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Living Well: Watch your party posture to lift your body and spirits

That resounding whoosh you hear? Our exercise programs getting away from us during the next two holiday weeks. But there is a positive step we can all take as we stand at holiday parties, pull up to the dining table or drive from place to place:

Make it a point to practice good posture. Think of it as standing up for yourself.

"Posture is such a great place to start," said Steve Barbuto, a physical therapist and certified athletic trainer at Olympic Physical Therapy, which has numerous locations in the Seattle area. "You don't develop bad posture overnight, so you won't fix it in a day or two."

Even so, you can do yourself a lot of good by embracing a personal posture campaign. And you don't have to make it obvious -- "oh, excuse me while I drop and do 20 pushups" -- as loved ones and friends gather between now and New Year's.

"The one thing I would recommend for any of us who stand awhile at parties and gatherings is to find some way to lift up one foot," said Julie Gudmestad, owner of the Gudmestad Yoga Studio in Portland, where she teaches classes and serves clients as a physical therapist. "Get one foot onto something, like the rung of a chair, a step, a curb, something. Just doing that will lengthen the back and cut down on pain."

Note that Gudmestad is not suggesting we keep a rigid form and that the knees are never locked.

Gudmestad writes the popular and informative "Anatomy of a Yogi" column for Yoga Journal magazine. She is happy to focus on small changes that can make a big difference during the holidays and beyond.

"Another good thing to do if standing for long periods is to clasp your hands behind you at tailbone," she said. "Straighten your elbows and that pulls the shoulders and chest back and down. I call it the 'chest opener.' "

If you are not worried about partygoers noticing your posture pursuits, then Gudmestad said you can back up to an available wall. Bend your knees "just a little" and press or "flatten" your lower back into the wall. This action exercises the abdominal muscles.

For his part, Barbuto said "lightly engaging your abdominal muscles but not 100 percent" can change your holiday energy and stress levels for the better (one up, the other down). He likened your abs to "marathon muscles" best worked a little bit at a time over a long time rather than more intense, shorter bursts."

"We stabilize our bodies from the inside out," he said. "Abdominal muscles stabilize us, provide more balance and support. Most other muscles are there for movement. The abs support all of that movement."

The simple act of tensing the ab muscles while standing at a party or waiting at a stoplight in the car can change your posture for the better. You can even do some ab clenching while falling asleep or waking up. Just remember Barbuto's advice of not aiming for 100 percent exertion of the abs.

When personal trainers go to the gym or health club, they often can only shake their heads observing the many improper lifts and unhealthy stretches. As a physical therapist, Gudmestad admits to noticing a lot of posture mistakes as she watches people stand at a party or sit down for dinner or a computer session.

"The No. 1 thing I see is a big sway in people's backs," she said. "That where lifting one foot or backing up against a wall can help. You cut down on the sway."

The other mistake we make, said Gudmestad is moving our heads too far forward as we stand. The result is we slump, rounding our backs from the tailbone to the elbows. Taking occasion to clasp your hands behind the tailbone can offset that posture snafu.

As for sitting, Gudmestad said most people tend to "slide their butt forward to the front edge" of a chair, which bends the back into a C-shape. Her posture remedy is to make it a point to sit on the front edge of your chair but sitting tall rather than leaning or scrunching forward. You can employ the hands-to-the-tailbone clasp to further enhance your posture break.

When dining, whether over holiday dinner or just a snack with loved ones, remember to sit back fully in your chair. If possible, place a small pillow or folded sweater behind the small of your lower back. This lumbar support doesn't have to be much thicker than three to four inches to boost posture and prevent backache.

"Do the same thing while you drive too," Gudmestad said.

"Ideally, that pillow or sweatshirt or towel behind your back will push the hips forward to line up just above the knees," said Barbuto. "The support back there is a great reminder to keep upright."

Barbuto said the "last piece of the puzzle" is the position of the head, whether standing or sitting. The idea to gently lift it toward the ceiling or sky, at least as much as you can remember.

"Bring your chin back, as if someone just put onions in front of your face," said Barbuto. "You bring the chin back to where you almost have a double chin. Then relax a bit. That's the best position for your head. Your earlobes are right over the middle part of your shoulders. It takes a lot of stress off your neck and shoulders."

And who can't use that break as the holidays unfold?