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Can Pilates Help Kyphosis?

kyphosisDo you have Kyphosis?

It’s a fairly common back problem. In fact, there are more than 3 million cases of Kyphosis in the US per year.  What is Kyphosis?  It’s commonly known as having a “hunchback.” Kyphosis is an excessive outward curvature of the upper back and is most common in older women, often is related to osteoporosis.  But it’s not just a women’s problem, men can have Kyphosis too. Some people experience back pain, neck pain, and stiffness. Kyphosis is a body posture that can become disfiguring. Sadly, with the increased number of hours that we’re sitting in front of our computers and ducking our heads forward to look at our cell phones, everyone is at a higher risk for developing Kyphosis with our poor posture habits!  And just because you have Kyphosis, doesn’t mean you’ve got osteoporosis.  There are different ways you can treat Kyphosis including, pain meds, physical therapy, back braces, exercise, and surgery.

How can Pilates help Kyphosis?  Dramatically!  First of all, Kyphosis is mostly a postural problem.  Yes, there might be underlying medical issues or a genetic predisposition to carry yourself with a hunchback. But ultimately it’s about body alignment and developing better muscle function to help you stand taller and be straighter.  Exercise is crucial to develop better body alignment.

Pilates is one of the best physical activities on the planet to help eliminate hunchbacked, Kyphotic posture. Why? Because there is so much emphasis in a Pilates workout on moving the spine. By bending forward, backwards, sideways, and twisting the muscles of the torso in both the front and the back, the spine is getting stretched and strengthened in ways designed to help lift and lengthen it for better posture.

When the body is bent forward in Kyphosis, the upper back can become both over-stretched and weak while the chest muscles end up being too tight and strong. Added to this is the fact that 98% of what we do in life is in front of us – we’re ALL at risk for developing Kyphosis.

To begin re-balancing the upper body, the chest muscles need to be stretched and the upper back, arms and shoulders needs to be strengthened. Getting stronger with the hips, pelvic floor, and low core will also provide an anchor of support to help lift the spine into a taller position.

Why is Pilates a great way to help kyphosis?  So many Pilates exercises are done flat on the back – and lying on your back can be a great way to let gravity start opening the chest and straightening out the spine.  In the weight room, most exercises are done with a flat back. But staying flat isn’t going to give you the best benefits for improving Kyphosis – it’s the movement of the spine that will help elongate the muscles and re-align the spine.  Every Pilates exercise is a combination of work and release.  And Pilates exercises focus on both stability and movement.  This is key in alleviating back pain and improving Kyphosis.

If you think the Pilates Roll up is making your Kyphosis worse, you’re wrong.  Rolling UP on this exercise is strengthening your low center and stretching your back.  Rolling DOWN is helping to strengthen both the abs and the back.  As you lay each segment of your back on the mat one-by-one, you are helping to reinforce taller posture!  This is just one example of a spine flexion exercise from Pilates.  (And every exercise that bends the body forward and returns the body tall is helping you get the back muscles working more effectively.)  It’s all about sequential, segmental, articulation of the spine.  If your upper back is stuck like a chunk the segments cannot move freely.  Pilates is designed to help free up the body for better movement.

The Pilates prep exercise “FLIGHT” is a great way to open the chest by strengthening the upper back.  If you don’t lift too much with your head and low back, you can begin to activate the middle-upper back muscles which is where the hump is.  To do this effectively, the bones and muscles in the back almost need to relax first to fall closer to the breastbone (going from a hunched position, passing through a flat spine, to then begin lifting the back into arch.)  In learning how to do this on Flight, the motion can transfer to all the other Pilates back extension exercises like the Swan, Single Leg Kick, the lift up in Open Leg Rocker, Pulling Straps, the T, Down Stretch, Kneeling Knees Arched, Back bend over the Barrel. There are so many great Pilates exercises that focus on back extension!

Side bending and Twisting exercises are the other two ranges of movement that are needed to help improve posture and reduce the exaggerated curve of Kyphosis. And both side bending and twisting exercises are excellent ways to begin mobilizing the mid to upper back for better posture to reduce the excessive outward curvature of Kyphosis. But as with any exercise, it might be challenging to get the parts of the back that really need to be moving to do the work to twist and side bend for maximum benefit.

There are many ways these concepts and exercises can be incorporated into a Pilates workout. For side bending exercises there’s the Mermaid on the Mat, with the Chair, on the Reformer, with the push-thru bar, over the Arc Barrel, Side bend on the Short Box, Side bending on the Ladder Barrel, Arm Waves on the Arc Barrel, Kneeling Side Legs, and more…In particular, emphasizing the upper back doing the side bending, rather than just side bending from the waist will be most effective for mobilizing the upper back to improve posture and reduce the unnatural curve of a Kyphosis.

And finally, twisting exercises. In my opinion, twisting exercises are one of THE best ways to free up the spine! If you think about getting water out of a wet washcloth you twist it, and then fold it.  To help improve mobility through the upper back, you can apply this concept for similar results. There are lots of great twisting exercises in the Pilates repertoire.  Saw and seated twist in Matwork; Short box twist (and variations); Stomach Massage Twist; Saw with the Push Through bar; Spiral Twist with the Arc Barrel; Seated Twist and Teaser Twist on the Chair.

This is not an exclusive list of ALL the Pilates exercises that will benefit your back if you have Kyphosis. But an example of some of the exercises that might be included in your Pilates workouts to help improve your posture if you have Kyphosis, as well as to help keep your back in great shape to avoid getting Kyphosis.

There isn’t one exercise that you must to do to help Kyphosis. But a better understanding that you can improve posture and re-educate your muscles to reduce problems caused by Kyphosisis important. When you improve strength, flexibility, and body support it is possible to improve your alignment and alleviate the aches and pains. Pilates can be a valuable part of your exercise program to help improve posture and reduce the severity of Kyphosis and its associated aches and pains.

Johns Hopkins Medicine has a nice article in their health library that goes into more details about kyphosis, the different types of kyphosis, and different treatment options.  It’s interesting to note that postural kyphosis is the most common type and can improve with exercise!

You don’t have to live with a hunchback.  By improving your posture with Pilates, you can stand taller, undo the bad habits that have you bent over, and keep your spine moving in a more normal and natural way.

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Get started improving your healthy movement habits by paying attention to your posture!  Discover more about your current posture habits. Take the Centerworks Posture Quiz

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