Undo the Day: Decompress the Neck & Lengthen the Back
Do you find yourself slumping forward with more and more frequency, unable to stand up straight for more than a few mindful minutes? Is your upper back tight and consistently sore? Are your shoulders perpetually hunched? If so, you’re in the company of pretty much everyone else. “Modern life for a 21st-century woman is a jumble of multitasking phone calls, emails, work, working out, grocery shopping, driving, being a mama, cooking, and myriad other demands,” explains fascia and alignment specialist, Lauren Roxburgh. “We forget how to breathe, and we move through our days feeling like the ‘weight of the world’ literally sits on our shoulders.” Undoing the day, though, requires a bit more than just kicking back with a glass of wine. “Far be it for me to deprive you of your daily dose of resveratrol,” she adds, “but before you stumble onto the couch with that Cabernet, take 10 minutes for the exercises below.” As she explains, “Too often we end up slumping our head forward as we peer at the computer screen, or our phones which can cause muscle strains, tension, stiffness, a shortening and thickening of the neck, disc herniations, spinal compression, and even pinched nerves. And on an aesthetic level this can also compress the beautiful and elegant natural curve of your neck and the rest of your spine to make you look and feel slumpy, dumpy, and depressed.” But there’s hope for us all below. (For more from Lauren, see her longer legs sequence, and her moves for a slimmer waist.)
Most of us spend an inordinate amount of our time sitting at our desks—and then at the couch at home. We know it’s not awesome, but just how bad is it?
Sitting for extended periods of time reduces circulation and the supply of oxygenated blood in the body and tightens us up. According to a study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, not only has inactivity like sitting at a desk for long periods of the day been linked with diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease, it can also increase the risk of certain cancers.
So evidence is in: Basically, sitting is the new smoking. We were designed to move, stretch, and breath, not to sit or be stuck in one position all day. Sitting for long periods slows down all of our systems and decreases energy, metabolism, and even creativity.
Depressingly it gets worse. Not only is it unsightly when we are hunched over at our desks, but it can also mean that the connective tissue becomes “glued” into a slumped position that actually damages and compresses your entire body even further. Too often we end up slumping our head forward as we peer at the computer screen, or our phones which can cause muscle strains, tension, stiffness, a shortening and thickening of the neck, disc herniations, spinal compression and even pinched nerves. And on an aesthetic level this can also compress the beautiful and elegant natural curve of your neck and the rest of your spine to make you look and feel slumpy, dumpy, and depressed. But while it can be a recipe for disaster, there are things we can do.
Any quick tips for improving desk posture?
First and foremost sit up, take a deep-breath, and roll your shoulders up and down and twist your neck from side to side every 20 minutes. Second get up and move around regularly throughout the day at least once every hour. Set a timer. Walk around the office, go outside, and get some fresh air. Check in with a colleague or take a call as you wander the corridors. Not only does this encourage you to realign your body and posture but getting a few decent lung-fulls of air can also help to increase productivity.
Once you’re back at your desk, think about your posture and avoid the slump at all costs. It’s vital to set up your work station right—most companies will help you with this. Adjust your chair height so your forearms are horizontal to the desktop and in line with your keyboard so your shoulders can stay relaxed, and set your monitor up so that your eyes are in line with the top of your screen. Make it difficult to keep typing should you start slumping.
When at your desk, keep both feet flat on the floor and your knees over your heels. Think of your sit bones acting like the feet of your spine and stay balanced in the middle of your butt with a neutral spine and neck. This will also help strengthen your core. While seated do a few twists to ring out your organs, as well as neck and pelvic rolls. And remember to regularly take a few deep inhales and exhales to keep maximum oxygen flowing to the brain.
What about phone usage—are there any adverse effects from being pitched forward to the side on the phone, or forward on an iPhone?
Yes indeed. The average human head weighs about 10 pounds when held upright, but for every inch that your head is tilted forward, extra weight is added to your neck and spine. Unfortunately, many of us do exactly that when we’re on the computer or texting—by hunching forward, we’re loading up our neck and spine. Choose the zoomed display on your phone to make the font bigger, try to avoid writing long messages from your phone, or lean back in your chair and hold the phone up to eye level so that you don’t pitch forward.
You need to be especially careful if you’re one of those people who holds your phone in the crook of your neck, wedged against your shoulder. Holding your head in any abnormal position for an extended time can cause structural imbalances, tightening the connective tissue and shortening the neck, which can quickly lead to a world of pain. Try using a headset, speakerphone, or a hands-free set instead.
Are there ways to fully reverse the damage from sitting at a desk for decades, or will we always be fighting slumped posture?
Yes! The bottom line is that the body does not want to be stuck in this forward position and responds very quickly to a few subtle and simple shifts. Stretching and rolling the tight muscles along the back of your neck, as well as strengthening the muscles at the front of the neck can help the entire spine come back into a healthy alignment and the proper relationship to gravity.
Correcting a forward-headed body posture should also start with strengthening the core and upper back muscles, expanding the shortened and tighten chest, and pulling back the rounded hunched shoulders and compressed diaphragm. To stretch the posterior neck muscles and remind them of what their job is, you can tuck your chin down and in. This should be done standing, sitting, while driving, or lying on your back. Think about trying to elongate your cervical spine (or neck) and reduce the curve.
Undo the Day Roller Sequence
#1: Snow Angels
Benefit: This brings circulation and blood flow to the upper back, shoulders, and neck, and enables the body to restore itself by aligning the shoulder girdle and upper spine. It also reminds the neck of its healthiest relationship with gravity.
- Lay on the roller the long way so that your entire spine is supported from head to tailbone. Begin with your arms out to the side with palms up and chest expanded.
- Inhale deeply as you reach your arms up overhead slowly and with control, keeping them as close to the mat as possible and parallel to the floor.
- Exhale completely as you draw your arms back down by your hips and gently exhale the C02 out of your lungs.
Repeat 8 times.
#2: Shoulder Blade Mobilization Crossover
Benefit: This boosts circulation and blood flow to the deeper muscles of the upper back and shoulders while helping to open the chest and front of shoulders. It helps align the neck and head and reduces the feeling of heaviness in the shoulders.
- Lay on the roller the long way, so that your entire spine is supported from head to tailbone. Begin with your arms bent and elbows crossing one over the other.
- Inhale as you open your arms out to the side slowly and with control, keeping the elbow bent. Bring the forearm as close to the mat as possible, parallel to the floor.
- Exhale completely as you draw your arms back up, crossing the other elbow on top.
Switch and repeat 8 times on each side.
#3: Diaphragm Release
Benefit: This helps restore a more balanced thoracic/upper spine and neck alignment. It also reduces the hunch back and tones the neck muscles, which prevents “turkey neck” or sagging jowls. It also helps the lungs take in more oxygen and release more CO2/toxic air while helping the body release stress more effectively. It elongates and tones the neck muscles in a gentle restorative way.
- Place the roller behind you, underneath the bottom of your shoulder blades (at the bra line, for the ladies). Gently interlace your fingers and bring your hands behind your head to support your neck. Place your feet on the ground, parallel and hip-width distance apart.
- Inhale as you arch your thoracic (or mid- to upper-) back over the roller. Keep you hands behind your head while stretching the front of your neck to release any tension.
- Exhale as you curl back up in the letter C, squeezing all the air out of your stomach, ringing out your organs, flattening your belly, and flushing your lungs to make room for new oxygen.
Repeat 8-10 times.
Smoothe Out & Create Space
#1: Roll Away the Day
Benefit: This hydrates the dense and stiff tissue in the upper back and shoulder blades, and melts the thick and dense knots in the upper back. It also helps bring your upper back and spine into a taller and longer alignment.
- Lay down on the mat with the roller placed under your back at the bra line, leaning your mid-back over the roller. Gently interlace your fingers behind your head to support your head and neck.
- Press into your feet to lift your hips up and then use your feet to drive the movement, inhaling as you roll up to massage the upper back and shoulder blades, stopping at the base of your neck.
- Exhale as you roll and massage down the spine, stopping at the bottom of your ribcage. Be careful not to roll back and forth on the lower back because it can create too much pressure and force on your discs and vertebra.
Repeat 8-10 times on each side.
#2: Neck Massage
Benefit: This helps melt the density in the attachments between the neck and the skull, while boosting circulation and creating more flexibility in the neck muscles. This also helps the head come back to a proper alignment.
- Lie down on your back and place the roller at the base of your skull, taking your hands to either end of the roller to stretch your arms and keep the roller steady.
- Inhale and turn your head to the left, feeling the roller gently massage your neck.
- Exhale to fully rotate your neck to the right.
Repeat 8 times on each side.
#3: Collarbone Alignment
Benefit: This opens the deep attachments of the chest and fronts of the shoulders and collarbones to reveal a more elegant chest and neck. It also reduces head forward posture and tension in the upper back and neck. In addition, it increases creative energy in the head, rings out your organs, and nourishes your vertebral discs.
- Place the roller behind you, right at your bra-line, with your knees bent and together, feet together, planted on the floor. Reach your arms behind you and wrap your biceps around the roller rotating your forearms and palms up as you look straight ahead.
- Inhale as you twist your hip to the left and your head to the right, stretching you neck and entire spine. Exhale for a few seconds to feel the opening and expansion.
- Inhale to reverse the position and fully exhale to hold and release.
Repeat 8 times on each side.
#1: Arm Extension Reverse Dip
Benefit: This improves the rotations of the arms and compressions in the chest from working on the computer, texting, or sitting too much. It opens the chest, elongates and tones the neck, and puts the back of the arms in proper alignment. It also reduces hunch back posture, opens up the lungs, and reduces anxiety by opening up the heart.
- Sit on the mat and place the roller behind you. Bring your hands to the roller, palms down, shoulder-width apart, with your thumbs facing up. Open your chest and collarbones, lengthen your neck, and draw your shoulders back.
- Bend your knees up toward the ceiling so that your heels are stacked directly under your knees, plant your feet firmly on the floor, and lift your hips up in the air to draw yourself into a reverse tabletop position.
- Press into the roller to straighten your arms and open your chest, keeping a slight bend in your elbows to keep tension out of your triceps and elbow joints.
- Keeping the roller stable and your core engaged, inhale as you slowly bend your elbows behind you and exhale as you press up to a soft elbow, taking care to avoid locking the elbow joints.
Repeat 10 times.
#2: Rolling Swan
Benefit: This builds tone and strength in the upper back, shoulders, and arms, reducing and preventing “hunchback.” It creates a longer, leaner, and stronger upper body and neck, and supports the structure of balanced muscle to keep your posture more upright with less effort. It also helps you breathe more efficiently.
- Lay belly-down on the mat, with arms stretched in front of you and the roller placed underneath your elbow joints, thumbs facing up. Reach your heels away from your heart to feel oppositional energy and decompress your spine.
- Inhale and roll the roller toward you, extending the spine and lifting as you roll your shoulders back (taking care to keep your glutes relaxed the entire time so you don’t jam your low back while lifting up). Be sure to pull your abs up and in to support your back and elongate the front of your body. Turn you head to the left and then to the right for an extra neck stretch.
- Exhale as you slowly resist on the way down, returning to the position you started in.
Repeat 8 times.
#3: Rolling Mermaid Twist
Benefit: This stretches, lengthens, opens, and tones the sides of the body, especially the neck and upper spine. It releases tension in the hips, and rings out the organs, flushing toxins and reducing stress. It opens up the spine and nourishes the vertebral discs.
- Sit with the roller close to your left side and bend your left shin in front of you, your right shin to the right side of you.
- Twist your upper body to the left and place both sets of fingertips on the roller. With your chest open, sit up as tall as you can, open your chest, look up, and roll you shoulders down and back, then inhale as you roller the roller away from you. This will roll out your forearms and twist your body even more to the left, wringing out your organs and opening and lengthening your neck.
Repeat 5 times, then do on the opposite side.
4 Other Ways to Help
#1: Warm Water
Take a hot shower or Epsom Salt bath and stretch the neck by rotating side to side and then tilting the head to stretch from the jaw to the collarbone. This will help wash the day away and you will sleep more restfully.
#2: Quick Face/Jaw/Scalp Massage
You can do this at your desk, or while on your couch watching TV.
1. Place your first two fingers on the jaw muscle just below your cheekbone called the masseter muscle and bite down to feel the muscle contract, then apply pressure and open your mouth as wide as you can while pressing slightly upward to release jaw tightness. Repeat 5 times.
2. Next, place all four fingers at your hairline, right above your temples, and gently apply pressure on the temporalis muscle in a circular motion for 30-60 seconds.
3. Then, place your first two fingers behind your ears, on your skull and apply pressure in a circular motion and work your fingers up over your ear and down in front of your ear. Repeat five times.
4. Finally, Take all four fingers and apply pressure to the base of your skull (where your hairline begins at the back of your head/neck). Apply pressure in a circular motion while working your fingers up to the top of you head. Feel the tension of the day melt way. Repeat five times.
#3: Neck Realignment While Driving
Lean you car seat slightly back so your head can rest slightly behind your shoulders and gently tuck your chin and press the back of you head back into the seat. You should feel a stretch at the base of the skull and some activation of the back of the neck muscles that tend to weaken with the head forward posture. This will help your neck muscles remember what they are supposed to do, which is support the weight of your head. You can also do this move laying long on the roller. Repeat 5-8 times.
#4: Sleep with the Right Pillow
I like this pillow, as it shapes and forms to your head, neck, and shoulders, improving the quality of sleep and reducing overall neck stiffness and pain. And, while it has nothing to do with neck pain, I’m convinced that sleeping on a silk pillowcase reduces wrinkles.