of letting my skull sit properly on my spine, I’ve been leading with my head, neck and chin thrust out. This is probably the result of a certain “Oh, yeah?” stance on my part, not pugnacious exactly but alert to danger, while at the same time being curious, eager, forward. Nor am I the only such posture culprit in the world. In fact, everywhere I look, people are tilted and off keel to varying degrees. So to the Great Signifiers of Aging that I’ve so far touched on in these pages – weight gain, hair loss, sleep issues, sex issues, joint pain, prostate problems, menopause problems, fading eyesight, hearing and memory – I now propose to add: the Stoop.

How did we come to habitually carry our head, shoulders and spine bowed down and forward, and why is it so hard to correct? What happened to tip us over? First, I point the finger at technology: and not just the up-to-the-minute latest digital gizmo variety but a trio of classics that the original Homo erectus didn’t have to deal with. The first is reading. In an orderly world, you would lift the material in question to the level of your eye, in which case your back would be straight and your neck unhunched. Instead, we typically bring our eye and upper torso down to the book or magazine or paper, wherever it may lie, creating the curved back and back of neck bulge that, as it becomes chronic, will come to be medically known as kyphosis (hyperkyphosis is the scientific term for the dreaded dowager’s hump). The second scourge is writing, which starts with the same hunched-over position but then adds another pressure point, the free arm on which we lean. And, as if all that’s not enough to make you crooked, the paper being written on is often slanted diagonally, which in turn causes the neck to twist yet again. As for those who think that they’ve been inoculated against the perils of old school readin’-writin’ by sitting in front of a computer, consider “The Ascent and Descent of Man” (shown above).

In the “olden” days of the analogue telephone, people developed the habit of wedging the receiver between ear and shoulder so hands were free to – what else? – read and write while they talked. They might do this for a couple of hours a day. Eventually someone had the bright idea of inventing a shoulder cradle for the receiver, which institutionalized the whole crazy process by making it just comfortable enough that you could do it longer, creating more ear, neck and shoulder strain and pain. Then came cellphones, smartphones and tablets, which got rid of the shoulder brace but substituted something even worse: the endless looking down, which enables people to combine the deficits of reading, writing and talking on the phone all at once. To watch people in the street today, heads bent low, is to predict a coming epidemic of neck, shoulder and back disorders that will exhaust armies of chiropractors and physiotherapists.

All the Stoop-inducing factors I’ve mentioned so far pertain to everybody and take hold early. There are two, however, that primarily affect us, the most Stoop-prone demographic. One I’d never heard of before is sarcopenia, technically “the loss of muscle mass and co-ordination that results from aging.” It is the result of three physical changes related to aging: motor unit restructuring, protein deficiency and hormonal shifts. Among other pleasant outcomes (sagging facial skin and sunken ribcages), sarcopenia can shrink skeletal muscles, the ones that support the spine and shoulder bones and keep the Stoop at bay.

The better-known age-related postural factor is osteoporosis, specifically the loss of bone density and the multiple small fractures that can occur in a person’s spine as they age. As Dr. Anthony Komaroff of Harvard Medical School explains, when vertebra fracture they don’t snap, they compress. “In many cases, vertebral fractures cause little or no pain. The main clue that they have occurred is a gradual shrinkage or stooped posture.” (Shrinkage, as a lot of us know, can be as dramatic as the Stoop. Jack Nicklaus, the legendary golfer who in his prime was called the Golden Bear for his size, recently told reporters that at age 74, he has lost four to five inches of height.)

Before things get too bleak, let me point out that sarcopenia and osteoporosis can both be combated by nutrition (calcium and vitamin D) and, particularly, Resistance. The efficacy of weight training or isometrics on preventing muscle loss has been known ever since astronauts started spending long periods of time in zero gravity, which can eerily mimic sarcopenia. Studies have shown that astronauts and seniors who lift weights experience far less muscle degradation than their counterparts who don’t. A U.S. Department of Agriculture study found that “elderly participants who did resistance training for 45 minutes, three times a week for 12 weeks saw an average increase of 32 per cent muscle fibre and a 30 per cent increase in strength.” In other words, there is no need for elderly people to “live out their days stooped over and shuffling about.”

The rub with the Stoop, though, is that even if your muscle strength is adequate, retraining your body to reconfigure itself into a thoughtless, naturally erect posture can be extremely difficult and not a little frustrating. This is partly because it’s easy to tell when someone else is stooping but close to impossible to detect it in yourself. (One of the reasons I bought my posture beeper was because the person I had recruited to remind me whenever I was off-centre got tired of having to say “Sit up!” or “Posture!” or “Neck!” every 15 seconds.) According to Heather Chapman, a registered Ontario kinesthesiologist and practitioner of Z-Health, a regimen of visual reorientation to correct body alignment, “You have to neurologically retrain your body. Your joints are jammed, either because you’ve always been bent over kyphotically like that or because of an injury or because you’re visually impaired. Even if you’re not visually impaired, your visual system may have gotten used to telling you that you’re standing erectly when you’re not. Often this is a protective reflex; your body simply feels more comfortable in its off-kilter position. To position yourself otherwise is actually threatening.”

I can relate completely. Recently, I tried the Alexander Technique, which was developed by an early 20th-century Australian actor named Frederick Matthias Alexander, who was having voice problems onstage and found that by copying the erect body positions of dancers, he could enunciate more clearly and comfortably. The technique teaches you to be conscious of your posture at all times, as if a string were running up your spine through the centre of your head, pulling you skyward. Try it. For me, initially, nothing felt less natural. It was remarkably uncomfortable to hold my shoulders back and walk straight; it seemed stultifying and stilted.

Hence the BackTone 4000. It’s not the only posture correction device out there; you can find literally hundreds online. They tend to fall into two main categories: posture braces and corsets, which physically force you into an upright position, and posture feedback devices, which don’t restrict your movement but, instead, let you know through sound or vibration when you’re not level. My device is of the latter type. It beeps. Constantly.

So let me leave you with these thoughts: confidence and appearance both start with how you hold yourself. Because life naturally tends to pull us the other way, it can be challenging and frustrating to remember to stand tall and strong. But it’s worth it if you can pull it off because the wider significance of head carriage for overall physical function is just coming to be understood. Indeed, standing up straight or sitting up straight is the hardest thing in this world to do.

Unless you’re this guy:

Moses’ Zoomer Philosophy — which launched in ZOOMER Magazine in October 2009 — is a series of monthly essays on age and aging, and the secrets and the science to living better, longer, healthier and happier lives. The first volume of his collection is now available in e-book format on the Kobo Books website.  Click here for more information.