Research Medical Center
January 05, 2015

Michael Dahl, MD

By Julie Burton, SimplyKC Magazine

Your mind isn’t playing games on you. Your grandparents might be shrinking. But not in the way you might think. Lack of posture and flexibility will not make bones disappear. But there is a truth to what your mother always said. Posture matters. It will shape your body as you start to age.

According to Michael Dahl, MD, from Research Medical Center — part of HCA Midwest Health — and Medical Group of Kansas City, women have a higher incidence of height loss due to osteoporosis. Bone is a living tissue in our body, and old bone is absorbed as your body makes a new one in its place. This process happens every day, no matter what your age. Osteoporosis occurs when new bone is not made before the old bone gets reabsorbed back into the body. The bones become weak and brittle. 

“Small fractures and micro-fractures due to osteoporosis can crush the bones in the spine,” Dr. Dahl says. “This can cause the bones to shrink the height of the woman. The osteoporosis risk is greater in lighter weight women than normal to overweight women.”

Women with osteoporosis aren’t the only ones who appear to be shrinking. Men can fall victim too. The curvature of the spine — also known as the hump — is due to the lack of strength and poor posture.

No one is immune to the effect of aging. Bone and muscle density start to decline between the ages of 18 and 19. But that’s not to say we all start declining after that. 

“By increasing your strength, bones will become stronger as we age,” he explains. “If we don’t increase our strength, well, we fall to what I call the American Syndrome — lower back pain caused by front abdominal obesity. Weight gain pulls the upper torso forward and the person can’t hold up the weight, causing stress on the lower back.” In the case of back or flexibility problems, Dr. Dahl recommends you contact your primary doctor.

But what can we do now to help our body stand tall as we age?

Sit up straight. Posture plays a huge role in a strong spine. The back is not naturally straight. The spine is an “S” position. It curves at the neck and the lower back. Poor posture will pull the spine in the wrong direction. This will cause back pain and eventually a humpback. 

The easiest way to sit up straight is to imagine a string coming from the top of your head. Someone is pulling the string up. Your shoulders should go back. Your chest should stick out. Your abdominal and back muscles are engaged to support the spine. Did you sit up straighter?

“The more you consciously make an effort to sit upright, the more it becomes a habit,” Dr. Dahl says. “And when posture becomes a habit, you will have fewer back problems as you age.”

Purchase a chair with lumbar support. Desk jobs can be hard on the body. Sitting in a chair with lumbar support will force the lower back to become erect by pushing the belly forward. Taking breaks from the desk also will help. One exercise you can do is imagining the spine as a tall stack of coins. Bend the stack of coins in every direction. Re-establish mobility along the spine every hour then sit back down. 

Build your core. Gravity can play two roles in building your core. It can stimulate bones to be active and upright, but it also can pull and bend the spine if it’s not supported correctly. Exercises that are great for your core include planking and stabilization moves, such as standing on one leg while lifting weights. Working against gravity is the best way to strengthen your bones and flexibility. Yoga and Pilates are also good core-building workouts. 

Eat a variety of foods. Calcium and vitamin D are necessary for bone health, especially in post-menopausal women. The best thing you can eat is variety. Protein is important for the muscles. Fruit and vegetables provide essential minerals for the bones. The more color in your diet, the better your body will run. Excess weight plays a role in your posture, so eating fruit, vegetables, and lean protein can be more beneficial than simply increasing your calcium intake.

The aging process cannot be stopped. But there are things we can do to stop what appears to be a shrinking, aging body. Remember what your mom always said: Sit up straight.