Last Monday Marion Averill of Clifton Physiotherapy and I ran a joint workshop on neck and shoulder tension.  The good news is that this is an area where we really can help ourselves through a combination of exercises, postural awareness and the correct sitting position.  The even better news is that Nordic walking ticks all the boxes as a tool for reducing tension and maintaining neck and shoulder health.  
The key message I took away from the workshop is that we should not ‘force’ ourselves into the correct postural position. Aim to be a Margot Fonteyn (yes even you men) not a sergeant major. Perfect posture comes with the gradual re-education and strengthening of muscles.  This will take time and perseverance but you may be surprised by how quickly your body responds - as you will see from our walker’s story below.
Marion's recommendations are as follows:

When sitting

  • Do not perch on the edge of your seat.  This just strains the postural muscles which will tire easily and leave you with an aching back/neck.  Instead, push your bottom right to the back of the chair using a lumbar support where possible.  The chair is then supporting your body allowing your neck and back muscles to relax.
  • Make sure all the other components for desk working are correct - chair, desk and computer height.  You will probably know all this - but NHS Choices has a useful guide on how to sit properly if you’re interested.  

When standing and walking

  • The gap between your hip bone and rib cage is very important.  Imagine you have a spring here which stops your rib cage collapsing down.
  • Another imaginary spring is between your ear and shoulder, keeping your neck lengthened and your shoulders down.
  • As well as two springs, imagine two strings.  One is attached to your chest, pulling it forwards and upwards.  The other is attached to the top of your head, lifting your head up and off your shoulders.
  • Keep your shoulders wide.
  • Rotating your upper body is KEY to releasing neck and shoulder tension.

(This is uncannily similar to everything we say Nordic walking - people thought I must have primed Marion but I absolutely did not!)

Postural exercises
Two powerful exercises which are great for general back health and neck and shoulder tension in particular are breast stroke preps and arm openings.  We filmed Marion explaining these, with me as the model.  They would have been great had I not pressed the wrong settings on my iPad which resulted in the whole thing being recorded in double time!  I have doctored the videos and provided a voice-over so you can view the exercises, although there’s more than a whiff of a Charlie Chaplin-esk comedy about them…

A walker’s story
We know that neck and shoulder tension is an issue for many of you.  Here’s one walker’s story of the positive effect Nordic walking has had for her:

“Hi Vicky

I just thought I would drop you a line after Monday’s workshop to let you know my experience with my shoulders and how I think Nordic walking has helped.

I picked up a bilateral rotator cuff injury about 18 months ago which was diagnosed as impingement syndrome and had extensive treatment with a chiropractor and physio which seemed to make it worse.  My right shoulder then recovered on it's own, but my left shoulder didn't. Then I started Nordic walking and initially, my shoulder would be tight and painful, especially during warm up and cool down. As the months went by, I kept hearing about keeping the shoulders low, the torso twist and pushing through the hand strap and I found myself concentrating on these three things. Initially, I didn't really notice much of a difference, but I did notice my shoulder gradually started to feel a bit looser, although it was still tight and painful at times. I continued to concentrate on keeping shoulders down and relaxed and the torso twist. Then I had some further physio, this time from a more experienced physio who had dealt with a lot of shoulder injuries and he was fascinated by the Nordic walking. Like Marion, he could see how Nordic walking would be beneficial and gave me exercises which targeted not my bad shoulder as such, but my shoulder girdle and core muscles - one was the same exercise which Marion demonstrated on Monday evening. I've since been discharged from the physio as my shoulder has improved massively.

This is what I've noticed:-
As my shoulder became looser, I'm pushing back through the hand straps more efficiently and my shoulder movement has become more fluid.
As my torso twist has improved, my shoulder has also released and I'm standing taller and less rounded.
At the cool down stretches, I can now get the poles behind my head and onto the back of my shoulders - I really couldn't do this in January and although I could raise my arm above my head, it was painful - now it's pain free.
I can also do the exercise you like (Ed - see this shoulder blog for details) with the poles vertically down the back. Previously, my left shoulder was too tight to pull down or up without pain and I had trouble reaching the poles!

And it's not just my shoulder. I've also become much fitter then previously - I'll never be fast (short legs!), but it's easier to keep up now and I'm not always at the back. More significantly though, I noticed last week that I can now do the quad stretch with knees together! Before, I couldn't reach a foot to pull it into my buttock and if I did manage to reach a foot, there was no way I could get my knees together. I'm also a stone lighter, (although this is also due in part to diet) and I'm more aware of my body and how it moves.

Mentally, it's had an impact as well. I feel less stressed after a weekday evening walk and I really value the opportunity to be outside - the fresh air is good for getting rid of tension headaches!

Anyway, the bottom line is that I think Nordic walking in general has really helped my shoulder and Marion's session was the icing on the cake for me to take it further and keep my shoulders healthy.”

I loved receiving this email and I know that it will resonate with many of you.  My view is that where there is an existing condition (like a shoulder impingement) Nordic walking is best used in conjunction with physiotherapy, at least to begin with.  The Nordic walking loosens and strengthens and the physiotherapy deals with the underlying condition.  Once this has been resolved, Nordic walking then becomes the ongoing maintenance activity. The best news for us is that it’s fun as well as effective!

Vicky

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