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To help kids maintain good posture, make it fun

Stability balls can allow children to engage their core muscles even when they're sitting down.
Stability balls can allow children to engage their core muscles even when they're sitting down. (Nagy-Bagoly Ilona/Bigstock)
By Lenny Bernstein
Thursday, September 16, 2010

Raise your hand if you've ever nagged your kid about posture. Yeah, me too.

"Stop slouching," we carp at them. "Throw those shoulders back. Raise your chin. Do you want to go through life hunched over like that?"

We mean well. But like much of what we think we know about fitness, it turns out our efforts at propping up our kids are somewhat misguided.

Kids "have bad posture because they have lost their core stability," says Scott Bautch, past president of the American Chiropractic Association's Council on Occupational Health, who used to run programs that encouraged good posture in Midwestern schools. As children's overall fitness has declined, the muscles in their abdomen, upper back, shoulders and lower back have become soft as well, Bautch and other experts say.

Good posture "is remembering to hold your shoulders back," adds Todd Galati, director of academy for the American Council on Exercise and a former researcher on youth fitness at the University of California at San Diego. "And it's getting your body to function in a way that allows your shoulders to stay back."

One hundred fifty years ago, the most people performed tasks each day that taxed the muscles of their trunks in every direction, Bautch says. This led to a balanced upper body, roughly equal strength in the muscles of the front, back and sides of the torso. Good posture was a natural result.

Today, studies show that most physical work is likely to be repetitive: the same small keyboard strokes or assembly line tasks over and over again. There is little chance that balanced opposing muscles will develop from such efforts and be capable of holding the body upright.

"Today's youth, just like today's adults, tend to spend a lot of time at computers," Galati says. "Most people don't sit at a computer in a good postural position."

As we hunch over keyboards, the muscles of the front of the shoulders and chest shorten and their tension increases. Back muscles and those behind the shoulders elongate and have less tension. As we lean forward and peer into that computer screen, the same elongation occurs in the neck muscles. Together, those changes account for that hunched-over, head-thrust-forward look.

It gets worse. Having your legs bent under a desk all day shortens your hip flexors and psoas muscles, which attach to your pelvis and lower spine. That helps pull your lower back out of alignment, also affecting your posture, Galati says.

Our children face additional challenges. For one thing, studies show, posture is partly a learned behavior, and it is learned between ages 3 and 5, Bautch says. If you're modeling poor posture, your kids are likely to pick it up, he says. (Which makes our attempts to harangue teenagers into standing straight somewhat ironic.)

And according to one study, some youngsters carry school backpacks that weigh as much as 30 percent of their body weight, far too much for young muscles. They have no choice, Bautch says, but to lean forward to bear the weight.

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