What kind of old lady are you planning on being?
(I understand that occasionally a non-female casts an eye over this blog; I apologize for my gender-based lead. It’s safe to keep reading; there are no discussions of ovaries or menstruation or the detritus that winds up at the bottom of the purse that makes the mens so uncomfortable.)
As far as I can tell, you can be the terrifying, revered old lady who masterminds plots and overthrows governments. Judi Dench in the Bond movies. (You know – before they bumped her off, of course.)
Or you can be hunched over and sweet, toddling around offering butterscotchies from the depths of a capacious handbag and pinching the cheeks of long-suffering grandchildren.
Me, I have a hankering to stride around the retirement community, smelling vaguely of chlorine from lap-swimming and signing up for all the trips to the Kennedy Center. I want a vigorous old age. More, I want a comparatively SUPPLE old age.
So when Barbara and Chip combined their superpowers to expand my thoracic flexibility, I was wide-eyed in eager astonishment.
Let’s review the bidding: Barbara and Chip are both trainers at Body Dynamics in Falls Church, Virginia – a remarkable place. I see two trainers there each week – Barbara (a guru) works on the global muscles and Chip (a former dancer who, despite his history, remains grounded and charming if somewhat in the Torquemada tradition) works on the stabilizer muscles… and they talk to each other. It’s terrifying; there are aspects of my body that they know far better than I do.
And as for thoracic flexibility, that’s the part of your spine you didn’t realize was supposed to bend that way.
(I adore the word “thorax.” That’s something that only bugs have – as intoned by Mr. Domizio in tenth grade biology. “This is the abdomen of the beetle; this is the thorax. Pru – pay attention! What did I just say?” “Ummm…?”)
When the handsome man sweeps you into a graceful waltz (you living a more exciting life than me), his hand is resting on your lumbar spine. That part of the backbone curves inward.
When he slides his hand beneath your hair to your neck to draw you in for that first dewy kiss, he’s caressing your cervical spine. (He’s an anatomical kind of guy – so romantic.)
(He gets to the sacrum later that night – that’s between you and him.)
Betwixt the cervical and the lumbar is the largest part of the backbone – the thoracic spine. It curves outward. All your chest muscles are hooked to it; it feels stable and powerful. And in my experience, it’s not an area that gives the body a lot of problems.
My husband had a grave affliction between his lumbar and sacral spine that caused him to bitch a lot about his bad back – many people have this issue, I’ve discovered. That part of the spine needs an upgrade in Human 2.0 – there are design flaws in the current program.
And problems with the cervical spine – as when you’re put into a cervical collar – are The Big Bad.
But the thorax? It just goes about its business, immobile and stoic. Giving no one any problems. Slowly, slowly over the years hunching ever further forward.
But GUESS WHAT??
It’s SUPPOSED to bend the other way! You should be able to straighten that outward curve into a straight line (or something, at least, that feels like a straight line to me).
No, really. I know – it makes the brain hurt to consider it, doesn’t it?
I spend my life hunched over a computer. (Either that or rolling my eyes at Chip or Barbara.) My thoracic spine is helping – by curling forward. The problem is, if you curl that spine forward all the time, it loses the ability to curl back upright. The result?
Just like that – you’re not overthrowing governments; you’re fishing butterscotchies from the lint at the bottom of your bag. And that ain’t on MY agenda.
So every day, I stand with my back to the wall with a foam roller along the length of my spine. I arch backwards over the top of it. How far up, you ask? Put the top of the foam roller EXACTLY where your spine doesn’t arch backwards.
Because what that means is that it doesn’t arch backwards ANYMORE from that spot – it used to, but it doesn’t now. You can reverse the trend, but it takes time to get flexibility back, and you can lose it again lickety-split. (Stressful days – the kind that make you ignore the exercises – conspire to pull you forward again. It’s insidious – a conspiracy. Probably created by some upright old lady with a master plan.)
I actually move the foam roller up and down. I bend backwards and hold it three times – then move the roller up a bit and do it four times – and then a final three times a little higher than that. After doing this for a few weeks, I’ve gotten to the point where I can feel a stretch in my pecs when I do it – the chest muscles. That means I’m actually bending the spine the way it no longer wants to bend. Yay, me!
The other day after hours of frantic computer-sitting, I found myself stretching my thorax. “What are you doing?” asked my astonished friend Kevin in his soft, high, gay man’s West Virginia accent. To be fair, I did look odd – like I was trying to push my breast bone to the ceiling and holding the pose in frozen concentration. “Thorax,” I said with a sigh. “Damned Barbara has loosened up a part of me that never minded a stressful day before and now I know when it’s tight again.”
Yes, I profaned the name of my Wizard of the Body, and I apologize. I make up for it by giving her full credit for enabling my world domination well into my 90s.
This is me attempting to demo the thoracic spine stretch on the foam roller. Mostly it’s me trying to figure out how to hold the phone in one hand AND take an actual photo. The results speak for themselves. Sorry about that!