Spinal health directly translates to quality of life. That’s why the backbone is used as a metaphor for any single factor that’s primarily responsible for the wellbeing of a particular system. In this case, that system is your overall mental and physical wellness. If you have an unhealthy spine or back, you’re likely to not just suffer from back pain or irregular sleep – your mood, confidence, and general outlook could be negatively affected as well. If this is sounding all too familiar to you, it might be time to reevaluate the amount of exercise that you do as well as how you carry your spine on a regular basis.
Reclaiming Your Natural Posture
When it comes to the topics of alleviating back pain and improving sleep quality, it all leads back to whether you practice proper posture or not. How you actively carry your spine impacts the movement and health of each and every one of your muscles, especially the ones closest to the spine. It is therefore important to determine once and for all what a proper posture is, how it looks like, how to achieve it, and of course how to maintain it. While physiological experts and trainers have debated over this topic for decades, Princeton-trained biochemist and acupuncturist Esther Gockhale (goh-clay) believes that she has the answers.
Gockhale’s in-depth research into posture and back pain began when her herniated disc forced her to undergo back surgery for a second time. In an attempt to search for a permanent solution that won’t require doctors to slice her open again, she studied anthropological findings that focused on the natural postures of indigenous people. It led her to visit remote West African villages, tiny Portuguese fishing towns, and the mountains of Ecuador – cultures and societies where back pain was virtually nonexistent.
She observed that even elderly women who spent 8 hours a day bent over while gathering chestnuts didn’t suffer from back pain. The same was true for people who frequently chopped and gathered firewood, spent hours weaving while sitting on the ground, or carried heavy buckets of water atop their heads. All of them, Gockhale observed, had a single thing in common: a confident posture that gave them a J-shaped spine.
Gockhale’s findings have been beneficial not just for her own spinal health, but also for the spinal health of others. In fact, she’s given posture classes to both employees and executives of companies like Google, Facebook, and Youtube – classes that have lead several doctors and high-stakes players in the tech industry to recommend her to anyone suffering from back pain. This is why Esther Gockhale is known as the ‘Posture Guru of Silicon Valley’. Her teachings on posture are actually very simple and can be practiced by anyone, even without personally attending one of her classes.
How to Have a J-Shaped Spine
The goal is to achieve and keep a J-shaped spine because this puts the least amount of stress on not just the spine itself, but on the surrounding muscles that support it. Not surprisingly, a lot of it has to do with how you position the hips and buttocks, which is where the base of your spine is attached. It’s easier to achieve a J-shaped spine by sticking out your butt and keeping it ‘behind your body’ as you walk, move, or sit. This sets up your back and the connected bones and muscles to follow suit. In an attempt to spread knowledge about reclaiming our natural posture, Gockhale generously provides several other tips for people who want better posture (and less back pain):
- Lengthen the spine. Without arching your back, relax your shoulders, take a deep breath, and as you’re breathing in, allow your spine to grow tall. Keep your spine in that lengthened position as you exhale. This puts your abdominal muscles to work by supporting the back.
- Roll your shoulders back and let them drop. Carry them up, back, and then just let them drop and rest, allowing your arms to dangle at your sides as your thumbs point outwards. This allows the spine to carry the weight of your upper body more efficiently.
- Lengthen the neck. Put a book or any flat, lightweight object atop your head, and lengthen your neck by pushing your crown against that object, leaving your chin angled slightly downwards – the ideal way to carry your head.
- Tighten the upper muscles of your buttocks as you walk. You can do this literally every time you take a step. It slowly develops the gluteus medius, a very broad and thick muscle responsible for hip movement and spinal base support.
Keep these tips in mind and you should be on your way to actively keeping a posture that could significantly reduce your back pain. This is something that’s doubly important for insomniacs and even those who suffer from just a minor lack of sleep. As mentioned earlier, your spinal health can dictate your quality of life. Posture affects the amount and level of back pain that you suffer, which in turn affects how you sleep. It’s all interconnected, and it starts from your backbone. Apart from actively maintaining the J-shaped posture of your spine, there are other things you can do to make your posture better.
Exercises for Better Posture and Better Sleep
There are moderate to vigorous exercises aimed at developing the back and the muscles that directly support it. As an added benefit, physical activities like these have been found to directly influence quality of sleep as well. In a comprehensive study that spanned 2600 people (ages 18 to 85), it’s been found that the national guideline of 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise per week improved sleep quality by 65%.
The benefits do not stop there. Getting this amount of exercise on a weekly basis can also make you less sleepy, more alert, and better able to concentrate during the workday, allowing you to maintain higher levels of productivity. You can start enjoying these benefits by trying out these back-strengthening exercises:
- The Plank – This is one of the most perfect exercises for developing the core muscles that hold up your spine. Apart from being very effective at making your posture better, anyone can do a plank. All you need is a bit of space, your own bodyweight, the proper form, and the willingness to work through the pain. Get down on the floor as if doing a push-up, but instead of just your hands, rest your elbows on the floor directly beneath your shoulders. Keep your feet and elbows planted as you straighten your entire back by squeezing your abs, your butt, and your quads while tucking your hip. Keep your entire body as straight as possible and hold the position as long as you possibly can – just don’t push your body too hard if it’s your first time. It’s okay to last for less than 30 seconds on your first couple days of doing the plank. Eventually, work your way up to holding the position for an entire minute (or more). This will develop your abs and the muscles on your lower back, giving you some much-needed spinal support that’ll make it easier for you to maintain a J-shaped spine.
- The Bridge – This is another bodyweight exercise, and in contrast to the plank, it’s fairly easy. Lie on your back with your arms down, palms up, knees bent, and your feet flat on the floor. With your bodyweight focused on the balls of your feet, fully extend your hips and push them upwards, contracting your gluteus muscles and stretching your hips. Your shoulders should be supporting your body from the other side while your lumbar deals with only minimal extension. Hold this for about 30 to 60 seconds – depending on your personal endurance. This will develop the muscles on your butt and hips, giving greater support to your lower back.
- Dead-lifts – For this one, you’ll need a barbell or a pair of dumbbells. Place the weights in front of you and stand with your feet apart, under your shoulders. Slowly bend your knees down as you reach outside your legs for the weights, ending up with your hips close to the floor and back bent forward at a 45-degree angle. Grip the barbell/dumbbells tightly, look straight ahead, tense your abdominals, push your chest out, and lift yourself and the weights by standing straight up. Lower yourself back down in the exact same way. That’s one rep. For beginners, it’s important to focus on technique and form rather than the amount of weight that you can dead-lift. This is a great workout for the legs, the core, and the lower back.
- The best way to practice the perfect J-shaped posture and develop the muscles that keep it in place is to move – and the most efficient way to move your entire body is to run. For beginners, set a goal of running for 10 to 15 minutes straight. You don’t have to run fast or far – just run – maintain the proper posture and form at all times and get used to resisting the feeling of wanting to stop. With every step that you take, each of the muscles that hold your spine up is triggered by the action. From your neck, shoulders, abdominal core, lower back, gluteus muscles, hips, quads, knees, and ankles, nearly every muscle in your body is utilized when you run in the proper form. This trains your body to hold your spine up in the position of least resistance for all involved muscles and bones. At the same time, running is a good way to build up the 150 hours of at least moderate physical activity that you need in order to significantly improve the quality of your sleep.
Through regular exercise and maintaining the proper posture at all times, you can slowly but surely get rid of back pain and get more benefits from sleeping. If you’re finding it hard to start and/or follow through with these life changes, just keep your eyes on the prize: less to zero back pain, improved sleep, better concentration, and less morning sleepiness. It’s all possible through proper posture and exercise.