Habit Formation, Exercise and Posture

As much as possible, the brain converts repeated actions into automatic routines or habits in a process called chunking. Once chunked, behavioral routines require minimal attention or mental energy to perform. All that’s needed is a cue (or trigger) that switches the brain to autopilot and starts the routine; and then at the end, a reward tells the brain if this particular routine (may be physical, mental, or emotional) is worth doing again. The cue and the reward become associated so that when the cue is present, a craving to perform the sequence emerges. Cues and rewards can be obvious; e.g. doing the grocery shopping every Saturday morning (cue) and afterwards buying a coffee at Starbuck’s (reward). Or not so obvious: washing up before bedtime (cue) triggers toothbrushing, and afterwards the feeling of a clean mouth serves as the reward. Some cues and rewards are so slight that one may hardly be aware of them, but our neural systems certainly are.

Trying to change a habit sequence once it’s triggered is difficult because the conscious brain is not actively involved. One approach in particular seems to help; a study on exercise habits showed that when participants were educated about habit formation and then asked to identify cues and rewards that might increase participation in exercise routines, they exercised twice as much as those who only received lessons on the importance of exercise. Simple cues seemed to be most effective. For example, I put a pedometer (a Fitbit) in my pocket after dressing in the morning (the cue) and take one walk then. Checking how many steps are recorded, gives me a little rush of satisfaction (the reward). (A second walk is cued by my dogs, who won’t leave me alone until we head out the door in the afternoon.)

For an interesting article on habits see the New York Times Article, How Companies Learn Your Secrets (they want to know when a life changing event, such as impending marriage or childbirth will occur, in order to get a headstart sending out advertising. Otherwise one’s spending habits aren’t very open to change and advertising has minimal effect. This article is based on the book by Charles Duhigg, “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

So how can cues and rewards be applied to improving posture? My experience has been that the feeling of slumped posture can become a cue, and when I become aware of it, I tighten and straighten my mid-back, which lifts my chest and gives me a feeling of release from chest constriction (a reward) and I take a deep breath. Then I do a rep of the Fix the Shoulder Blades Exercise, during which I often remember how much better my profile looks (even when I’m not anywhere near a mirror) and how good my neck feels now versus how miserable it used to be (more rewards). Finding and appreciating those rewards required that I become more aware of how my body looks (especially from different points of view), and also more sensitive to how my body feels, not just pain, but muscle tension, joint position, limitations imposed by poor posture, awareness of shoulder blade anchoring, spine position, posture during movement etc., or everything that comes under the classification of kinesthetic senses. Sometimes I wonder why I didn’t naturally have those sensitivities when I was younger. Perhaps it was my sedentary life. And perhaps also because poor posture develops so slowly there’s never enough difference to notice; and meanwhile the body memory of good posture is slowly lost. As well there’s often little feedback from other sources of information, such as visual (generally only face forward view in a mirror is available and that doesn’t help in seeing the entire body’s alignment), or comments from family and friends (who often don’t want to say anything upsetting, even my mother had stopped criticizing), or advice from medical professionals, fitness professionals and physical education teachers (of all the many I had contact with, none ever said anything about my posture). And perhaps also, poor posture itself, and any pain from poor posture, deadens sensitivity to body state. Is it any wonder that a person’s posture seems to be a relatively unchanging part of his or her physical appearance, except to slowly get worse with age? In order for a person to improve posture, an epiphany of some sort is needed. And once some improvement has been experienced, the body becomes more sensitive to what a healthy postural state feels like, and strives to maintain that state.

However, there is a matter of backsliding into poor posture, and I do find myself slouching, but only when working long hours at the computer, not when standing, walking or other more physical activities. The good thing is though, that I’m more aware of slumped posture, and I put more effort into correcting it. So why is slumping more likely at the computer? Perhaps because computer work takes a great deal of mental energy, and the mind and body tires quickly. And being tired means less energy for the back extensors, which are the critical muscles keeping our backs erect against gravity. Our body structure doesn’t help either. The spine tends to bend forward because the bulk of body weight, is in front of the spine. The thoracic spine, in particular, supports the ribcage and attached muscles and organs, which are a major part of the body’s mass. No wonder the thoracic spine, which naturally has a rounded, kephotic curve, tends to curve even more forward under that weight if the back extensors aren’t kept strong.

Ultimately, maintaining good posture is a continuous challenge, but it is a challenge that can be won, if one becomes aware that it feels so much better (the reward) than slumped posture. The reward is even greater if one has suffered years of pain from it.

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