The cliché of the hunched-over "little old lady” may seem outdated, yet it's true—we all get shorter as we age. However, a good portion of this shrinkage can be prevented or corrected. The following steps can help you stand reduce your risk for back pain and slim your silhouette.

Protect Your Spine

Each vertebra (an individual segment of the spine) is separated from adjoining ones by fluid-filled cushions called discs. In young adults, each disc is about one inch thick.

After about age 40, these discs begin to crack and tear, which causes them to dehydrate and flatten. Over two decades or so, each disc loses about one-twelfth of an inch of thickness—and with 23 discs, that equates to a loss of nearly two inches of height.

Any uncontrolled motion that stresses your back can increase the risk for disc damage. Activities that involve abrupt twisting—racket sports, skating, roughhousing with kids—can tear the discs, hastening dehydration. There is no need to quit these activities, but do try to avoid wrenching twists.

Three other reasons we shrink as we get older are poor posture, lass of abdominal muscle tone and reduced bone density. These problems tend to worsen over time. The humpback seen in many older women is an obvious manifes-tation of this, but there also are more subtle warning signs that you may be aging yourself prematurely.

Perfect Your Posture

Poor attention to posture may be to blame for height loss if you…

  • Slump forward when sitting.
  • Drive, watch TV or work at a computer with your head jutting forward (instead of centensi over your torso).
  • Experience back or neck pain.
  • Have frequent headaches.
  • Have pain in your arms or hands (e.g. when pain radiates from the spine).

Chronic slouching weakens luck and chest muscles, so you eventually may find it diffi-cult to stand up straight even when you try. Large-breasted women are particularly prone to slouching. The extra weight they carry in front places more strain on the back muscles.

Simple steps to stand tall…

  • First, check your posture. Have your pic-ture taken while you stand sideways in a door-way. Stand as you normally do—if you don't, you’ll only be fooling yourself. The door frame provides a visual guide to what is straight.
  • Second, stay aware. Whenever you pass a mirror or window, notice the position of your neck, shoulders and back. If your head juts forward, pull it hack in line with your shoulders...roll your shoulders track...squeeze your shoulder blades together more...draw in your tummy...and tuck your rear end under. Even if you can't remain that straight for long, these brief moments of awareness will help to realign your spine and strengthen your muscles.
  • Third, stretch and strengthen. When muscles are not used, they get smaller and weaker. Prevent or reverse problem posture with a few simple exercises. The following are generally safe for everyone. though it is best to check with your doctor before beginning any new workout.
  • Secret stretch can be done anywhere. It returns shoulders to their proper position and strengthens muscles between shoulder blades. Clasp your hands behind your back at the level ti your but-tocks. Push your hands down and roll your shoulders hack (don't arch your back). Hoki for 30 seconds. Repeat several times daily—while waiting for an elevator, watching TV or anytime you are idle.

Advanced: With hands clasped behind you and arms straight, raise arms up and away from your body.

  • Doorway stretch strengthens your shoulders and back and stretches chest muscles. Stand in a doorway, a few inches behind the threshold, feet shoulder-width apart. Place one hand on each side of the doorjamb, level with your shoulders. Keeping your back straight, and lean forward, feeling the stretch across your upper chest as your hack muscles work to draw your shoulder blades together. Hold for 30 seconds...repeat five times. Do every other day or whenever you feel upper-back tension.

Fabulous Abs Help

When tightened, abdominal muscles act as a muscular corset, supporting the vertebrae and protecting them from injury.

Women generally have a more difficult time maintaining abdominal strength than men because pregnancy overstretches the belly muscles. A little effort goes a long way, however, in restoring the strength of the abs. To try…

  • Isometric crunch and hold. Lie with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Cross arms across your chest. Rick chin slightly... then raise your head and shoulders (not your entire hack) off the floor by tightening your belly muscles. Keep your head in line with your shoulders, and leave enough space to fit a tennis ball between your chin and chest. Hold the position as long as possible, then slowly lower down to the starting position. Repeat, continuing for three to five minutes. At first, you may he able to hold the pose for only a second or two and may need to rest between each crunch. Keep at it daily—soon your abs will get stronger.

Build Stronger Bones

Osteoporosis is a disease in which bones become so fragile that even the jolt of slipping off a curb can fracture the spine. In severe cases, the weight of the person's own body can slowly crush vertebrae. producing a rounded humpback that steals as much as four inches of height.

Because estrogen helps to build hone, women are susceptible to osteoporosis after menopause, when estrogen levels drop. Ask your doctor about taking supplements of calcium and vitamin I). Also…

  • Go for a walk. Every time your foot hits the ground, the impact sends a vibration through your bones. This produces an electrical force (the piezoelectric eject) that strengthens bones by encouraging calcium deposits throughout the skeleton.

Alternatives: Running builds even more bone density but may injure joints—so stick to brisk walking unless you're already an accomplished runner. Weight lifting also builds bone through similar forces, but the effect is less because there is no impact or vibration.

Want to Keep Reading?

Continue reading with a Health Confidential membership.

Sign up now Already have an account? Sign in