Muscles are like rubber bands: You can stretch them or compress them, and they'll usually bounce back to their original shape without trouble. However, repeating certain postures and behaviors—slouching into your trademark position on the couch, for example—can push and pull your muscles to the point that they begin to lose healthy flexibility and elasticity. A problem if you want to perform Olympic backflips, yes—but it can also cause pain that otherwise seems to come out of the clear blue.
Over-extended and, therefore, weak muscles can give rise to inflammation and reduce the amount of support they give to surrounding bones, joints and muscles, which can contribute to pain during everyday activities like walking. Shortened, too-tight muscles can themselves be painful, but they can also compress nerves and be more prone to strains. Knowing this, you can see how that neck twinge or back ache might be best managed simply by adjusting the ways you position your body throughout the day so your muscles can stay in a more neutral state.
Making Positive Changes
Though there are countless ways you can overtax your muscles, there are some common culprits worth paying attention to. Answering these questions can help you figure out where you might be able to start making some adjustments that can lead to less pain. (Don’t forget to work stretching into your routine to keep muscles limber, too.)
Do I cross my legs when I sit?
Many of us don’t even realize we assume this position as often as we do. When one leg is crossed over the other, your hip is elevated out of its natural position. This creates a muscle imbalance (one that can persist if the habit’s long-term) and compresses the other hip, which must now carry more the load of your body weight. Your spine can be pulled out of alignment and you may experience pressure on your sciatic nerve, both of which can cause back or hip pain.
- Try your best to sit with your legs uncrossed and both feet flat on the floor (placing them on a footstool may help you remember to keep them grounded). If you still have the itch to cross them, try overlapping your ankles instead of your entire legs, which helps keep your hips even and your spine better aligned.
Do I hunch my shoulders or crane my neck when I work at my computer?
Leaning forward and letting your shoulders collapse compresses your chest muscles while straining your shoulders and upper back. Your spine can support your nine- to 11-pound head with relative ease when you’re in perfect posture, but that burden gets transferred to the muscles and ligaments in your neck every time you get closer to your monitor.
- Mom’s advice to sit up straight pertains here, and some workspace modifications can help: A low-back, supportive chair pillow can automatically improve your posture; keeping your screen at eye level can prevent you from tilting your head up or down to see; and keeping your elbows or forearms on your chair's armrests can help keep neck and shoulder muscles from tensing.
Do I always sleep on my stomach or on the same side?
Sleeping face-down can cause a lot of strain on your back and neck—your pillow adds an unnatural lift and your head stays to either the right or left. And while sleeping on your side does reduce pressure on your back, pain may stem from the middle of your body being suspended between your anchored shoulders and hips. Some evidence suggests that choosing the same side night after night can lead to muscle imbalances.
- If you wake up in the middle of the night, switch the side you rest on when you nestle back into bed. Consider placing a pillow between your knees to help support your spine and stabilize the middle of your body. Limit yourself to one pillow (or none at all) if you must sleep face-down.
Do I balance my cell phone on my shoulder?
Leaning your head to one side and shrugging to hold your phone up to your ear compresses and shortens the muscles on that side over time; it simultaneously puts unnecessary strain on the opposite shoulder and side of your neck.
- Consider investing in a hands-free device or using your speaker phone feature, particularly if you spend a lot of time on the phone.
Do I carry a heavy purse or bag on one side of my body?
Bearing weight unevenly on your shoulders can do double damage: It can cause you to lean in one direction and form uneven muscle tone, while also disrupting blood flow, which can eventually cause discomfort in your neck, shoulders and back.
- Try to limit your bag’s weight to no more than 10 percent of your body weight, and remind yourself to alternate shoulders frequently. Rolling briefcases or cross-body bags, which more evenly distribute weight, are good choices if you have to carry a lot. Stash heavy objects low and in the center of backpacks to avoid a lopsided load.
Do I wear high heels often?
Frequently wearing high heels (two inches or higher) over the course of just two years can cause your calf muscles to shorten by 13 percent. As your heel is raised and your foot points downward, the natural position of your ankle shifts, compressing your calf muscles and tendons. Wearing heels can cause your Achilles tendon, which connects your calf muscle and your heel, to become thicker—inflammation that contributes to your discomfort. Narrow styles can also pinch nerves.
- Wear flat or low-heeled shoes, especially if you’re going to be walking a lot; rounded or square toe boxes are better than narrow styles. Keep your calf muscles strong with regular stretches. Try this one: Stand on a step, feet together, with your heels hanging over the edge; lightly place one hand on the wall for balance, if you need to. Keep your toes steady as you slowly lower your heels, feeling the stretch in your calves. Hold for 10 seconds and lift back up.