Posture and Stretching – Keys to Wellness

By Roger R. Fontaine, r.m.t. (All rights reserved)
Active Healing Massage Clinic 1150 Nairn Ave. Winnipeg
204-799-3663 by appointment only

Posture and stretching and breathing and massage are the four cornerstones to wellbeing which I’ll introduce to you in this talk.

Our ability to maintain normal balanced posture during the day, especially in our non-ergonomic work-stations is key to beginning our wellbeing.

Our willingness to take time out during the day, morning, midday and evening to stretch our muscles is the next keystone which must be laid.

Our taking time-outs during our day to slow down our breathing and find the relaxation response within is key to de-escalating the stress factors in our lives.

Our commitment to factoring-in relaxation and therapeutic massage into our busy life schedules will ensure that we will make it through to our retirement with the flexibility we had when we were 21 years old.

Everyday we find ourselves tired, sore, stiff, and yes, a little older. How does stress creep into our lives and what can we do about it?

This is the premise for my talk today. First let’s define stress. What is stress? Well, it’s a combination of factors. It’s part emotional, psychological, and certainly, yes, physical. It’s a little bit of muscle tension, straining of joints, with an elevated secretion of adrenaline or norepinephrine to increase our ability to cope, increasing our cardiac output to meet the obstacles along the way and at the end of the day there’s insomnia because we haven’t learnt effectively how to slow our bodies and minds down to counter the effects of the day’s ‘stressing-out’.

So let’s start to build our model of stress. Let’s start with our bodies in time and space. We add mass, gravity, the forces of motion and voila! We have the building blocks for a stress model. Add a little knowledge about anatomy which explains our body parts, a pinch of physiology to understand how the parts function together and we’re almost ready to embark on our study of ‘stress’.

What are some of the causes of stress? Eli Bay who is a master lecturer on ‘stress and the relaxation response’ says that the main cause of stress today is rapid change. I would add to that the emotion of fear and its corollaries, ie: uncertainty, anxiety, loss, grief, ambition, and greed. The pursuit of wealth in the arena of change is the surest path towards a cardiac episode. And our genetic ability to cope with change really places us on the ladder of success or failure as to how well we cope with stress in our daily lives. Stress overwhelms our lives so much that it infiltrates our deepest and most intimate relationships with our spouse, our children, and the people we work with every day. Our ability or inability to cope with stress determines whether we are appreciated or denigrated in our homes and our workplaces. As Eli Bay told us at the first International Chair Massage Conference held in Toronto this last June(05), ever since the dawn of civilization, humanity has been hard-wired to be ready to fight or take flight from danger. It is in our genes to be neurologically sympathetically ‘on guard’.

When you add the demands of the home and workplace stress becomes amplified and the hard-wired worker finds it difficult to stop to eat, digest, or think of anything other than work! As social workaholics climbing the beanstalk in pursuit of the golden goose we’ve neglected our total selves. We’ve forgotten how to initiate the relaxation response with our breathing . We’ve given up attempting to detach from the rat-race and slow down the negative effects of stress on our bodies and lives.

Posture; stretching; breathing; and massage.

Postural fault and postural pain syndrome are conditions which result from mechanical stress caused by prolonged faulty posture. Imbalances in strength and flexibility develop and create pain and restricted mobility.

There are four main postural deformities of the spine which result from poor posture: the kypho-lordotic, the swayback, the flat lowback, or flat upper back. Each of these postural conditions is accompanied with both a strain on the muscles and ligamentous structures which are in the back and surrounding joints, pelvis and vertebrae mostly. There is also an increased risk of damage to the intervertebral disks.

The postural position of the head and neck implicates the muscles which surround the neck and jaw.

The position of the neck and of the mandible is inter-related. The position of the mandible in its resting position is with the jaw partially closed/open. This is maintained through a balance between the superior muscles of the jaw(masseter, temporalis, and internal pterygoid) and those of the inferior jaw, (the supra and infrahyoids). These muscles assist in swallowing and balancing the jaw against the tension of the superior muscles during mastication(chewing).

The anterior, lateral and posterior neck muscles(scalenes) combined with the levator scapulae which ties onto the shoulder blades(scapulae) act as an upside down pendulum balancing against the tension of the muscles in the front of the neck and jaw, namely the ‘sternocleidomastoid and longus colli’.

Any imbalance in posture in the back will automatically translate into an abnormal posture of the neck. Let’s not forget that our head weighs 6-8 pounds and this bowling ball on top of our shoulders causes a lot of stress in our bodies if not properly positioned.

How does living get translated into muscular tension? Excessive tension is the danger, or imbalance in strength/weakness is a red flag. One can see how posture, proper and not, can lead to muscular imbalances and ligamentous strain.

Each vertebrae in the neck, back, upper, mid, and lower, rests on the one below in a triangular balance- the vertebrae rests on the disk below it anteriorly, and the rear of the vertebrae rests on the vertebrae below it by making contact with the two posterior facets which are saddle-shaped. The superior facet being convex resting upon the inferior concave facet. The facet is surrounded by a permeable synovial membrane and ligaments on all sides which stabilize its position. Each vertebrae has a limited mobility but when added together with the other five vertebrae above and below it, there is sufficient range of motion(ROM) to flex, extend, and rotate.

The motions of the vertebrae are coupled, and move in the opposite direction to each other; so a vertebrae which sidebends left rotates right, and when it sidebends right it rotates left.. It is these coupled movements which allows for the diversity of movement options which the body applies.

So massage therapy is able to assess restrictions in vertebral motion, assess which muscles are involved and treat them, usually by reducing the tone of the muscles which are guarding or preventing motion. The stress comes first, stresses muscles, stresses joints, locks vertebral facets in the open or closed, or mid open/closed positions and causes finally, PAIN.

So massage therapy restores normal movement to vertebral facets by relaxing surrounding muscles which have become hypertonic (tight), releasing the stress on the body which stress-filled living created in the first place.

So I hope you now appreciate the role massage therapy has in enhancing wellness by reducing stress.


Faulty posture and postural pain syndrome can lead to degeneration of intervertebral disks. Fatigue loading and traumatic rupture in flexion and torsion stress(rotated vertebrae). The disk distorts most at the postero-lateral corner of the disk causing breakdown of the layers of the annulus fibrosis, layers begin to separate, radial tears occur, and with repeated forward bending and lifting stresses, the annular fibres distort further, stretch, separate, swell, and allow the inner nucleus pulposa gel to migrate in a posterior-lateral direction and put pressure on the posterior nerve root. This can be slowly progressive or result from a traumatic hyperflexion injury. Those more susceptible to disk injuries are between the ages of 30-45 years. Upon losing their fluid disks can become fibrotic, degenerate further, be less able to imbibe fluid and decrease in the size of the nucleus. Acute disk protrusion through a torn annulus are rare in older people.


Stretching can be done by the therapist or by yourself. There are two main types of stretching. Active and passive. Active involves the contraction of a muscle, passive involves the movement of the body part through its range of motion without any muscle contraction.

Whether applied by someone else or by oneself the manual passive stretch is similar in force, direction, speed, intensity and duration.

The optimal duration for a stretch is anywhere between 15 and 30 seconds. The force should be adequate to move the muscle through its ROM to its end range without pain. The direction should be along the plane of its natural movement, flexion, extension, abduction, or adduction. Ballistic stretches where pumping the opposing muscles or jumping is involved is considered to be too dangerous for the non-initiated and should be avoided. The intent of stretching passively is to increase ROM(range of motion) and to un-couple the contracting tissues within the muscle which have become contractured and will not release to their full length.(for whatever reason).

*No stretching is to be performed when there is muscle guarding.

The non-initiated can identify guarding muscles by swelling, pain, and a refusal to allow movement. Guarding muscles can be found anywhere from the neck, spine, hip, knee, ankle or foot. Anywhere there is a joint there can be guarding. They occur after an injury, sprain or strain.

The advantage of massage therapy added to stretching is the ability of the therapist to improve the mobility of the connective tissues and underlying fascia(layers) which may have become bound as well as releasing the contractures in the contractile muscle tissues which stretching alone cannot accomplish effectively or completely.

Active stretching is rarely used in the therapeutic setting but involves contracting the muscle opposing the one which you want to stretch. Eg: the bicep/tricep, quadriceps/hamstring, forearm flexor/extensor, and on and on.

Thirdly, Breathing, is essential to initiating the relaxation response and de-stressing. Eli Bay, during our summer workshop mentioned above, took us into a breathing relaxation exercise which lasted only five minutes and which left most of the participants in a fully relaxed state. After only five minutes. Yogic or “hatha” breathing is easy to perform, it consists of breathing in through the nose, and out through the mouth. Breathing in for 4 seconds, holding for 4 seconds, and exhaling for 4 seconds. Then after one minute you increase the time of each component to 6 seconds, 8 seconds, 10 seconds, until finally after 5 minutes I was able to take only 2 ½ breaths during one minute. The Eastern Buddhist traditions teach their Tibetan monks these techniques and there goal is to achieve a state of nirvana, achieving ” oneness with God”.

If this breathing technique sounds too much like religion or spirituality to you, the mechanics are the same whether you believe in a higher power or not.

And through all of this talk about posture, stretching, breathing and massage all four elements of the square are important to have a good foundation for wellness. Leave out any one of these four components and you are building your house on the sand. So sit upright, stretch your thoracics and cervicals every fifteen minutes, three times a day take out 5 minutes to zone-out into the spiritual ether, and don’t forget to call your massage therapist to book your next appointment and set up your schedule for committed massage therapy.