Straighten UpUntil about seven years ago, Baxter Bell competed regularly in 5K and 10K running events and biathlons, and occasionally in triathlons. Then he discovered climbing and turned his focus to scaling rock walls. A few years later, he began hiking more and climbing less. As he switched from one sport to another, his body underwent a posture metamorphosis. "When I was doing competitive triathlons, my legs were huge," says Bell, a family physician and medical acupuncturist in Oakland, California. "When I switched to climbing, my upper body became bigger. I strengthened my arms but it was difficult to straighten them, and my shoulders rounded forward like a Neanderthal's." His body changed again when he began a regular yoga practice. "Suddenly, everything got more balanced between my upper and lower body," says Bell, who has since become a certified yoga instructor. "I was able to re-create a more natural, upright position with a lifted open chest and more lengthening in my arms and legs."
Any athletic activity can overdevelop certain muscles, leaving them strong yet tight. At the same time, other muscles may become comparatively underdeveloped--they may be flexible, but they're also weak. The resulting imbalance leads not only to poor posture but often to injuries. "The athletes who have good posture are few and far between," says Joseph Guettler, an orthopedic surgeon and sports-medicine physician at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan. "The normal function of the spine and joints relies on an appropriate balance of strength and flexibility."
The lower back and shoulders tend to suffer the most when posture deteriorates. For example, overly arching the lower back can result in stiff, sometimes painful muscles there. And a rounded upper back and internally rotated shoulders don't let the shoulder blades rest in the proper position; this creates tightness and sometimes pain in the shoulder joint and restricts the muscles that move and lift the arms.
Good posture does more than prevent aches and pains, however. It can also increase endurance by improving oxygen intake. Athletes with correct posture, who lift the breastbone and open the chest, can take fuller and deeper breaths, thus getting more oxygen into the body. In certain sports, proper posture can even help improve performance in other ways: A lifted breastbone and an open chest allow swimmers to move through the water more efficiently, for instance, while a flexible pelvis that shifts easily with the rest of the spine gives cyclists more power.
Though each type of physical activity affects the body differently, you can benefit by focusing your attention on three key goals: stretching the chest and hip flexors and strengthening the abdomen. More flexible chest muscles allow you to lift your breastbone and lengthen your upper spine. Longer, suppler hip flexors make it easier to keep your pelvis in the proper position. Strong abdominal muscles support your lower spine and keep your pelvis aligned.
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