Raise your hand if you've ever nagged your kid about posture. Yeah, me, too.
"Stop slouching," we carp at them. "Throw those shoulders back. Raise your chin. Do you want to go through life hunched over like that?"
We mean well. But like much of what we think we know about fitness, it turns out our efforts at propping up our kids are somewhat misguided.
Kids "have bad posture because they have lost their core stability," says Scott Bautch, past president of the American Chiropractic Association's Council on Occupational Health, who used to run programs that encouraged good posture in Midwestern schools.
As children's overall fitness has fallen, the muscles in their abdomens, upper backs, shoulders and lower backs have become soft as well, Bautch and other experts say.
Good posture "is remembering to hold your shoulders back," adds Todd Galati, director of academy for the American Council on Exercise and a former researcher on youth fitness at the University of California at San Diego. "And it's getting your body to function in a way that allows your shoulders to stay back."
One hundred fifty years ago, most people performed tasks each day that taxed the muscles of their trunks in every direction, Bautch says. The result was a balanced upper body, roughly equal strength in the muscles of the front, back and sides of the torso. Good posture was a natural result.
Today, studies show that most physical work is likely to be repetitive: the same small keyboard strokes or assembly-line tasks over and over again. There is little chance that balanced opposing muscles will develop from such efforts and be capable of holding the body upright.
"Today's youth, just like today's adults, tend to spend a lot of time at computers," Galati says. "Most people don't sit at a computer in a good postural position."
As we hunch over keyboards, the muscles of the front of the shoulders and chest shorten and their tension increases. Back muscles and those behind the shoulders elongate and have less tension. As we lean forward and peer into that computer screen, the same elongation occurs in the neck muscles. Together, those changes account for that hunched-over, head-thrust-forward look.
It gets worse. Having your legs bent under a desk all day shortens your hip flexors and psoas muscles, which attach to your pelvis and lower spine. That helps pull your lower back out of alignment, also affecting your posture, Galati says.
Our children face additional challenges. For one thing, posture is partly a learned behavior, and it is learned between ages 3 and 5, Bautch says. If you're modeling poor posture, your kids are likely to pick it up, he says.
And according to one study, some youngsters carry school backpacks that weigh as much as 30 percent of their body weight, far too much for young muscles.
So what can we do? It's pretty obvious that nagging doesn't work.
Exercise. Galati says the key to any exercise program that involves children is to make it fun. Even very young children can enjoy structured core exercises in programs tailored for them, such as the ones ACE recommends at www.acefitness.org/ofk, Galati says.
If that's not in the cards for your kid, just get him or her outside every day doing some kind of physical activity. "Your muscles develop and your bones increase in density by doing physical activity. It's that simple," he says.
Video-game exercise. If you really encounter resistance, consider the video game Dance Dance Revolution. ACE-sponsored research has found that it can provide a moderate to vigorous workout and that some Wii games are better than games that require nothing more than sitting on a couch.
Stretch breaks. Bautch favors micro-breaks, for children and adults, during which you get up and exercise the muscles opposite to the ones you use while sitting. So stand up from that computer, reach your hands above your head and lean back for short stretches, he says.
Stability balls. Bautch also urges parents to figure out where kids spend the most time sitting -- in front of the computer or television, perhaps -- and replace comfy chairs with stability balls. Doing so allows children to engage those core muscles, even while they're playing video games.