Stretches for Posture Correction

For the past few weeks, I have been doing a series of stretches designed to correct posture problems and limber up the ol’ spine. When I am done, I feel about an inch taller, for a few hours anyway. I also feel less stiff in the morning and after a lot sit on the commuter train.

Here are some tips, broken down by the three major spinal regions – cervical, thoracic, lumbar and sacral. Let’s go to the map!

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Cervical Spine

My favorite moves involve sensations of lengthening the spaces between the vertebrae of your neck. Start by nodding your chin toward your left shoulder as far as you can, comfortably, while keeping your shoulders down. Then raise your chin to the left side, again, as far as you can comfortably. Do this a few times to the rhythm of your breath.

When you’re nodded toward your shoulder again, move your chin in a diagonal through space so that you’re raising your chin as far as you can comfortably to the upper right. Repeat the diagonal move a few times.

Then repeat the whole sequence on the opposite side. Be sure to keep your shoulders down! You may notice that you’re more limber on one side than the other. As you complete a few moves, you may find that your ability to nod or rise increases as you stretch and warm up. Finish with a few movements that go shoulder to shoulder in a wide arc, like a big smile.

Cervical and Thoracic Spine

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This move gives the sensation of elongating the neck and upper back. In bare feet, stand straight on a non-slip surface, with a chair or table nearby in case you need help balancing. With feet facing forward and arms at your sides, rise onto your toes and stand, balancing, for 10 seconds. Then lower your heels until you’re standing flat on the ground, while continuing the sensation of lengthening so that you feel as tall as you were when you were on tip-toe.

It helps to imagine that a string emerging from the crown of your head is keeping you up, like a puppet. Repeat this several times with feet facing forward, and several times with feet in a V position. Reach out for support if you think you’re going to fall, but try hard to balance.

Thoracic and Lumbar Spine

I love a classic Pilates roll-up for helping me stretch and strengthen the core spine.

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Stand straight with arms at your sides and shoulders down, knees slightly bent (not locked). Nod your chin to your chest, and slowly roll down, vertebra by vertebra, allowing the weight of your head and arms to pull you into a forward folding shape. When you’ve gone down as far as you can, bend your knees a bit and hang like a rag doll for a few seconds.

Then, roll up, articulating and feeling each vertebra as you go, from bottom to top. Your head rises last. Repeat several times. You should be able to hang further at the bottom with each try.

The Whole Spine

Pretty much everyone who’s had back issues ends up doing pelvic tilts as part of a stretch routine for recovery. Stop me if you know this one!

Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat. Take note of where your head, neck, back and butt touch the floor, and where there’s space between your bod and the floor. You will probably feel space around the middle of your back where the natural curve of your spine hovers above the floor.

Gently tilt your pelvis so the space disappears and your spine feels imprinted to the floor. Use your abs to do this move. It helps me to imagine I’m balancing a bowl of soup on my pelvis, so that when I tilt my pelvis, the imaginary soup would spill all over my belly.

Then tilt the other way – exaggerate the space where your spine is off the floor. That imaginary soup would now spill all over your crotch. (Sorry for the dumb imagery, but it helps.)

Repeat a few times – each time try to feel each vertebra articulate up and down. You can also nod your chin towards your chest to elongate your cervical spine.

Try all these and let me know if you feel a little taller when you’re done!

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One Day of Sitting and Standing Up Straight

I tried today to stand up straight and sit up tall all day. I made it exactly 10 minutes before I caught myself in the mirror, slouching while I brushed my teeth.

Sheesh.

Walking to the train, I tried to imagine I was carrying my breasts on a tray in front of me, like a medieval painting of Saint Agatha.

Saint Agatha
Are these breasts, or just suggestive cupcakes?

That works pretty well, oddly enough, except when I forgot, and I forgot every 10 minutes or so.

Sheesh.

First thing at work, I had a meeting with about 30 people. We were jammed into a conference room, and I happened to pick the chair next to the speaker. All eyes on me! So I sat up straight. The whole time. I didn’t even let my back touch the back of the chair, I was that straight. My mind wandered to Scarlett O’Hara’s mother in “Gone With the Wind,” a lady so refined that Scarlett “had never seen her mother’s back touch the back of any chair in which she sat.”

Ellen Ohara
Me? Sit? No. I’m a lady.

Sheesh.

After that I felt a little burning sensation between my shoulder blades – maybe from muscles that hadn’t been used in a good long while, muscles that had been complacent and atrophied in their slouch.

For the rest of the day I tried to sit up as straight as possible. I realized my chair and desk were a bit un-ergonomic for this, so I fussed over the chair a while. When I got that straightened out, I realized my monitors were a bit low, so I fussed with them. I finally got to work on the computer and noticed from time to time that my shoulders crept up toward my ears. I pushed them back down. That little burn between my shoulder blades got hotter.

At lunch I stooped over my soup. I mean, I am all for trying this posture jazz, but I am not going to dribble soup all over my clothes to get there.

A few more meetings in the afternoon, and a few more Ellen O’Hara impressions. “Why yes,” I thought, “I am the epitome of femininity and refinement. Look at how my back doesn’t even touch the back of my chair, bitches.

I walked back to the train, head held high. I stepped in a subway grate and scuffed up the heel of my new boots, tripping and almost falling, but hey, I was walking with my head held high, not down at the ground like some slattern.

falling

Then I got on the train and took a nap, all slouched into the seat. Hey – I needed a break.

I resumed the walking and sitting when I got home for a while, but later, curled up on the couch watching TV, I caved. Enough for today.

Or, as Scarlett would say it, “Tomorrow is another day!”

scarlett

I Don’t Do Woo-Woo

My first stop in my effort to improve my posture was to seek medical advice. At least, I thought I was seeking medical advice. I really ended up seeking a practitioner of woo-woo.

I am talking about chiropractors.

“Woo-woo” is a snarky way to describe everything phony-baloney, magical thinking, pseudoscience, nutsy, mystical and downright bogus. I put chiropractors into that category. They are not doctors, and their practice has little to no medically proven benefit.

Yet, there are lots of chiropractors out there, and lots of people who “swear by” them. Swear all you want. That’s what happens when people are desperately in pain.

Anyway, the woman I saw was offering a posture clinic at my gym as part of a women’s health fair, so I thought I’d check it out. She didn’t bill herself as a chiropractor, which seems deceitful to me. She started by asking me a few questions about my age, health, exercise and eating habits. I showed her my uneven shoulders and my growing dowager’s hump. Then she poked around my back for a bit while I sat in one of those chairs where you plant your face into something that looks like a squishy toilet seat.

She filled out this assessment form for me:

back assessment
Woo woo !

It may be a little hard to read this, but basically it claims that all the health problems of humanity have their causes and cures in your back.

For example, let’s say you suffer from headaches, low energy, sneezing, nightmares and burning feet. This dog’s breakfast of symptoms is connected to your liver, don’t you know, and the cure is a chiropractic treatment of your 8th thoracic vertebra.

That was her diagnosis of me, along with problems with my 2nd thoracic and 5th lumbar vertebrae.

I can see how someone can get sucked into this. I mean, I get headaches from time to time. I struggle to maintain my weight. I have occasional aches and pains. It would be nice if the cure was a simple chiropractic adjustment, instead of dieting and exercising, avoiding headache triggers and otherwise succumbing to almost 50 years on this planet.

Some other health issues supposedly cured by chiropractors seem downright dangerous. If you’re craving sweets, feel tired after eating and get headaches if you get too hungry, your problem might be diabetes, not your 6th thoracic vertebra.

I asked the chiropractor if she could cite any peer-reviewed studies that proved these ideas. “No,” she said, “but I can tell you that my patients all feel better.”

In the first place, I don’t have any pain – it’s really more of an attempt to correct bad posture and its other effects that I’m after.

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Shoulder issues – the shirt is on grain. I am off grain.

If you are in pain, and if you believe the chiropractor can help you, then maybe it will. The brain plays a big role in the power to heal. Plus, maybe it just feels good to have someone touching you and showing you sympathy for your pain.

I don’t believe, so forget it. I probably insulted her when I told her that, but I don’t care. Hey, if you believe in what you’re doing, put some data behind it. Is that so hard?

I have my annual check-up in a few weeks with my real doctor, and I’ll ask her for a referral.

I Feel Bad About My Shoulders

Stand up straight! Don’t slouch!

Did you hear that a lot as a kid? I did. I didn’t obey, and today I am sorry for it. My back and shoulder issues are worsening with age.

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Shoulder issues – the shirt is on grain. I am off grain.

I don’t wear a lot of striped or plaid tops for this reason. This shirt does a great job of showing the problem – my right shoulder is lower and forward of my left shoulder, and I have a bit of a hunchback developing on my left side.

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side view

Because the top of my body slumps this way, the bottom of my body hyperextends the other way to compensate. You can really see it on this pants muslin. Those drag lines from the front thigh around to the back calf tell the tale:

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Doomed from every angle!

Here’s what these back and shoulder issues look like from the front – note the two shoulder heights, plus drag lines on the right at the armpit, pointing to other fitting problems.

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Three issues conspired in my childhood to create this problem:

  1. I was very tall for my age – about 5’4″ in 6th grade – and I was very ungainly and self-conscious. I slouched and slumped to try to make myself look smaller.
  2. I had a mild scoliosis. I should have worn a back brace, but I didn’t get one. I don’t really know why my parents ignored this. My mother once said she was afraid kids would pick on me. Anyway, we had no money.
  3. I wore a backpack to school slung over only my left shoulder, which probably partly explains why it developed the way it did.

My inability to stand up straight ruined my wedding pictures:

wedding
Bride of 1999

And it’s starting to cause me some pain. Things will only get worse if I don’t work on it.

My winter self-improvement plan involves working on my posture. I am going to try a few things:

  • Medical assessment of my posture – how bad it is and what I can expect if I don’t address it
  • Exercises to fix it, or at least to stop it from getting worse
  • Gadgets and garments that might help
  • Sewing and alterations to minimize the cosmetic problem

I am curious if any readers have struggled with this and have tips or experiences that I might find valuable. Please drop me a line if you do.

One Year, 7 Pounds, Lessons Learned

I have been trying to lose weight for a year. I have lost seven pounds. This is a good news story. Many people might say, “Seven pounds, in a YEAR? That’s not much.” Those people would be misguided. Seven pounds is a lot, especially for me, for two reasons:

  • I have around 15 pounds I want to lose, so seven pounds is about halfway there.
  • If I had continued on the road that caused me to gain seven pounds in the first place, I’d be even more overweight now.

To lose this weight, I tried two commercial weight-loss programs. I like the structure and accountability they offer. Here’s my quick review of them.

Noom

Summary: A weight-loss mobile app that provides daily articles to read and activities to do, plus tracking of food intake and exercise, and pairs you with a coach and a group for support. I learned a lot from this app, but I didn’t actually lose any weight during the four months I tried it. (I would lose a pound, then gain it back, on a repeat cycle, that is.)

What you eat: The diet itself is just a calorie-counting app, which breaks foods down in a stoplight system – eat lots of “green” foods, such as fruits & vegetables with high water content, some “yellow” foods, such as lean meat and dairy, and few “red” foods, such as sweets and fats. The app provides 1,200 calories a day, which left me starving and irritable most of the time. I think this very low calorie limit set me up for failure. There is such a thing as eating too little and putting your body into “conserve” mode. I often ate 1,400 to 1,500 a day, making sure the “extra” calories were for filling fruits and veggies. Still, every day I felt like I was one scary moment away from this:

giphy

What you do for exercise: The system sets an activity goal that ramps up gradually to 10,000 steps a day (the app has a pedometer built in) and X minutes of exercise a day after that. I had no problem here. If you exercise more, you get to eat more, which seems to defeat the purpose of exercising.

What you learn: The best parts of Noom are the articles and activities, geared to change behaviors around weight loss. You learn not to fear the scale by weighing yourself daily. You learn your “big reason why” you want to lose weight – a very good exercise if you want to get at your real motivation.

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You can’t hide from the scale.

You learn how to deal with temptations by exposing yourself to them, to the point where they lose whatever meaning they had for you. You learn to identify triggers for overeating, how to deal with difficult people and situations, how to eat mindfully and how to cope with all those hormones and other bodily systems that conspire to frustrate weight-loss activities. The first two months the articles, activities and quizzes were great. And then the program changed and each day you got a lot of random crap, repeated articles and “duh” kinds of stuff.

Support: This was a big letdown. The so-called “coach” was really just someone who’d text you once a week and ask you to set a goal. If you reached out for support, the “coach” would get back to you, eventually, but would not offer any real guidance beyond asking you questions so you could figure out for yourself what to do. The coach did not seem to remember my issues or struggles – each week it was like the first time they’d ever met me. I looked up the coaches on LinkedIn and Glassdoor. They all looked to be thin people in their 20s, and some had training as dietitians or nutritionists. They said they coached up to 300 people at a time, which means they have only a couple of minutes each week max to spend with each person. The “group” support also was very lacking, as new people were coming all the time and others were dropping out. It’s hard to connect with anyone.

Cost: $99 for two months, with no extras to buy.

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Rollerblading like it’s 1999.

Best takeaway: The best thing I learned from my coach was to think back to when I was at my ideal weight. What did I do back then? How did I feel? What was an average day like? What were my struggles? I spent a lot of time thinking about this, and it helped me see my present a bit more clearly. When I was at my goal weight, for example, I did a lot more cardio exercise than I’d been doing lately, so I got back into that, in addition to my Pilates, walking and gardening.

Worth it? Not for me. If you are clueless about how to lose weight – that is, you have no idea how to eat healthy and you never exercise – Noom might be good for you. If you think this might work for you, I’d try the 2-month program. Be very careful to cancel before the renewal period if you plan to quit!

Slimming World

Summary: This British weight-loss system uses a proprietary restricted food list, online recipes, articles and support, and weekly group meetings led by a coach where members help each other in real-time chat sessions. I lost my seven pounds using this system and I recommend it, with reservations.

What you eat: The restricted food list is idiosyncratic but leans toward low fat, high carb. It includes unlimited “speed” foods such as most fruits and nonstarchy vegetables – you’re supposed to fill your plate 1/3rd with these foods every meal. You also can have unlimited lean proteins, starchy vegetables, pasta, rice, beans and a few other things.

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Curried chickpeas and couscous – fill ‘er up!

People freak out at the idea of eating as much pasta and potatoes as you want. This is ridiculous, of course, but the “all carbs are bad” school is pretty persistent.

You can also have one serving of whole wheat bread, certain cereals nuts and the like a day, and two servings of dairy. Finally, you can spend a very limited number of “Syns” on whatever you want – chocolate, alcohol, oils and butter, etc.

This system means that you eat very little prepared or processed food and almost no sugar. Since I like to cook, it was pretty easy for me to prepare my meals and avoid “Syns.” But it makes it very hard to eat out without asking for lots of adaptations, since most restaurant food has a ton of oil in it. And you can forget about pizza. I quibble with the tough stance on oils. A little healthy oil is very important for nutrition, and healthy skin and hair. I spend at least 2 Syns a day on olive or sunflower oil.

gold

What do you for exercise: There’s a “Body Magic” component that encourages activity. Do X number of minutes, X days a week, and you get an award. I got the awards pretty easily. The hardest one – “Gold” requires at least a half hour of exercise 5 days a week.

What you learn: Each day is a new day at Slimming World. You’re not meant to save up your Syns for a big splurge, but rather do the best you can each day. This was hard for me, as I have tended to think about weeklong blocks of time, but now that I am used to it I realize it’s better to focus on the present. I liked weighing in once a week though. You also are meant to plan, plan, plan so that you know ahead of time what you’re eating. This is not a diet for people who do things at the last minute or open the fridge and say “what should I have for lunch?” They have some handy tools, such as a “For and Against” list where you write down all the reasons for and against losing weight. Sounds dumb, but if you spend some time on it and revisit it from time to time, you learn a lot about yourself.

Support: The coach and groups are much more involved and high-quality experiences than with Noom. You choose a day and time for your hourlong group meeting – I happen to do Wednesday nights. The meetings happen in a chat format on Slimming World’s website. The coach leads the meetings, but the content is whatever you want it to be. Members can pose questions to the group and we’ll all chime in to help. Sometimes this gets tedious, especially when people have asked for breakfast ideas for the 10th time. But we often have real discussions about real problems, such as planning for holidays, dealing with food pushers and fitting exercise into daily life.

sw of the weekThe meeting also includes a lot of pep talks and awards. I’ve been “Slimmer of the Week” three times. The group and coach also are available during the week on a special landing page, or you can reach out to the whole Slimming World community. A few membersof my group exchanged personal numbers so we can text each other during the week. My one complaint is the website and mobile app are both very wonky – hard to use and prone to crashes and bugs.

Cost: The initial joining fee is $30, which includes access to the online community, articles and recipes, and a booklet. After that, it’s $10 a month. I paid $14 to buy a three-month meal and activity planner book because the website annoyed me so much. This was totally optional.

IMG_20180719_184423Best takeaway: I really like the planning. Each week I make a lot of modular foods that mix and match for meals. For example, I’ll grill or roast several chicken breasts and a pile of vegetables, boil a pound of shrimp bake a few potatoes, cook a pot of couscous and a pot of pasta, hard boil several eggs, and prep veggies for salads. Dinner of grilled chicken,  grilled veggies and corn on the cob one day becomes a pasta salad for lunch the next day and fajitas for dinner, etc. I almost always bring my lunch to work now, and I never have a day when I am hungry, there’s not much to eat in the house, and we end up ordering takeout.

Worth it? Yes, I recommend this plan. You will get out of it what you put into it (as with most things in life, right?) It’s easy to follow, you get support if you want it, and you can lose weight.

 

Going Sugar-Free

I am trying this week to go Sugar-Free, and I am not talking about switching to Diet Coke.

I am trying not to eat any added sugar at all, in anything.

This is harder than you might think. You can’t go sugar-free just by avoiding sweets. In the U.S. anyway, sugar is in almost everything. I went through my cabinets and fridge and marked with a sharpie all the sugar-laden foods with an X.

Why is there sugar in mayonnaise? I’ve made it from scratch before, out of only egg yolk, oil, mustard, lemon juice and salt. Same deal with spaghetti sauce. Aren’t tomatoes sweet enough? I definitely don’t add sugar to my homemade sauce.

 

Obviously, all cereals are out. I am not a big cereal eater anyway (this is my husband’s hoard), but I checked just for fun. Cheerios has only 1 gram of sugar per bowl – that’s about 1/4 of a teaspoon – so the best of the lot. Some of these so-called “healthy” cereals have 13 grams per serving – about 1 tablespoon of sugar.

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Oddly enough, the “Crispy Cocoa Rice” cereal is not the sweetest cereal in my pantry

I’m also astonished at how sweet foods have more than one kind of sugar in them. A barbecue sauce, for example, had two kinds of corn syrup, brown sugar, and plain ol’ sugar in it. Yuck.

Food companies do this mostly so that they can hide the amount of sugar in foods. U.S. regulations require food companies to list ingredients by volume, most prevalent to least prevalent, in the food. If they just used, say, corn syrup, that item would appear high up in the list, maybe even first. You think you’re eating tomato ketchup, but the label would reveal you’re eating corn syrup flavored with tomatoes. So they spread out the sugar content among several different types of sugars to hide this reality. There are more than 60! Common ones you see are: sugar, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, invert sugar, maple syrup, brown sugar, molasses, honey, agave syrup, cane juice, beet sugar, sucrose, fructose, etc.

Some people think that some kinds of sugars are “healthier” than others. Not true. It’s all basically the same. Just because honey and maple syrup come from nature doesn’t mean they’re less sugary than corn syrup that comes from a factory.

I stumbled upon another reality of processed foods – things tend to get sweeter over time. I had in my pantry two boxes of Kashi Cherry Dark Chocolate granola bars – one “original” and one “improved.” Obviously, these have sugar in them. I have been bringing them to work sometimes if I want a sweet treat to have with coffee, because it’s a better option than, say, a pastry or doughnut. I compared the old nutrition ingredients to the new, and look what I found:

The “new and improved” is actually “new and worse.” There’s more sugar and fat and less protein now, but more chocolate! The bar is denser and also stickier from the extra sugar. Brands like Kashi have a “health halo” around them. They use packaging and advertising to make people think their products are good choices, but they’re not.

Finally, here’s a Tale of Two Salsas.

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The one on the right is a Peach and Mango salsa. It’s sweet, yes, because there are peaches and mangos in there. Yet there’s also sugar and agave syrup, which is supposed to be “better” than corn syrup. As if.  WHY? The salsa on the left is a roasted tomato and pepper concoction – no added sugar. Its 1 gram of sugar occurs naturally in tomatoes. So it’s what I am going to have.

Everything Sucks

My sewing room garbage can is stuffed. I put in there the muslins and pattern pieces from the Burda trousers 127 from the December 2017 issue. The fit just looks awful, no matter what I do. I will spare your eyeballs the ugly pictures from my third muslin attempt. It was a serious shitshow. The idea to do a “full thigh adjustment” did not work. Excess fabric pooches out in the thighs and just looks absurd. So yeah, I learned that lesson.

Also in the bin is my skirt from New Look 6326. This had two problems – dodgy fabric and a backside fit that just baffled me. The waist was enormous but when I put in another set of darts in the back, I got this bizarre pleating effect. Could I fix it? Maybe. But fuck it. I don’t even want the skirt anymore. It’s made of wool crepe and it’s already mid-February.

Basically, I struggle mightily to fit the bottom half of my body. I can make tops and jackets all day. I can make a fit-and-flare dress or skirt. But I have to deal with my thighs, butt and waist in any way, I fail. This is serious disappointment. Half the point of sewing apparel for me is to get clothes I want but cannot buy because RTW cuts don’t remotely fit me.

I have always hated my legs. Even as a child I hated them. I seriously had cellulite and stretch marks on my thighs when I was 12. I have spent my entire life trying to deal with this. Even at my thinnest as an adult, my legs looked terrible. Now I have gained back some of that weight, and I think every fucking pound of it went to my legs and my ass.

This is a string of failures. I am also having problems with this graduate class I am taking. Work is boring. I can’t seem to lose weight. And our dinner party last night didn’t turn out well either.

Part of me knows that failure is inevitable when you try something new or hard. “Give yourself permission to suck,” I say to myself. Well, I suck all right. Everything sucks. I feel like I just need a good long cry, but I can’t bring myself to do it. I thought maybe if I wrote this – just put all the shit out there – it would release the floodgates.

Nope.