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By Donna Gambino, PT, CPT
I am a tall girl. 6′ to be exact. As well as being tall, I am a physical therapist and certified Pilates instructor, so I have spent my career teaching people how to manage their bodies and all the things that come along with it. I have learned that tall women have a unique experience growing up in an average sized world. They experience their bodies totally different than the average sized woman.
As teens we may try to hide our height due to not wanting to stand out, not wanting to be taller than boys or from just feeling too “big”. We struggle as we grow older with the world not fitting us comfortably; countertops and desks being too low, bath tubs being too short, shower nozzles hitting us in the heads, airplane seats not having enough leg room, even wearing clothes too tight in the shoulders because we are slaves to fashion. All this adjusting to the environment has led our bodies to adapt as well, like the stepsister trying to fit her size 11 foot in the size 7 glass slipper. So what does all this adapting lead to? You guessed it- poor posture, postural strain, tight muscles and long term / chronic pain. After living this life myself I know how uncomfortable it can be. This is where my Pilates training has really shown me the benefits of this practice for tall girls. Now let me share with you.
OUR UNIQUE PHYSIQUE
We have a unique set of problems mostly because everything is too low for us. The three major areas of the spine – the neck, upper back, low back and even the knees- are all affected. In an attempt to perform our activities of daily living we bend or slouch to fit our environment. Slouching causes the head, upper back and shoulders to round forward. This presents with tight muscles on the front of the body (the pectoralis muscles) and long weak muscles on the back of our bodies (the middle trapezius and rhomboids). It allows our cervical vertebra to shift, which can cause nerve compression. Long term this leads to pain in the neck, upper back and shoulders, which you may feel as postural strain at the end of your day. We also stress the lower back repeatedly as tall women leaning over counters that are too low or taking care of small children. Our long legs and torsos make us have to bend farther down then average height people or stress our knees by squatting constantly. Repeated lumbar flexion due to our long legs and torsos can cause repeated increased disc pressure leading to muscle strain, low back pain, or even disc herniations.
So how do we manage these body stressors as tall girls? First you need to get your posture evaluated by a trained physical therapist or Pilates instructor if you are experiencing pain. Knowing what your problem areas are first is the key to a beginning a training program. Going into a program without this can create more of a problem if you don’t know your unique postural picture. Once you know this then you can begin a Pilates program that can address your specific postural challenges.
WHAT CAN PILATES DO?
The entire focus of Pilates is spinal alignment and core strength. As a therapist I can tell you that most problems with the body stem from the alignment of the spine. It’s ALL about alignment. So when we get our tall spines into a spinal neutral (the natural alignment of our spine) and our muscles at optimal lengths, you will be able to manage your world a lot easier. Since all our strength comes from our centers (aka core) Pilates is the perfect program for the tall girl. We need to make sure we have a strong and stable spine to be able to send energy out to our long limbs. When I used to complain about my big feet my grandmother used to say “you can’t have a tall building on a small foundation” the same holds true for our bodies. You can’t have a tall building with a weak infrastructure. Pilates can benefit tall girls by:
- Creating length (yes length) in our spinal columns from the core training. Allowing vertebrae to have more flexibility and space and to put it back into the neutral spinal position.
- Improve our postural awareness and strength teaching us to lift and open our chests, pull our shoulders back and align our spine creating postural endurance.
- Stretch tight muscles that have changed due to our adaptations to the environment.
- Teach us proper body mechanics and efficient movements to use when bending, squatting, lifting and sitting. All activities that can cause pain after repeatedly performing with poor techniques.
- Decrease our incidences of low back injury by improving core stability and improved body mechanics.
- And of course- long, lean toned muscles to help us just look and feel great.
WHAT WILL I DO?
This depends on what you like. My suggestion of getting an evaluation first I think is key, then you can go from there. Do you want a group class? Mat Pilates is a great way to begin teaching you the foundation moves and techniques for proper form. You will use small equipment like bands, weighted balls, foam rollers, and more to help either assist or challenge you. If you want a more one on one program or require it due to pain or injury, then private training on the Pilates equipment is a great way to begin. Here you will get proper attention that is tailored just for your specific postural and strength needs.
EASY HOME EXERCISES
There is a lot you can do at home and this is one of the most beneficial things about Pilates—you can do it anywhere. One of the things I like to start many of my clients on is the foam roller. This 36 in by 6 in foam roll can help with getting your spine back into alignment. For the tall girl it is a great way to get you to open up your chest and reposition the upper back at the end of a long day of rounding over desks or computers. Just lying on the roller for 10-15 minutes can cause your spine to return to its spinal neutral. Two great exercises the “Snow Angel” and the “Thoracic Spine Stretch” are a great way to start. These exercises specifically target the upper chest area and upper back that can be tight in most tall women. These exercises give you a lot of information on how tight you truly are when you first begin. Try doing both of these exercises once a day in the evening and see how great you feel when you roll.
The Snow Angel
Position yourself on the roller vertically. Lift your arms over head and then gradually begin to bend your elbows and pull your arms down into a “goal post” position. Your forearms should rest comfortably on the mat. Breathe deeply and let the muscles lengthen. This can take time and can be uncomfortable. If your forearms don’t touch the ground you are most likely tight in your pectoralis muscles. Straighten your elbows and begin stretching this way until you loosen up.
Keep in mind- until you stretch the pectoralis muscles out you cannot change your posture. You have to stretch the tight muscles first before you can strengthen the back muscles that will then hold you in a more upright position. Perform this every day for about 5-10 minutes or as tolerated.
Thoracic Spine Stretch
Position the roller horizontally on the mat. Drape your upper body over the roller supporting your head with your hands. Breathe deeply and let your spine relax. After a few breaths reposition a bit higher or lower on your spine and continue the deep breathing. If you would like to massage the upper back muscles, lift your pelvis off the mat and roll on the roller like a rolling pin. This can cause the muscles to lengthen and relax.
TO SUM IT UP…..
Postural strength for the tall girl is something that we need to address in our daily lives and in our exercise programs throughout our lives. I may be biased, but I do believe that Pilates is the best exercise program to do that. By keeping your muscles lengthened and flexible, your frame in alignment, and your core strong, you can continue throughout your life to keep your tall body looking fabulous. Don’t hide your beautiful height by slouching- stand tall and show the world your confidence!
Donna Gambino is a licensed physical therapist and certified Pilates instructor in Canton, MI. Donna specializes in orthopedic and sports medicine physical therapy and is owner of Infinity Health, LLC, providing Pilates classes, personal training, and professional workshops. Donna is the author of the popular fitness books “On a Roll @ Home, Home Exercises for Core Strength and Massage on the Foam Roller, “Age Perfected Pilates, Mat Exercises to Improve Posture, Strength and Movement” and e-book “ On a Roll @ Home, Home Exercises for Stretch and Massage on the Foam Roller” all available on Amazon.com Visit her website www.infinityhealth.org