August 1, 2018
BehindTheMedspeak: The lost art of bending over
How Other Cultures Spare Their Spines
To see if you're bending correctly, try a simple experiment.
"Stand up and put your hands on your waist," says Jean Couch, who has been helping people get rid of back pain for 25 years at her studio in Palo Alto, California.
"Now imagine I've dropped a feather in front of your feet and asked you to pick it up," Couch says. "Usually everybody immediately moves their heads and looks down."
That little look down bends your spine and triggers your stomach to do a little crunch. "You've already started to bend incorrectly — at your waist," Couch says. "Almost everyone in the U.S. bends at the stomach."
In the process, our backs curve into the letter "C" — or, as Couch says, "We all look like really folded cashews."
But in many parts of the world, people don't look like cashews when they bend over.
Instead, you see something very different.
I first noticed this mysterious bending style in 2014 while covering the Ebola outbreak.
We were driving on a back road in the rain forest of Liberia and every now and then, we would pass women working in their gardens.
The women had striking silhouettes: They were bent over with their backs nearly straight. But they weren't squatting with a vertical back. Instead, their backs were parallel to the ground. They looked like tables.
After returning home, I started seeing this "table" bending in photos all around the world — an older woman planting rice in Madagascar, a Mayan woman bending over at a market in Guatemala and women farming grass in northern India.
This bending seemed to be common in many places, except in Western societies.
"The anthropologists have noted exactly what you're saying for years," says Stuart McGill, at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, who has been studying the biomechanics of the spine for more than three decades.
"It's called hip hinging," McGill says. "And I've spent my career trying to prove it's a better way of bending than what we do."
For starters, McGill says, it's "spine-sparing."
When people bend with the cashew shape in their back — like we often do — they're bending their spine. "That puts more stress on the spinal disks," McGill says.
Disks are little rings of collagen found between each vertebra, which form a joint.
But they aren't made for tons of motion. "They have mechanical characteristics more like a fabric," McGill says.
"If you took a cloth, and you kept bending and stressing it, over and over again, the fibers of the weave of the cloth start to loosen up and delaminate," he says.
Eventually, over time, this fabric can fray, which puts you at risk of slipping a disk or having back pain.
On the other hand, when you hip hinge, your spine stays in a neutral position. The bending occurs at the hip joint — which is the king of motion.
"Hips are a ball and socket joint," McGill says. "They are designed to have maximum movement using lots of muscle force."
"Bending at the hip takes the pressure off the back muscles," says Liza Shapiro, who studies primate locomotion at the University of Texas, Austin. "Instead, you engage your hamstring muscles."
And by "engage the hamstrings," she also means stretching them.
"Oh yes! In order to hip hinge properly, your hamstrings have to lengthen," Shapiro says. "If you have tight hamstrings, they prevent you from bending over easily that way."
Tight hamstrings are extremely common in the U.S., Kennedy says. They may be one reason why hip hinging has faded from our culture: Stiff hamstrings are literally hamstringing our ability to bend properly.
But hip hinging isn't totally lost from our culture, Shapiro says. "I just saw a website on gardening that recommended it, and many yoga websites recommend bending at the hips, too."
And the hip hinging is sprinkled throughout sports.
Weightlifters use it when they do what's called a deadlift.
Baseball players use it when they bat.
Tennis star Rafael Nadal does it when he sets up a forehand.
And in football, players kneel at the line of scrimmage with beautiful hip hinging.
Toddlers younger than 3 years old are great hip hingers.
They haven't learned yet from their parents to bend like a cashew.
Whether or not hip hinging will prevent back pain or injuries, doctors don't know yet, says Dr. D.J. Kennedy, a spine specialist at Stanford University and a former weightlifter.
"We don't have these randomized trials, where we have people lifting things hundreds of times and see how their body responds to hip hinging," Kennedy says.
Still, though, Kennedy says he tries to hip hinge as much as possible.
"I think hip hinging intuitively makes sense, just given how the spine functions," he says. "So I try very hard to do it."
So how in the world do you do this mysterious bending? Back in Palo Alto at Jean Couch's Balance Center, she tells me the trick: Find your fig leaf.
"Stand up and spread your heels about 12 inches apart, with your toes 14 inches apart," she says. "Now, if you are Adam in the Bible, where would you put a fig leaf?"
"Uh, on my pubic bone?" I answer shyly.
"Exactly," Couch says. "Now put your hand right there, on your fig leaf. When you bend, you want to let this fig leaf — your pubic bone — move through your legs. It moves down and back."
So I try it. I put my hand on my pubic bone as a pretend fig leaf. Then as I bend my knees a bit, I allow my fig leaf to move through my legs. A little crevice forms right at the top of my legs and my back starts to fold over, like a flat table.
"Now you're using the large muscles of your hips, such as the glutes, to support the whole weight of your body, instead of the tiny muscles of your back," says Jenn Sherer, who co-owns the Balance Center with Couch.
And she's right. My back relaxes, while my hamstrings start to stretch. And boy are they tight!
"Wow! My hamstrings are stretching like crazy," I yell out, while I'm bent over like a table.
"Yes," Couch says, chuckling. "That's why we call it the world's best hamstring stretch. We find that the bend feels so good for some people, they never want to get back up."
GoFly Prize: Final Flyoff
After the first phase of a three-phase contest to build a personal flying machine, 10 finalists remain.
The Final Flyoff is scheduled for 2019.
From the New York Times :
Since at least the ancient Greeks, people have dreamed of soaring like a bird from place to place.
Leonardo da Vinci's sketches of personal flying machines were ahead of their time and remain ahead of our own.
Most people who want to fly today can do so only with an airline ticket and a valid form of identification.
But some inventors, designers and engineers have continued to tinker, and now a contest called GoFly is encouraging them.
It aims to have working prototypes next year.
"We're at the brink of a legitimate shift in the way we travel and interact with one another," said Gwen Lighter, the chief executive of the contest.
A group of inventors and engineers organized the competition, and Boeing is the sponsor.
A number of other aerospace and research firms are supporting the effort.
Ms. Lighter said she expected that people would one day be able to fly for trips that they now took in cars, and that flying machines would develop along a path similar to the one automobiles followed 100 years ago.
"Once these have been built and we can show people we can make them fly, it will be up to the world and the consumer to decide what is best for their needs," Ms. Lighter said.
Boeing is interested in seeing what innovations develop, said Greg Hyslop, the company’s chief technology officer.
Boeing has no plans to build personal flying machines of its own, he added, but it does want to stay on top of new ideas.
"The industry from its inception has thrived on good competition and innovation that is fueled by that competition," Mr. Hyslop said. "We need things like this to really spark the imagination of folks and encourage them."
He also said that taking to the air could help solve some modern inconveniences, although he did not foresee flying machines as a complete replacement for ground transportation.
"In developing countries, we have nonexistent or inadequate terrestrial infrastructure, and in developed cities we have creaking terrestrial infrastructure that can't keep up with the demands of society," he said. "It begs for something to get things up in the air. Whether it's packages, cargo, people, we're going to have to use the space that's above us to meet those needs."
The GoFly competition is taking place in three phases, with the final "flyoff" scheduled for 2019.
The 10 winners of the first phase, who submitted their designs on paper, were announced on Thursday.
More than 100 entries were submitted, and the winning teams each received $20,000.
Some of the designs looked like giant airboats.
Others looked more like motorcycles with propellers attached.
One looked like a miniature airplane.
Contest guidelines specified that the devices had to be quiet, compact and able to carry a single person at least 20 miles without refueling.
Also, the website said, "the invention should be user-friendly and, of course, provide the thrill of flight."
All the applicants, according to Ms. Lighter, made safety a priority.
Texas A&M University had one of the winning submissions (below),
essentially an open pilot's capsule, shaped like an egg, with rotor blades mounted near the base.
Moble Benedict, a professor of aerospace engineering at the university, said the design was meant to maximize the pilot's field of vision and make the machine easy to handle.
"We want a regular person to be able to fly this thing with minimum flight training," he said. "We have designed the control system in a way that's very stable, and it's easy enough to be flown by a novice pilot or even a regular person."
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