Mark Machala

Working your dark meat

You know you should work on having good posture. It requires less energy, and it works against problems such as arthritis by keeping nerve pathways unhampered.

But how does one get good posture?

Well, the first thing to do is sit up straight.

It's hard to keep pulling yourself out of a slouch, but — sorry — that's the main "exercise" for good posture, says Ashland chiropractor Mark Machala, who teaches posture classes at Ashland Food Co-op.

Sitting up straight provides a good workout for the core postural muscles on the front and back of your body, says Machala.

It may seem amazing, but most people don't know how to sit up straight, says Machala.

It sounds simple enough. You just lift up your body by the breast bone until your ear holes (without tipping your head back) are above your shoulders. If your chair has a back, push your pelvis up against it and let the curve of your spine (in the waist area) be free of the chair. The upper back may touch the chair. In this position, you're asking the muscles along your spine to work.

To strengthen the core postural muscles on the front of your body, just hold a light level of tension in your abdomen. You can slap your tummy lightly to activate that level of tension. This works out the abdomen, diaphragm and pelvic floor.

It's easy to get in the habit of doing these workouts while at your computer, in a cafe or watching television, he says, noting "the more you do it, the more unconscious it becomes and, like driving, you don't have to think about it after a while."

Most people don't understand that, like chickens, we have light meat and dark meat. The light meat is muscle known as phasic, prime movers or type-2 fibers, which can take a big load for a short time and do it repeatedly. These are long muscles near the skin, like biceps.

The dark meat is postural or core muscles (type-1), and they aren't visible. These are intended to take a low level of tension for a long time.

When you're doing reps at the gym, you're working the light meat, not the dark, he says. However, the dark meat — the core, postural muscles — can be strengthened by an array of yoga postures and by a few key exercises.

Dark-meat exercises

Hold each of these for five to 10 breaths.

  • Sit in a chair in the "good posture" position. Cross an ankle over the other knee. Keeping the back straight, bend over as far as you can. This movement stretches and strengthens the lower back and hamstrings and works the muscles atop the pelvis. Do the other side.
  • Start in the same sitting position as above. Keep one foot flat on the floor. Stretch the other leg out straight and bend forward 90 degrees with a straight back.
  • Pain often hits the trapezius area of desk-bound computer users because their heads hang forward over the keyboard, with only the levator scapula muscles holding their noggins up. That muscle, which runs from the shoulder blade to the neck, is being asked to do the work of light meat. It can't. So computer users should learn to work with their heads up, says Machala.

To exercise that muscle, sit on one hand and, with the other hand, pull your head to the opposite side. Repeat for the other side.

Almost all yoga postures are good for core muscles, says Machala, but the "down-dog" posture is especially good. Start by kneeling with both hands and knees on the floor and facing down. Lift your pelvis up into the air, straighten your knees and try to keep your feet flat on the floor. Hold this position with your posterior pointing up like a mountain peak.

These good-posture exercises — especially just learning to sit up straight — can make you look taller and sharper, of course, but they serve a function beyond cosmetic, says Machala. They hold your bones and body in line so you don't return to the curved, fetal position in old age.

That fetal position, he notes, is the "set point," the only position we know at birth, and it's comfortable to want to go back to it under stress.

"Look at 4-year-olds, and you'll see great posture if they were allowed to crawl, stand and walk at the proper ages. Those activities put the curves in our spine, and it's up to us to maintain those as we age," he says.

The ubiquitous computer, he notes, is the greatest foe of good posture because, while we're involved with it, we lose awareness of the present and the position of our bodies — so be aware as often as you can of your posture.

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