The Lab Rat: Can the Right Shirt Improve Your Posture?

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courtesy Alignmed

An example of the type of garments being used by professional athletes, MS patients, back-pain sufferers and others to treat and prevent injuries and aches.

Clothes can be fashionable or embarrassing, ill-fitting or flattering. But can they be medicinal? A California-based company called Alignmed has developed a line of garments being used by professional athletes, MS patients, back-pain sufferers and others to treat and prevent injuries and aches. Are you ready for therapeutic couture?

Alignmed markets its form-fitting clothes as “Evidence Based Apparel.” Until recently, the company mainly sold products in the specialty orthopedic marketplace; its S3 brace ($345) is popular among athletes. But now Alignmed is launching a $95 T-shirt — it’s called the Posture Shirt — designed not only for athletes but also for office workers uncomfortable from hunching over keyboards.

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The shirt has some enthusiastic backers, including Dr. Craig Morgan, an orthopedic surgeon and consultant to the Kansas City Royals. Morgan, who was an early investor in Alignmed, says virtually all the Royals have been wearing the shirts during spring training. Morgan says the Posture Shirt helps prevent injuries and boosts performance. The shirt has also been used by Vail, Colo., ski instructors in an effort to minimize movement injuries.

How the shirt works isn’t obvious at first glance. It seems like any other sports top — sheer and tight; spandex and chemical-smelling. But sewn into the Posture Shirt are elastic bands that start at the shoulders and stretch toward the center of the back. The bands have the effect of rolling your shoulders down and rearward, helping give you that sit-up-straight posture.

Such posture is important in preventing back pain and sports injuries. Although she may not have known about the biomechanics, your mom was right: you shouldn’t slouch. Routine misalignment of the spine and shoulder blades can pinch nerves and lead to serious injury, especially if you try to lift weights with your shoulders hunched. The Posture Shirt works by helping you pull your shoulder blades and chest muscles into a proud position — think of the Superman pose. That position keeps you from arching and overstretching the muscles at the back of your spine.

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Just to stipulate: you don’t really need a $95 shirt to keep good posture. If you focus hard enough, you can direct your shoulder blades to sit down and back. But the advantage of the Posture Shirt is that it acts like a constant reminder. When I went running with the shirt, its tension along my shoulders was just strong enough to reinforce my body’s own sense that my shoulders shouldn’t hunch. Often when I run, my right shoulder tacks forward, so that by the end of the run I feel pain along my right collarbone. That pain didn’t occur when I ran with the Posture Shirt.

The science behind the shirt lies in the idea of proprioception, which is the body’s sense of its position within space. That sounds vague, but here’s a way to get it: Sit up straight and close your eyes. Move one of your limbs to what you think is a 45-degree angle. Then look: is the limb at a 45-degree angle? If so, your proprioceptive sense is working.

I got that description of proprioception from Dr. Thomas Gill IV, chief of sports medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. I asked him to look at the Alignmed website and comment on the Posture Shirt. His short answer was that the shirt might not help, but it can’t hurt. Gill said physical trainers often spend hours with clients challenging their muscles in unusual ways to develop proprioception. One common proprioceptive exercise is to do a lunge while standing on an uneven surface like a balance board or a BOSU, which is a rubber half-dome.

But Gill was less certain about whether the Posture Shirt could assist a professional athlete. “These sorts of garments are really not going to have an effect on an athlete,” he told me. “With the amount of muscle training and strength they develop, to think a garment would change the resting position of the scapula … It’s just too far beneath the skin of these athletes to make a difference.”

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Having tried the Posture Shirt for several days, I would add that I don’t think it’s a practical device for those who crouch over computers all day. The reason is that you don’t want to wear a binding spandex shirt (even as an undershirt) while at your desk. It’s too tight, and even after washing, spandex always has a slightly odd odor. It feels like you forgot to change at the gym.

Bottom line: If you have a spare hundred bucks, buy the Posture Shirt for your next workout. It will give you a little more support through your torso. Otherwise, just remember to sit up straight.

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Follow my health columns on Twitter @JohnAshleyCloud

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