February 9

Lighten Up

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Want to improve your balance? Lighten up about your posture!

Your parents told you to sit up straight. Your fitness trainer tells you to engage your core. Turns out it might be bad advice—and could inadvertently increase the risk of falls in older adults.

In a surprising finding, researchers in the Mind and Movement Lab  at the University of Idaho, Moscow, found that when older adults thought about posture as effortful, they had worse balance than when they stood in a relaxed way.

Does this mean you shouldn’t think about posture at all? No; researchers found that participants had the best balance of all when they thought about “lightening up” into length. The study, which was funded by NIH via the Mountain West Research Consortium , is forthcoming in Innovations in Aging .

The most common ways of thinking about posture suggest that we are weak and need to “engage our core” (tighten abdominal muscles) to pull up into length. Researchers instead turned to ideas from a mind-body practice called the Alexander Technique, which suggests that people usually “pull themselves down” and teaches them to instead “lighten up” into length. Based on this study’s findings, lightening up is a better approach to posture than pulling up, at least when it comes to balance in older adults.

The study had participants try out “Effortful,” “Light,” and “Relaxed” posture instructions while standing on a foam mat and while standing on one leg. The participants worked much harder (based on self-report and also on recordings from muscles) when applying the effortful posture instructions, but the additional effort wasn’t worth it. Their balance was actually better during “Light” instructions than either “Effortful” or “Relaxed.”

“Our ultimate aim in this study is to help prevent falls in older adults,” says lead researcher, Dr. Rajal Cohen. “Older adults are at a higher risk for falls, and the consequences of falling can be very bad, in terms of injuries and financial cost and even fatalities. Our results suggest that common, effortful ways of thinking about posture can actually make our balance worse and increase the risk of falling.”

The study has dramatic implications for fitness trainers, rehabilitation professionals, and movement teachers of all kinds, who often cue posture as part of treatment or classes. By using effortful posture cues like “stand up straight,” “engage your core,” or “pull yourself up to your full height,” such practitioners might be unintentionally impacting their clients’ balance in a negative way. By instead using “lighten up” posture cues, therapists and movement teachers can facilitate better balance, at least in older adults. “Posture still seems to matter,” Dr. Cohen says, “but we could do ourselves and our clients a favor by lightening up about it.”

Click below for study report


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