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How to Beat That Personal Slump

April 05, 1999|KATHY SMITH

While in a business meeting recently, I couldn't help noticing a man slouching in his chair. With rounding shoulders and a neck that jutted forward, he had a classic case of what L.A. sports medicine personal trainer Oscar Fay calls "Lurch syndrome," named for the Addams Family butler who looked like he'd kept going past Cro-Magnon on the evolutionary scale and arrived back at Homo erectus. I wanted to run over and straighten him up.

Of course, I'm often struck by that feeling. From what I can see, the "syndrome" is rapidly growing, particularly among people older than 30 who have sedentary jobs. They sit, stand and walk with their shoulders slumped, while their head and neck lurch forward instead of being held erect. And they're probably not even aware of it. Which means that they don't realize what kind of potential damage they're doing to their bodies.

Bad posture is caused by a combination of factors. The first is that our world is distinctly unfriendly to the human spine. Between driving and working at the computer, we sit too many hours a day in chairs or seats that do not properly support our backs. Then, when we're standing or walking, our posture sags.

You also have to blame stress. Since we often hold our anxiety in the neck and shoulders, the muscles in that region start to seize up, resulting in a decreased range of motion, leading, in turn, to greater stress, leading to--well, you get the idea. It's a painful cycle.

Unfortunately, because the sufferer's body has to overcompensate elsewhere for his poor posture, the symptoms often manifest as pain in the lower back, which bears the brunt of the overcompensation. In pain, the sufferer seeks treatment only for the lower back, not the underlying cause.

An irony of bad posture is that those who suffer from it but also work out in the gym actually risk doing further damage. As Oscar says, "You can't start people on weights, or even some aerobic activities like indoor cycling and kick boxing, if their back and neck are seriously out of alignment. It can be very dangerous." Lifting weights, for example, without attacking the syndrome will only intensify the problems.


Here's a way to test yourself for Lurch syndrome, experts tell me: Stand with your heels against a wall, and press your back flat against it. Then slowly raise your arms in front of you (like a zombie). Notice how far up you can reach before your back starts to arch and come off the wall. You should be able to raise your arms past your shoulder, within a foot or two of the wall before arching begins. If it begins before you reach nose level, it's time to take corrective steps.

My first recommendation is a weekly or twice-weekly yoga class. Yoga is the scourge of bad posture, particularly types of yoga like hatha that emphasize stretching. Then there's massage. The best are the deep tissue massages, like shiatsu, though few people can afford them every day.

That's why, on a daily basis, you should be stretching. Here are three basic stretches that should help considerably:

One: Lie flat on your back with knees slightly bent, back flat on the floor, arms straight out to the side, palms up. Slowly raise your arms over your head as if they were the hands of a clock converging at 12. Stop at the point where you can't hold your back pressed to the floor, and hold for 15 seconds before lowering. Repeat four times.

Two: Kneel on the floor with your buttocks between your ankles. With your head dropped, slowly slide your hands forward along the floor, stopping as far forward as possible. Hold for 15 seconds and repeat four times.

Three: Stand up straight with your knees slightly bent, feet shoulder width apart. Interlock your fingers behind your back and rest your hands at the waist, just on top of your buttocks. Pulling your elbows back, press the shoulder blades together as far as they'll go. Hold for 15 seconds and repeat four times.

I also recommend that you invest in excellent bedding and seating, particularly if you're waking up sore and stiff, or feel that way after sitting at your desk. The fact is, most beds and (office) chairs actually contribute to poor spinal health. And while chairs and beds that promote good health can set back your bank account a few notches, consider that, together, sleeping and working account for two-thirds of your life.

When Fay came up with Lurch syndrome, he named it for a humorous character. But with a population that's spending more and more of its time seated in front of computers, it's no laughing matter.


Copyright 1999 by Kathy Smith

Kathy Smith's fitness column appears weekly in Health. Reader questions are welcome and can be sent to Kathy Smith, Health, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. If your question is selected, you will receive a free copy of her book "Getting Better All the Time." Please include your name, address and a daytime phone number with your question.

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