I was out with a friend recently who made a flippant comment about how she was shrinking. Now, I withheld my thoughts on this topic since earlier in the night I got major side-eye for saying "vagina" way too loudly when we got on the topic of postpartum health. (I have SO many soap-boxes when it comes to our bodies!) Instead, I'm turning to my blog to share my expertise on the topic with you lucky readers.
So back to shrinkage. It happens. We all have experience with it. Either we've noticed it in ourselves or that our parents/grandparents just aren't what they used to be. Now, most people just chalk this up to "it just happens with age" while others get a little more scientific and blame our dehydrating spinal discs.
Let's think about this though... How much shorter are we these days- a few centimeters or an inch or more? How much taller can we "make ourselves look" when we are trying to look thinner for a picture? Does it really make sense that it's all from losing a bit of hydration in small parts of our spine?
In fact, make yourself as tall as you can right now. OK, or sometime today when you can stand up and it not be awkward. Stand up. Pull your shoulders back. Inhale. BIG. BIGGER.. Now hold that. Do you feel a bit taller? Now let it out. Keep those shoulders back. Drop your chin just a little without looking down. Suck in your gut anyway you can.. Really suck in. Now inhale again.. YUGE inhale for me. Hold it. Now how tall do you feel?
Obviously, I don't expect anyone to walk around like this. I mean, we at least need some oxygen and ability to move. This exercise is just to prove a point- our height is greatly impacted by our posture.
You know why we lose height with age? Because as we get older, our posture continuously gets worse due to the weakening and inhibition of our postural muscles. Sure, we lose some disc height as our bodies change, but is that enough for someone to lose 3,4,5 inches off of their height?? Nope.. Especially when we can regain that height by activating our core and other muscles that hold us upright.
And there's always going to be some exceptions.. there are some health conditions that can certainly impact height in a significant way (I'm thinking spinal compression fractures due to osteoporosis), but that's not the masses.
So, how do inhaling and sucking in your gut come in to play? It's a *cheat* for what your postural (e.g., "core") muscles SHOULD be doing. In reality, we should be using our transversus abdominis (TA for short), the deepest abdominal muscle we have, our lower trapezius, mid trapezius, serratus anterior, anterior neck flexors, and even our glutes and pelvic floor muscles to hold ourselves erect during the day.
Not only do these muscles get inhibited or "turned off," they also get weak and lose stamina. Our bodies want to find the most efficient, easiest ways to do anything. So, we start to rely on bony anatomy, ligamentous structure- support that requires no energy to maintain. In addition, we throw in behaviors and habits that asymmetrically load our tissues- nursing one baby, driving in the car, talking on the phone, sitting!!, mousing on the computer, texting, sleeping on our bellies with our heads turned to one side all night, being pregnant (9 months of constant stress on our bodies!)… I could go on and on.
Pretty much life.
These behaviors cause muscles to shorten restricting other muscles from moving through their full range while also directly inhibiting other muscles from firing. Without getting too in-depth on all the crazy compensations that happen in your body just so you can stand up, know that your brain and your muscles and joints are one big system that want to get the job done without using too much energy. Unfortunately, this leads to system breakdown- in this case, shrinkage. And often pain, headaches, and full-blown injuries.
Now, I know a lot of you are thinking, "But my posture is pretty good! I do _____ (pilates, crossfit, yoga, etc)." I hear you! I can relate, but posture is always something we can work on.
Here's a story for you-
Before I had kids, my core was in excellent shape. Four minute plank challenge in a pilates class? No problem. Double physioball plank challenges against other physical therapists on a slow day in the clinic? Bam- I got this.
But then I got a wake-up call. I was in a ballet class working at the barre. I was holding in my transversus, tucking in my ribcage while simultaneously opening my chest and shoulders. I was pulling the crown of my head to the ceiling as we're so often instructed in dance. I thought my posture was on point (pardon the pun! Ha!). My instructor came over and told me to get taller. I didn't think it was possible. He put his hands just below my ribcage and lightly pressed to get me to lift my ribs away from my pelvis. I swear I grew an inch out of nowhere! His manual cueing allowed me to more deeply contract my postural muscles to create more length along my spine. The problem? I couldn't hold it too long. I didn't have the endurance necessary to maintain those contractions because I wasn't ever using my muscles in that way.
So, to get down to the nitty gritty: how do we regain that lost height?
While the concept is simple, it takes work, time, and a good bit of attention to detail.
Here's a few exercises to get you started. Before you start, keep an open mind. To some, these are going to feel like you are literally doing nothing, but that doesn't mean these are too easy for you. In fact it usually means, the problem is more subtle and more deeply rooted.
Slow down. Focus on every tiny, minute thing your body is doing.
Even elite athletes can benefit from going through these exercises by really digging into their form. In fact, the more in shape you are, the slower you need to go. The MORE you need to focus on every single muscle contraction because the more in shape we are, the better our brains are at cheating, at being efficient, and at compensating in minute ways.
When you find the challenge in these exercises and work to perfect them, you'll not only notice your height return, but you'll also be reducing your injury risk if not noticing some aches and pains disappear. You may even get asked if you've lost some weight or find a new level of confidence in taking up space. So many benefits from these fundamental exercises!
Get comfortable- either seated or lying down- and give these a try!
1. Pelvic floor lift ("kegel")
I love to teach this as Pelvic Wink to bring a visual element to the move. Imagine bringing your urethra towards your anus and anus towards your urethra as if they are winking. The area in between should lift.
Try to avoid squeezing to stop urine flow as this doesn't fully engage the pelvic floor and may not properly activate the pelvic floor muscles.
With each repetition, scan your body to ensure your shoulders aren't lifting, your jaw isn't tensing, toes aren't curling, and buttocks isn't clenching. It's amazing how other body parts want to jump in to help!
Also, know there's a million variations of this exercise in terms of how long to hold, how quickly to activate, and what position you perform the move.
To get started, try to hold up to 5 seconds and complete 10 reps. You can always progress once you figure out where you need to start. Many women I've worked with cannot hold the move for 1 full second, so just start with what you've got!
**If you notice these exercises contribute to pain, this is a red flag that your muscles may be too tight. Stop exercises and get yourself to a pelvic floor physical therapist.
2. Transversus abdominis (TA) isometric contraction
This is where you activate your deepest abdominal muscle that works to stabilize your spine, but also helps keep us in a position to allow other postural muscle to better engage, and thus stand tall.
Simply stated, you ever so gently pull your belly button towards your spine without moving your spine, tilting your pelvis, or lifting your ribcage. However, it's SUPER common- even among elite athletes- to see problematic compensations. One way to help with this is to exhale as you pull your navel in. This allows the diaphragm to relax so it can't cheat the move.
Another trick is to imagine you doing this while giving a public presentation- if it would embarrass you, you're moving too much! Less is definitely more with these exercises!
Again, try to hold 5 seconds for 10 reps as a starting point.
3. Gluteal isometric contraction (Clench that tush!)
Another easier-said-than-done-exercise for most people: squeeze your butt cheeks together and hold. Watch out for tilting your pelvic, tensing your thighs, holding your breath, or any other extra movement. We're only looking to activate these larger muscles of the pelvis that often get turned off by our brains for a number of reasons.
Hold for 5 seconds for 10 reps and add reps and/or sets when this becomes easy.
4. Brain tease time! Contract/relax sequence:
This is a favorite exercise of mine because it is so powerful. It not only reinforces the proper activation of these muscle groups, but it also retrains the brain to do so in the right order which then transfers to real life much more quickly.
Complete a Pelvic Wink, then while holding this immediately pull in that belly button to activate the TA. After activating those two groups, squeeze your buttocks. Hold this combo for up to 5 seconds and relax. Repeat 10 times.
5. Shoulder blade squeeze
This exercise is so needed since most humans slouch. Whether it's to work on a computer, nurse a baby, or to appear smaller due to poor self-esteem, women frequently find themselves with their shoulders rounded forward.
When you slouch your shoulders, immediately your chin juts forward and your low back changes shape, putting all sorts of stress on your spine and shoulders. Getting yourself out of that position does so much good!
Stand/sit up tall, stacking your shoulders over ribs, ribs over pelvis. Your shoulders are relaxed and arms at your sides. Ideally, your pelvic floor is slightly lifted and your TA engaged as you perform each rep.
Draw your shoulder blades down and together in a pinching motion, without arching your back and keeping your elbows still. Imagining that you're sliding each shoulder blade into the opposite back pocket of your jeans can be super helpful.
Hold 5 seconds, and perform 10 reps 3 times throughout the day.
6. Chin tucks lengthening the back of the neck
Last, but certainly not least, is the ever-faithful chin tuck. With all of this slouching, our heads have no where to go but forward into the commonly known "forward head posture." Things like scrolling on cell phones, sitting at computers, and driving are all examples of daily behaviors that reinforce this bad habit that is directly tied to neck and shoulder pain and headaches.
Sitting up tall as before, bring your chin to a level position. Your mouth should be parallel to the horizon and maintain this throughout the small movement.
Next, move your head backwards slowly and gently as if you're trying to line your ears up with your shoulders, feeling the back of your neck lengthen. Your chin may drop slightly, and you may have a double chin, but your mouth should remain parallel to the floor.
This should be pain-free, but a muscle stretch at the back of the neck may be felt. If you have a history of neck pain, use caution or reach out to a physical therapist for help. Certainly, stop the exercise immediately if any symptoms emerge.
Hold each rep 1-2 seconds as feels good, for 10 reps. You can complete these throughout your day- in the car or at your desk are great places to give it a try!
Try these out and let me know what you think!