By Sally Mergendahl for Wausau Pilot & Review

If computers and smart phones had been the first tools of our ancient ancestors, it’s amusing to imagine how evolution might have shaped our bodies. Would we now be born with hunched shoulders, a neck protruding forward and small, pointy fingers to better press the keys?

Sally Mergendahl, OTR, CPE, is an occupational therapist with Ministry Medical Group Employer Solutions, part of Ascension. She is board certified in professional ergonomics.

Except for the pointy fingers, many of us are already developing those features. If you look at yourself from a side angle in a mirror, you probably don’t like what you see. Your shoulders are hunched and rounded, your head is protruding forward…and so is your belly. You may resemble a question mark. And the question is: what can you do about it?

The first thing you should do is what your mother told you years ago: sit up straight and pay attention to your posture–abdomen in, chest up, shoulders back, chin tucked in. Make good posture a habit. We all know what good posture is, we just have to practice it.

The human body is made for movement; yet, we often expose it to uninterrupted hours of sitting at a desk or on a couch. Get up and move around on a regular basis…but keep in mind good posture as you do so.

Regular exercise is key to keeping muscles toned and fit but remember to balance the muscle strength in the front and back of the body.

If you do resistance exercises, make sure you include at least as many routines for your back and rear deltoids (rowing, reverse flys) as you do for your chest and biceps (bench press, curls).

THE COMPUTER HUNCH, known to doctors as postural kyphosis, often comes from slouching all day in an office chair, peering at the monitor in front of you.

You can help correct this simply by making sure your work space is properly designed. Your chair should be firm rather than soft and offer support for your back. Your seat should be high enough to maintain a 90 degree angle between your calves and hamstrings but the knee joint should be lower than the hip joint. Often the chair can be positioned with the seat pan in the forward tilt position.

Keep your upper body straight and vertical with your head resting comfortably on your shoulders.

You should be sitting at arm’s length from the screen with the top of the monitor just below eye level. The lower the monitor, the more likely you are to hunch over and tilt your head forward.

But even with the best of work spaces, you still need to take regular breaks to stretch and correct your posture. Try some of these stretches several times a day.

Stretch your pectoral muscles. Stand in a doorway, placing your forearms on the door frame with your elbows at shoulder height. Step forward and lean into the doorway, drawing your shoulder blades together.

Squeeze your shoulder blades. Pretend you have a small beach ball between them and squeeze it by bringing your shoulder blades together and down.

Bring your hands behind you and clasp them at the base of your back. Now gently push your hands down toward the floor. Take five deep breaths and push your hands down a bit more with each one. Finally, relax and raise your arms above your head for two breaths, then relax.

TEXTING NECK is a hazard of spending time reading or texting from a smart phone or tablet. Tilting your head just 15 degrees puts substantial stress on your neck and spine.

In one study, subjects reduced neck strain when they propped their tablets at a steep angle using a tablet case. That may not be so easy with a phone, but you can shift position frequently. Rotate your head gently to the left and right at least once every hour–10 times on each side.

Chin tucks can be done several times each day. Sit or stand up tall and gently draw your head and chin back. In other words, make a double chin.

The back burn is similar to a chin tuck but done while standing with your back against a wall, your feet about three feet out. Bring the back of your head against the wall but make sure it’s pulled straight back and not looking up.

Neck stretches: Put your left hand on the rear right side of your head and gently pull your head down while turning your chin to the left. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds and repeat several times on each side.

When it’s more than posture: In a person age 60 and over, slouching and poor head posture might be a sign of weakening bone density related to osteoporosis. As vertebrae in the upper back and neck weaken and collapse, the hunched back or “dowager’s hump” becomes more prominent. This is a progressive condition that is not reversible.

Until that time comes, or even if it already has arrived, don’t let poor postural habits make you look older than you really are.

About the author: Sally Mergendahl, OTR, CPE, is an occupational therapist with Ministry Medical Group Employer Solutions, part of Ascension. She is board certified in professional ergonomics.