Life Posture

I am not sure that there is such a thing as living a “balanced life” while in graduate school. The external demands on your time and the academic and financial pressures create a situation that is not necessarily what most would call “healthy”. While becoming trained to improve the health of others through movement, the physical therapy student is very sedentary, and often in seated postures that don’t necessarily confer the best health benefits. The perfect irony of this situation was not lost on me today as I sat studying with slumped shoulders and forward head posture and read about Janda’s upper crossed syndrome (a way of describing negative adaptive muscular changes to poor postural positions).1

We have been learning about posture and balance lately in one of my 1st year Physical Therapy program classes. It is easy for me to see similarities between the way we colloquially talk about work/life balance and the physical sense of maintaining balance of your body so you don’t fall over. I like thinking about this in terms of posture because posture is referring to the different body positions used to maintain one’s balance. So, posture can be evaluated as a freeze-frame or picture and is a little bit more tangible. In thinking about these analogies, I have been struck by two themes: 1- Applying pressures lead to compensations and 2- The health paradox


1-Pressures Lead to Compensations

We talk about forces in a postural sense by describing the effects that they have on joints and the muscles or passive structures (e.g., ligaments) at the joints that are affected. For example, if you sit with a forward head posture, the weight of your head is going to be pulling down and so the muscles on the back of your neck are going to have to be working harder to hold your head upright against gravity. The good news is that the closer you are to ideal alignment or “good posture,” the less work your muscles will have to do and the less strain on your cervical spine. But, the bad news is that the farther away from this “balanced” position (head over cervical spine), you are the more the weight of your head wants to pull you down and the harder it is to get back into that aligned position. Also, as you feel more of these external forces, you automatically compensate with adjustments (e.g., tilting your head up) to accomplish your goals (e.g., keeping your eyes level). The compensations that you choose can themselves create more pressures on your system (e.g., increased compression where the back of your head meets your spine).

So, how do life pressures lead to compensations? I’m sure you have plenty of examples, but hear me out as I discuss the parallels. To me living a balanced life includes allowing time and energy for meaningful relationships, health pursuits (exercise, healthy food preparation and eating, self-care), and intellectual/professional/societal contributions. The closer you are to maintaining balance and equanimity (not equality per se, but attention to each area) between these facets of life, the fewer compensatory strategies that you need to employ to maintain your health and your flow of life. Just like forces on your body, pressures experienced in a whole life paradigm can create compensatory changes or effects. For example, increased time pressures from school or work can create compensations such as eating more convenience food options, reduced opportunity to connect with others in meaningful social contexts, and a decrease in time devoted to exercise. A great (well not so great…) example of this is in those pursuing higher education: graduate students have worse mental health profiles than those in the general population and many report symptoms of anxiety, depression, and increased risk for suicide.2

2-The Health Paradox

Another thing that I have noticed is that investments by those promoting health for others often come at a sacrifice of health for those individuals. At the most basic level, this can be chalked up to opportunity cost: the farmer spending untold hours working to grow the most sustainable and healthy food will have less time to prepare healthy food for himself, the doctor working around the clock to care for your loved one in critical condition will not be able to spend that time with her family, and the physical therapist promoting healthy movement for others may be overworked to the point of reducing her chance to be physically active.

I also wonder about the paradox of health created by our school systems for many of these health professionals. While I understand the very real necessity of having competently trained doctors, nurses, physical therapists, farmers, doctors of Chinese medicine, etc., there is a part of me that wonders if the model of schooling that creates so much imbalance in life areas is the best way to train those who are to be the stewards of our health?

I would like to think that contributing to health for others does not mean a sacrifice of health for oneself. In fact, I would like to think that all of our health is interconnected and perhaps the greatest symptom of disease of our society is this lifestyle disease within our health care professionals. But I digress…

Assessing Your Life Posture

With these two commentaries, I hope that I’ve stimulated some curiosity for you to examine your own life and how your body positioning can be analogous to life pursuits. The more consistently we practice good life posture, the easier it may be to attain good health and the fewer negative compensations we may be subjected too.