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Stand Tall, Look Younger

Martina offers tips for shedding years by improving posture.

From my earliest school days, I had to sit up straight on old wooden benches, and the teachers made us keep our hands behind our backs on the theory that it would improve our posture. We had to raise our hands up very straight and high when we had something to say, and we were supposed to raise only our index and middle fingers. Sometimes I would lean back and keep my arm up all the time because I usually knew the answers. Maybe that built up muscles for my serve!

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Looking back, I'm glad they were strict about posture because it has given me enough strength and control to hold my body in proper alignment whether I'm sitting, standing or moving. If your posture is lacking in any way — for example, if you hunch your back — you create muscular imbalance and physical stress. The slouching that so many of us do over our computers and desks can compress internal organs and stress the neck, shoulders and lower back.

As an athlete, one of the things you learn is the importance of a "neutral spine." This means aligning your spine into its natural S shape, which enables your body to function in its strongest, most balanced position. This neutral position minimizes stress to your joints, muscles, spine and other parts of your body, and you're less likely to hurt yourself. You can move more efficiently when playing sports or exercising. One thing you can say about the greatest athletes is that they make their sport look so easy, and the reason is that they are in "neutral" most of the time.

If you have trouble working from a neutral posture, it's probably because you've got some muscular imbalances. Imagine trying to balance a load of books and one of the books is sticking out too far: The load is unstable. Similarly, when you're not working from neutral alignment, your body is unstable. This can make certain movements difficult and your body more injury-prone.

Tennis legend Martina Navratilova

Improper posture can lead to muscle imbalance and injury. — Lucas Jackson/Reuters/Corbis

If you don't move well, you look old no matter how good your body, hair, clothes or makeup look. Poor posture has an aging effect; good posture is attractive and gives you a special presence and air of confidence when you walk into a room.

These simple exercises demonstrated in the above video will help you correct posture problems and learn how to maintain a neutral spine:

The Standing T
Start: Grasp two dumbbells. Stand in a neutral position with your arms stretched in front of you. Slowly lift your arms up in front of you, as shown in the above video.

Finish: Next, move your arms out to the side until they form a T shape. Squeeze your shoulder blades together. Keep the palms of your hands facing outward. Perform this movement without moving your chin forward or jutting your ribcage out. Return your arms to the starting position. Try to do 12 to 15 repetitions.

The Standing Y
Start: Grasp two dumbbells. Stand in a neutral position with your arms at your sides.

Finish: Slowly lift your arms above your head, forming a Y shape, with your palms facing each other. Position your arms even to your ears. Squeeze your shoulder blades together. Perform this movement without moving your chin forward or jutting your ribcage out. Return your arms to the starting position. Try to do 12 to 15 repetitions.

The Standing L
Start: While grasping two dumbbells, stand in a neutral position. Lean forward at a 45-degree angle, bend your knees slightly and hold the dumbbells with your arms bent at a 90-degree angle in front of you, as shown in the above video.

Finish: Slowly extend your forearms while keeping your elbows close to your body. Position your arms even to your ears. Squeeze your shoulder blades together. Perform this movement without moving your chin forward or jutting your ribcage out. Return your arms to the starting position. Try to do 10 to 12 repetitions.

In addition to practicing these exercises, try to stay aware of your posture whenever you're sitting or standing. When sitting, lift your head and keep your eyes forward. Pull your chin in slightly so that your head and neck are lined up. Lift your chest and pull your shoulders back so that you don't slouch.

When you're standing, try to keep your hips, knees and heels stacked in alignment, with your body weight centered over your feet and your spine in an erect, neutral position.

If you stick with these suggestions, you'll be standing tall and feeling younger in no time!

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