Body Mechanics

Body Mechanics

You can balance your core muscles with a program of stretching and strengthening for a strong, healthy, and pain-free back. Then, in one swift, awkward movement—reaching to lift a box of photos off the top shelf in your closet, for example—you can undo all you’ve accomplished.

This section of Better Boomer Backs looks at body mechanics, or how to keep the three natural curves of your spine aligned during different activities to minimize stress on your back and prevent injury and pain. A balanced and aligned spine supports your body and let’s you move freely without pain.

In this section, you’ll look at improving your posture while sleeping, standing, sitting, and lifting. You’ve already worked on your walking posture in Aerobics. Click here for a quick review.

Standing Posture

Ideally, a measure of good standing posture is whether your ears, shoulders, hips, and ankles line up. This external alignment is a pretty good indicator of the state of your spine, whether its three natural curves—cervical (neck), thoracic (middle back), and lumbar (lower back)—are in balanced alignment.

A simple way to check your standing posture is to take a full body photo from the side. Stand as you normally do, then snap the picture. A digital camera on a timer or a camera-savvy friend makes this easy. With your camera and photo in hand, place a ruler over the photo and align it between your ears and ankles. Do you measure up to the ideal posture?

The stretching and strengthening exercises in Better Boomer Backs are geared to support your spine and keep your curves in alignment. But even the most dedicated students of core exercises may never attain the ideal posture. Me for example.

My spondylolisthesis causes my lumbar curve to be exaggerated. I’m swaybacked, my butt sticking out further than is normal. It’s a bone problem, not a muscle problem. Strong, flexible core muscles help, but I’ll never get a job modeling bathing suits. But even without the modeling job, I can still train my back to be pain free.

You don’t need photos to tell if you have good posture. Your body is probably already telling you. If you stand and walk with your head too far forward, you probably hear your neck complaining all the time. Shoulders always tight? You’ll hear from your upper back. If you constantly slouch forward when you walk or sit, your low back could be shouting at you nonstop.

My 4-F back has a 3-alarm warning system built in. The moment I slouch, tighten up, or stress out, all the bells and whistles go off. The major indicators of poor posture are sciatica shooting down my leg or a sharp, localized pain where my spine meets my pelvis. Or both. Secondary signals come from strained muscles trying to compensate for the imbalance my poor posture has caused.

As painfully aware as I am about the consequences of poor posture, sometimes I just can’t help myself. I’m in a hurry, I get engrossed in a project, I’m not paying attention . . . it doesn’t take much to distract me from good posture.

Fully aware of my fallibilities, I’ve taken precautions. When I’m upright and busy around the house, I often wear one of those super wide weight-lifting belts. The catch is, I wear the belt backwards, the wide part in front. No way I can slouch forward when I walk or bend down to pick something up—the belt won’t permit it.

An aside: How long did it take me to discover wearing the belt backwards was better than the conventional way, narrow side up front? “Way too long” is the answer. But if I’d stuck with the conventional, hadn’t experimented with different options, I might never have come up with this personal solution. The same goes for you: keep looking for the best way to subdue your back pain.

Upright and Immobile

My work / play modes don’t require me to stand up immobile for long periods of time. The few times I am upright and locked into a small space for more than 10 minutes (corned at a party, for example), I make sure there’s a small stool nearby that I can alternately prop one leg on, then the other. Even better is claiming enough personal space to move around in, even if it’s only a few square feet.

Remember: the key to surviving long periods of standing is to change positions often.

I’m not personally familiar with this next bit of advice, but I’ve heard it from a enough sources to give it credit: don’t wear hi-heeled shoes. Hi-heels may temporarily firm up your calves, but like spondylolisthesis, they’re a direct path to a swayback. If you want the three natural curves of your spine tossed out of alignment, swayback will do it.

From Best to Worse

Posture isn’t just about standing. Good posture also involves how you walk, sit, lie, bend, twist, reach, and lift. The goal of good posture is to place as little strain as possible on the core muscles and ligaments involved in movement. Good posture can be learned and practiced.

Some activities are just naturally harder on your back than others. For example, the pressure on your spine triples when you move from bed to desk.

From least strain to most strain, here’s how different activities rank on your back:

•Lying on your back with your knees bent

•Lying on your back with straight legs

•Lying on your side with your knees bent

•Lying on your side with straight legs



•Standing, bending forward (slouching)

•Sitting, slouching

•Standing, slouching with a 5-lb sack of pennies in each hand

•Sitting, slouching with a 5-lb sack of pennies in each hand (remember when you could buy stuff with a few pennies? If you’re younger than a Boomer, you probably don’t.)

Look at the list again. There’s a reason why most of the exercises in Better Boomer Backs start with you prone on your back, knees bent.

Sleeping Posture

Based on the list of best-to-worse positions for stress on your spine, the best posture for sleeping is a no-brainer: on your back with knees bent. Wedging a pillow under your knees for support makes it even better.

That said, good luck sleeping all night with a pillow under your knees. I know I can’t do it. I move around too much. The best I can manage is to sleep on my side with slightly bent knees. If I happen to wake up and find myself in another position, I curl back up into that low-slung fetal position. It’s not perfect, but neither am I.

Almost as bad for sleeping as hi-heels are for walking is lying facedown on your stomach. Facedown, your low back has no support. Facedown on a pillow also can be a pain in the neck. Lying facedown’s a painful double-whammy you can do without.

And it goes without saying that a firmer mattress is better for your back than a softer mattress. If your current mattress is too saggy, try placing a board underneath to see if it helps. When it’s time for a new mattress, purchase one that’s comfortable for you. Test before you buy.

When You Can’t Help Yourself

I know all this, yet there are times when I can’t help myself. Lying—actually, slouching—on my back on the living room couch (a soft couch) at night with book in hand after a long day . . . that’s one of those times. Bad as it is for my back, I can’t (won’t) give it up.

I do, however, attempt to make my evening slouch more spine aware. A large pillow under my knees helps take the pressure off my low back. A pillow just large enough to support my head so that I can easily read a book held high reduces neck, shoulder, and upper back strain.

To minimize strain on my arms and shoulders, I plant my elbows at my sides with my arms extended above my head. Supported by the couch under me, I’m able to hold up any sized book without much arm or shoulder fatigue. eBooks or small mobile smartphones are an even less fatiguing read.

The bottom line is to avoid slouching. But if, like me, you sometimes can’t help yourself, do take steps to make a potential backache less of a pain.

Sitting Posture

They call this the Information Age. They might as well call it The Age of Sitting.

A desk, a computer, a chair. For many of us, old and young Boomers alike, this is the space we fill for long stretches of time each day. Guess where I was when I wrote that last sentence. And where I’ll be for many sentences to follow.

You and Your Chair

Some thoughts on chairs and you in them:

  1. The seat of your chair should be just high enough for your feet to rest flat on the ground, your knees bent even with or just slightly higher than your hips. If your chair is too high, consider putting a low footstool under your feet to lift up your knees.

  1. The chair’s back should support your back, not compromise its three natural curves. If your low back aches while you sit, a lumbar roll (or a rolled-up towel tugged between your low back and the chair’s back) can help restore proper alignment of the three curves.

  1. With your feet flat on the floor or on a stool, your knees at the proper height, and your back supported by the chair, be sure your weight is evenly distributed on both sides of your butt.

  1. As I write this, the TV channel MSNBC has a slogan it displays on the screen during its prime time news shows: “Lean Forward.” Suggesting  that its reporting will draw you out of your seat so you don’t miss a word, it’s a clever slogan. But as far as your back goes, it’s not clever at all. If you must slouch forward, minimize the strain on your back by resting your arms on your thighs. If your chair has armrests, use them to support the weight of your upper body when you lean forward. Supporting yourself with armrests also helps to keep your shoulders relaxed. I find this support really helpful when I’m typing. (BTW, when I’m really wrapped up in a project and know I won’t be paying attention to my sitting posture, I wear my weight-lifting belt to prevent myself from slouching too far forward.)

  1. The height of your desk should be synched with the height of your chair. The most critical factor, at least for me, is being able to look at my computer monitor without having to tilt my head up. Currently, I’m looking straight at the monitor. That works; straight on doesn’t kink my neck. Being able to look slightly down at the monitor would be even better.

•Fifteen minutes in your chair shouldn’t strain your back. Thirty minutes of uninterrupted sitting, however, could lead to a backache. Even in an ergonomically designed chair. If you’ve been sitting that long, it’s time to stand up and move around. When you stand up, push yourself up with your hands on the armrests. No armrests? Scoot forward and push yourself up with your hands on your thighs. Minimize the strain on your lower back.

Working as I do from home, I take frequent desk breaks. During the breaks, I often do core stretching and strengthening exercises. If I have enough time, I’ll sneak in some aerobics, walking or running errands on my bike.

If for some uncivilized reason you aren’t allowed out of your chair at work except for pee breaks, coffee, and lunch, you have several options: relaxing or stretching (both can be done without drawing too much attention to yourself, if that’s an issue).

Breathing to Relax

Breathing plays an integral role in the stretching and strengthening exercises in Better Boomer Backs. Breathing also can help rebalance muscles tense from prolonged sitting and from job-induced stresses.

Try this breathing exercise next time you’re feeling tense and can’t get out of your chair:

•Assume your good chair posture.

•Lower your chin and close your eyes.

•Dangle your arms at your sides (if this is too blatant a move, you can keep your hands on your keyboard for that “hard-at-work” look).

•Inhale deeply and slowly, expanding your stomach as you do; near the end of your inhalation, expand your chest.

•Exhale into a Zipper.

•Hold the Zipper for a count of three, then relax (especially your shoulders if they’re hunched up).

•Repeat as many whole breaths as you can get away with before the boss spots you.

BTW, you can do the Zipper anytime, even while you’re typing, and not attract any undue attention.

Seated Clandestine Stretching

Breathing relaxes tense muscles. If you have time after your breathing routine, take advantage of those relaxed muscles and stretch. Here are some stretches you can do from your chair.

Low-Back Stretch

•Sit with your arms at your side.


•Exhale into a Zipper while you lower your torso toward your knees, adding an extra gentle stretch at the end.

•Inhale back up.

•Repeat as many times as you comfortably can.

Side Muscles

•Place one hand behind your head, elbow facing out.


•Exhale into a Zipper while lowering your elbow toward your opposite knee, adding an extra gentle stretch at the end.

•Inhale back up, keeping your hand behind your head.

•Repeat as many times as you can on each side.

Upper Back and Shoulder Muscles

•Exhaling, bend your elbows, touch your shoulders, and lift your elbows as high as you comfortably can directly in front of you.

•Inhale your elbows back to your sides, hands still on shoulders.

•Repeat until the boss asks what you think you’re doing on her time.

Neck Muscles

•Sit with your hands in your lap and your chin down.

•Slowly rotate your head in a complete circle, your chin passing close to your chest and ears as it swings up and around, your ear passing close to your shoulder as your head completes the circle.

•Repeat as many times as you comfortable can in both directions, clockwise and counterclockwise (if you’re younger than a Boomer, “clockwise” and “counterclockwise” are terms related to analog clocks, a popular way of telling time before the digital revolution. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept or the technology, think of “clockwise” as circling from right to left and “counterclockwise” as the opposite.)


Working from home through the Internet, I’ve never really had to drive much. Now, a frontline Boomer living in a Recession, I drive even less. Adjusting to both age and messy economic times, I bought an electric bike a couple years back and use it for local errands and shopping, saving on gas and wear and tear on my ancient 20th-century truck. A spin on the electric bike’s also good, easy aerobic exercise (I ride my mt. bike for the serious aerobics).

A now-n-again driver, here are my limited insights:

  1. Ease into your car seat butt first, push yourself into position with your legs.

  1. Move your seat so that you can grasp the steering wheel with both hands, your elbows bent.

  1. Sit up straight, your knees bent, feet flat on the floor (only if you want a backache should you slouch with your eyes just high enough to peer through the steering wheel and over the dash).

  1. Ease out of your car by swinging your feet around to the outside and pushing yourself up and out with your hands.

•Put a lumbar roll or a rolled-up towel between your low back and the seat if the seat isn’t designed with built-in lumbar support.

Your exercise regime while driving should be limited, your attention focused on the road and traffic. Your best bet is to stop and get out of the car when you start to feel tight. Roadside rest areas are perfect for relaxing and stretching. Forced stops at gas stations and grocery stores offer opportunities you should take advantage of.

If you can’t get out of the car, here are a very few suggestions while you’re driving, your eyes always on the road:

•Breathe and zip up (anytime’s a good time to work your transversus abdominis muscle).

•Hunch and unhunch your shoulders to relax them.

•Tilt your neck slowly from side to side and front to back on long straightaways where there’s little traffic.

  1. Slowly twist your trunk from side to side to stretch your side and back muscles on those same straightaways.


There was a time when I was Mr. Macho, no object too heavy or too far out of reach for me to hoist above my shoulders and tote away. “You want that 85-lb potted fern moved to the far corner of the deck from its present perch on that 7-foot-tall pedestal? No problem. Thanks for the offer, but I can do it alone.”


Without a doubt, muscle sprains from poor posture during lifting and reaching–whether during domestic chores or sporting events–are the most common causes and exacerbators of back pain. I’ve been there, done that, got the weight-lifting belt to prove it.

The number one cure for this kind of back injury? Get someone else to do the heavy lifting. Period. In a worse case scenario, get someone to help you. If you’re younger than a Boomer, besides opening doors for and agreeing with everything Boomers say and do, you should always step in and carry the heavy loads for them. It’s the right thing to do.

Since that’s not likely to happen, we Boomers and Seniors have to look out for ourselves. Here are a few things to keep in mind when faced with moving A from B to C:

  1. Does A really need to be moved? If it does . . .

  2. Wear your brace or belt to help stabilize your spine.

  3. Tighten your stomach muscles and lift with your legs and arms, not your back.

  4. Bend your knees when lifting and keep your back in a neutral position to maintain your spine’s three natural curves (straight legs + a rounded back = disaster).

  5. Avoid twisting your trunk when lifting (boy, do I know this one!)

  6. Use a ladder or footstool if the object is above your head, don’t overreach.

  7. Move the object from one location to another with a dolly, cart, or wheelbarrow. If you must carry the object . . .

  8. Keep objects close to your body, never lugging them below your waist or above your shoulders.

  9. Know where you’re heading and watch out for obstacles along the way that might trip up you and your back.

It all sounds so simple . . . and it is. Pay attention to your posture and lifting mechanics for a pain-free and healthy back. Although it’s grand when someone else does the heavy lifting for you, in the final analysis you’re the only one who’s truly got your back.