Standing up straight and keeping your posture strong gets harder with Parkinson’s, but there are many ways to improve your stance. Doing so will improve your balance, which is critical to maintaining mobility and avoiding falls. Improving balance and posture will also help you stay flexible so you can sit, stand and reach with less effort and pain.
Better posture also means easier breathing (a stooped stance makes it harder to take deep breaths); less neck, shoulder, and back pain; and more energy. Impaired posture and balance make the body work harder with every move and can wear you out quickly.
Here are five ways to help straighten up your spine and build better balance:
1. Try Yoga or Tai Chi.
These practices emphasize strength, flexibility and body awareness—all of which make for healthier posture and balance. Studies of yoga in people with Parkinson’s, for example, show eight to 12 weeks of the practice improves people’s scores on tests of postural control, balance, flexibility and muscle strength.
Tai Chi also gives people with Parkinson’s more control over their posture, including when they’re negotiating obstacles, as well as improved balance and a significantly lower fall risk.
2. Ask an expert.
Physical therapists (PTs) are experts in improving physical function, and 2017 research shows not enough Parkinson’s patients in the U.S. tap into their skills. In a few sessions, PTs can hone in on individual posture and balance challenges, as well as assess your particular limitations and design an at-home or gym-based program that works for you.
A PT can show you how to safely strengthen back, shoulder and other muscles that help keep the spine erect; moves that encourage flexibility in the body’s large muscles; and exercises that enhance proprioception or your ability to know where your body is in space—a major key to good balance.
PTs also teach exercises designed specifically to improve the postural problems of Parkinson’s, like these offered by the University of Florida Center for Movement Disorders and Neurorestoration.
3. Check yourself.
Parkinson’s affects the brain’s ability to send automatic reminders to stand up straight and keep shoulders from rounding. The muscular stiffness and rigidity of PD can add to unhealthy postures. People with the condition who’ve developed a stooped posture or rounded shoulders may feel like they’re about to fall over backward when they’re actually upright. See where you really stand by using a mirror several times a day to view your posture from the front and sides.
4. Power up an exergame.
Computer-based exercise games are making inroads as an evidence-based treatment for poor balance and other symptoms of Parkinson’s. Studies of the technology in people with PD mostly use Nintendo Wii Fit systems, which combine an electronic board that detects users’ weight and center of balance with on-screen games. Research comparing Wii Fit balance games with traditional balance training showed the high-tech option improved balance significantly more than conventional training.
5. Bolster bone health.
Parkinson’s isn’t the only factor in older adults that affects posture. Osteoporosis, or thinning bones, can cause spinal vertebrae to compress, leading to a bent-over posture and pain. Ask your doctor about your risk of osteoporosis. He or she can do a bone density scan and, if needed, prescribe medications that work quickly to improve bone health and lower risk of spine and hip fractures.
There’s a lot you can do to prevent osteoporosis. Weight-bearing exercise is one of the best ways to preserve bone mass. A diet high in calcium helps keep bones strong, and vitamin D is another key nutrient for bone health in which many people are deficient. Your doctor can check your levels and prescribe supplements to build bone health and keep you standing strong.
By Emily Delzell