As parents, it sometimes seems like there is no end to the things we need to be concerned about to promote a healthy lifestyle for our children. Are they getting enough sleep? Exercising enough? Eating the right food? Etc, etc, etc. Yet an aspect of health that hasn't been discussed enough nor included at the top of our list, is posture. This is unfortunate because posture is such an integral part of our children's development and their overall health. Posture is not just what we see on the surface, but rather the accumulation of the behaviors and choices that we make. To get a better understanding of this concept. Let's begin with a typical day.
Mornings are usually pretty hectic for most people during the week. Getting out of the door (on time!) and starting the day off with nutrition in our bellies and balance in our bodies, will often set the tone for our day. Yet, even with the greatest intentions to start the day off in the best way possible, there are many moments that we often miss. One of which is how our children eat their meal.
Take a moment to think about what your child does as they eat their food. How do they sit? What does their posture look like? In what way do they eat their meal? Do they bring their heads down towards their food, or do they bring the food up to their mouths?
These questions are important because they direct us to think about what happens to our children’s backs as they are eating. If our child is bringing their head down towards their food (as shown by the young girl in the picture above), they are also rounding their backs, or hunching over, in the process. This adds unnecessary tension and pressure to their young and developing spines. And this is how they are starting their day. The rest of their day will be spent at school, sitting in chairs.
I recently conducted an empirical study on children and posture that found that on average, children throughout the world spend 26.5 hours a week sitting in chairs at school. They then spend an additional 40 hours a week (outside of school) engaged in sedentary activities (such as computer, phone, TV, iPad, doing homework and eating meals). That’s almost 70 hours a week spent sitting down! That means that the majority of their waking hours are spent in a sedentary lifestyle. What is even more concerning is that most children round their backs, or slouch, as they sit in their chairs.
Although, we aren’t at school to monitor what they are doing with their backs as they are sitting in their chairs, we do have the opportunity to make that first influence at breakfast. So let’s start with ourselves. How do we eat? Do we bring our heads down towards our food, thus hunching over, or do we bring the food up to our mouths, with an upright back? Whatever we are doing, we are modelling this behavior to our children. If we are bringing our heads down towards our food, we are contracting our spines each time we bring our head down. And how many bites of food do we bring our heads down for in a meal? In a day? In a week?
After breakfast, most of us spend the rest of the day either sitting at a desk or in front of a screen. That’s even more time spent rounding our backs or hunching over. Is it any wonder that so many of us complain of back pain and poor posture? If we start our day bending down towards our food, and then continue to hunch over throughout the day, how do we expect ourselves—or our children—to have good posture?
Some of us may have even noticed and commented on how our children sit. With good intentions, we tell our children to “Sit up straight!” when we notice them rounding their backs, or slouching. But what does 'straight’ really translate into when it comes to our bodies? For most of us, the word, 'straight’ triggers a response that looks a lot like a military position: arched back, stiff neck, and shoulders and head pulled back. However, that position isn’t any better for the spine than rounding our back. Both put undue tension and pressure on the spine, forcing it to contract and eventually shrink. The arched back forces the spine to bend backwards, while the rounded back forces the spine to bend forward, both having a negative impact on posture.
So how do we rectify this? If 'straight’ isn’t really straight, then what do we do? For starters, we begin by paying attention to ourselves and our children. If we see that our children are bending down towards their food we ask them to sit up and imagine that their head is like a balloon lifting up, up, up towards the ceiling. As they are sitting upright, we can teach them to use the open space between themselves and the table to extend their arm out and bring their bite of food up to their mouths. This not only looks wonderful, it also feels wonderful. You will be amazed at how much body intelligence most children have. You will be even more impressed by how they can sit upright without arching if you ask them to simply imagine that their head is going up. There is no need to give them any advice on what to do with their backs. If the head is being lifted up, the back will follow. Remember to think and say 'up’ rather than 'straight’.
It is important to note that children are not expected to never turn their heads downward. Of course they can look down at their food and at the table. If you look at the girl in the next picture who is looking down and playing at her table, she is doing so while sitting up and maintaining a lengthened and flat back.
You can engage in almost any activity if you do so in moderation and remain mindful and aware of what you are doing with your back and the rest of your body. Have discussions about posture with your children-- you will be delighted to find out that most children find the topic quite interesting.
For more tips on practical ways to help your children improve their posture, you can listen to my Podcast with Robert Rickover.