The Parkinsonian brain is especially good at giving us poor posture. It can bend the whole top of our bodies forward, bowing our heads, rounding our shoulders and upper back, tilting us forward from the hips and keeping our knees bent. Parkinson’s also affects proprioception, the ability to sense where one is in space, so recognizing our own poor posture becomes difficult. We can feel as if we are upright when we are not.
The physical consequences of this misalignment are multiple: reduced breathing capacity, diminished gait, shortened vision, potential back pain, weaker balance. And the accompanying psychological effects are equally undesirable. When you are in a stooped over position, you feel old, small, and closed-in.
By contrast, standing upright promotes a sense of openness and confidence. Improved balance makes you feel solid, and this all gives you energy. Fortunately, for many of us with PD, counteracting postural distortion is within reach. Fitness experts often recommend strengthening your core and hamstrings, and increasing flexibility in your hips. If you can, you should do these things. But there are also small, intelligent shifts in habit and perspective you can make, that will have more immediate effects.
How to Get from the Bad to the Good
These tiny tweaks revolve around one core principle and three simple steps to counteract PD’s compulsion to make us bend. The core principle is this: regard posture as an action, not a fixed state - a verb, not a noun. Posture is not a thing you have; rather, it is something you do - and do consistently because it has an array of health benefits and, standing tall makes you feel good. Posture must be performed and practiced.
The three steps are named for what they do:
1) Hit the reset button
When you discover you are bent over, whether by seeing your reflection, just sensing it yourself, or by being told by someone else, stop and reset. Pause, place your index finger on your sternum and guide yourself upright as your hips come forward.
2) Extend like a growing tree
The reset button helps you straighten your upper half. But truly good posture involves both extending down into your legs and upwards through your spine. In a standing position, consciously extend your energy downward through your heels. Press the ground with your feet as if you are trying to push it away. This will cause you to straighten your legs fully, and the downward effort will have the reaction of raising you upward. Enhance that action by consciously extending up through your spine. A helpful exercise is to imagine yourself as a growing tree: your legs become the roots reaching down strongly into the earth; your spine becomes the trunk, drawing energy from the roots and reaching up to the sky.
3) Become a campaigning politician, waving to the cheering throngs
The next step is to move while maintaining your verticality. Walk with attention to keeping your torso lifted. I like to use another image to encourage this in my students: imagine yourself as a beloved politician, standing tall, proudly striding through a sea of your roaring fans. Working on good posture can involve a bit of fun too.
In this video you can see everything strung together: the reset button, extending like a growing tree, and walking like a politician in a packed arena.
If you want to take your walking technique a step further, check out PDM Lab's post on gait stability and avoiding festination.
How to Maintain Your Posture
These tips will help you improve your baseline posture and guard against some of the bad habits Parkinson‘s pushes you into. As with all bad habits, they are best worked against before things really deteriorate. So even if you still have relatively good posture, it will be helpful to follow these tips to maintain what you have.
Regardless of your condition, you will probably find yourself falling into poor posture at one point or another. That's ok, the important thing is to make sure you reset when you become aware that you are off. With consistent practice, you can attain more upright and functional physical carriage and a more poised and energetic outlook.
Alignment is intimately tied up with how your entire body moves. If you are able to preserve your posture, you will also fortify your ability to do a large list of other physical motions. Parkinson's causes more damage when you are unaware of the body parts it is affecting. Treating posture as a verb is another tactic for maintaining vigilance, and therefore, the possibility to prolong better functioning. Stand tall!