11 Physical Signs the Modern World Is Taking Its Toll (And How to Fight Back)
The modern world looks a little different to the one we inherited 20-30 years ago. And the demands on the human body have shifted. The rise of technology and a sedentary lifestyle presents a unique set of musculoskeletal challenges for us to overcome. A battle we might be losing if the physical signs are anything to go by.
In America alone, roughly two-thirds of adults and nearly 30% of children are overweight or obese. This may come as no surprise considering one study found only 1 in 4 Americans get enough daily exercise. Furthermore, siting for 8 hours a day isn’t that big of a deal for us anymore.
One in three people will experience neck pain each year.
70% of people will experience shoulder pain in their lifetime.
The physical signs are there for us to see.
To cap it all off, 80% of Americans feel stressed during the day.
When you take a step back physical signs like these suggest the modern world is having an effect on us. And it’s not a positive one. We’re now at a point where it’s a daily struggle to subdue the rising tide of poor health and function.
Medically, most issues take weeks, months or even years to develop. So unless you’re deliberately aware or being proactive, things can sneak up on you.
However as a Physiotherapist there’s clearly a number of musculoskeletal warning signs to look out. Things that highlight a body increasingly compromised by modern living. Encouragingly, these things can be changed.
So without further ado, here are eleven physical signs the modern world may be taking a toll on your body.
1/ You Walk With Your Feet Turned Out
Next time you’re standing or walking around, take a quick look down. If your feet don’t point straight ahead it may suggest your hips are stiff.
Thanks to the sitting demands of the modern world the front of our hips can tighten. This may not sound important, but it has huge functional ramifications for the rest of the leg. Any restriction at the front of the hip can will force it to compensate, resulting in excess leg rotation.
Over time this rotational shift can set our hips, knees, shins, achilles and feet up for future dysfunction.
How to Walk With Your Feet Straight:
Keep it simple. Consciously keep your feet straighter when you stand and walk. It may feel weird at first especially if you’ve been turned out for a while.
To make this a little easier consider going after your hip tightness with the Couch Stretch (below). Use a power band (like this) for better results.
Furthermore, take the time to consider how much unnecessary sitting you do throughout the day. Freeing up those hips and re-aligning your feet are important, but you’ll only make as much permanent change as your sitting habits allow.
2/ You Can’t Raise Your Arms Straight Above Your Head
This may sound boring (it is) but at no point should you lose the ability to get your arms above your head. And we’re not just talking about hands here.
Full shoulder range of motion dictates you should be able to raise your arms a full 180 degrees. This is with your elbows straight and arms by your ears.
Can you still do it? A large majority cannot.
Slouchy shoulder postures can rob us of upper back, neck and shoulder mobility. And as a result we can leave ourselves open to all sorts of upper back, neck, chest, shoulder, elbow and other upper limb issues down the track. Your shoulders may not hurt, but that doesn’t mean they’re at their best.
How to Improve Your Shoulder Mobility:
Improving your ability to go overhead is often a double pronged attack. Consider using a power band to free up any soft tissue getting in your way.
Similarly, use a lacrosse ball (like this) to go after any neck, upper back and upper rib joint stiffness. Take your arm in and out of full shoulder flexion to actively release the stiff tissue.
Finally, take the time to improve your shoulder postures and shapes. Again all the mobility exercises in the world cannot overcome constant poor habits.
3/ You Feel Uncomfortable Barefoot
Going barefoot is a great way to learn about the health of your feet. It should never feel uncomfortable, but does for so many of us. In terms of physical signs, this one speaks to the legacy of traditional footwear.
I’ve already covered why most modern footwear isn’t great for us but it needs to be reinforced.
Raised heels, pointed toes, stiff and rigid soles, arch support, added cushioning etc, have a lasting impact on our mechanics. And that’s before we even begin to discuss thongs/flip flops.
Modern shoes have the distinct capacity to leave our feet stiff, weak and poorly sensitized – with ramifications for the rest of the leg. As a consequence being barefoot now feels weird and uncomfortable for many.
Modern terrains and social standards don’t make it any easier.
It’s hard to run or stand on concrete for too long. There’s health codes, work-safe regulations and safety rules making it even more difficult. Even walking barefoot down the street can be met with interesting looks and subtle judgments.
But it’s vitally important to have perspective. Poor foot function accrued from modern shoes lays the foundation for many of the foot, ankle, shin, knee and hip complaints we see clinically. It can also increase your risk of falls and put a direct ceiling on your sports performance and athletic potential.
How to Be Barefoot More Often:
As a Physiotherapist, I’d recommend going barefoot as much as humanly possible. Respect current social standards and hygiene where possible but make the right choice when you can.
Similarly, try and reclaim some of that lost foot and ankle mobility. The banded ankle stretch is a great way to make those ankles move again.
A lacrosse ball or tennis ball is a nice way to restore some life to those tired feet.
Alternatively consider easing in to a pair of barefoot shoes. For context these have been my business shoes for well over half a decade and these have been my exercise shoes. I can’t speak highly enough of how comfortable and durable these types of shoes are. Well worth your time and money if you’re willing to work towards them.
4/ You Can’t Squat to Full Depth Anymore
The deep squat is a normal expression of full ankle, hip and knee range of motion. It’s our way of interacting with the ground, pooping in the woods, giving birth and having an upright resting position. Yet the modern world tends to rob of this basic capacity.
As previously mentioned, modern footwear and sitting demands have taken a huge, albeit gradual toll on our basic function.
Nowadays, most people can only squat about halfway down – conveniently the height of a chair, and a clear physical sign of lost hip and ankle function.
And this sets us up for all sorts of low back and knee complaints.
A lack of hip range compromises your ability to bend or lean with a straight back. This changes the way you load those discs, joints and other soft-tissues.A lack of hip range compromises your ability to bend or lean correctly with a straight back.Click To Tweet
Similarly, when paired with poor ankle mobility hip stiffness changes the way the knee is loaded. Knee arthritis, ACL injuries, Meniscal tears, Patellofemoral joint dysfunction, ITB syndrome etc can be linked to the resulting poor leg mechanics.
How to Improve Your Squat Depth:
Read a recent article of mine on Power Bands. Again utilize the Banded Ankle stretch and the Couch stretch, while working hard on the Hip Flexion and Hip Capsule stretches.
Use your squat depth as an indicator of improvement. The results should be instant and stack up over time.
Furthermore, squat to full depth more often. Instead of bending your back to pick simple things up from the ground consider routinely squatting instead. Try resting in a squat position where possible. Hold on to something if you need to.
As mentioned above also take a good look at your footwear and re-consider those sitting habits. Treat the cause not just the physical signs.
5/ You Don’t Have 90 Degrees of Trunk Rotation
One of the physical signs of less than perfect spinal posture is trunk stiffness. This can be seen when twisting from side to side.
To test this, sit upright with your arms crossed in front of you. Rotate either side and see where your chest gets to.
Normal trunk mobility is essential to support proper breathing mechanics, shoulder function, neck function, low back and hip function and more. There’s even a link to better stress regulation thanks to the parasympathetic nerves in this area.
How to Improve Your Trunk Flexibility:
The simplest way to improve this physical sign is with a foam roller and/or lacrosse ball. Turn on Netflix, lie down and let them gently press in to the stiff spots close to your spine. Make sure you can breathe comfortably throughout.
Once again, make sure those stiff areas don’t return by focusing on better spinal shapes when sitting. Train yourself to do it naturally over time but consider using a rolled up towel to help initially.
6/ You Can’t Turn Your Head 90 Degrees Either
Similar to the trunk, a lack of full neck rotation is one of the physical signs of poor daily neck postures.
These poor neck and head positions can force your neck tissue to stiffen and weaken over time.
Not only can this set you up for neck pain and arthritis down the track, but neck dysfunction has strong links to a large variety of head, shoulder and arm complaints.
The following can be neck-related:
- Headaches & Migraines
- Jaw Pain
- Sinus Pain
- Poor Vision & Poor Hearing
- Shoulder Pain
- Tennis Elbow & Golfer’s Elbow
- Carpal Tunnel
- Grip Weakness, among many others.
The next time you’re around people using their phones, take a minute to appreciate how common poor shapes have become. Once you see it, it can’t be unseen.
The modern world is fantastic at drawing us in to poor spinal shapes and keeping us there.
How to Improve Neck Flexibility:
The neck is a little smaller than the trunk so a lacrosse ball works better here. Stand up against a wall or lie down and let the ball gently press into your neck.
Look for anything that feels stiff, tight and restricted. Re-check your mobility as you go to gauge progress.
Similarly, take note of your head and neck positions. Reduce the amount of looking down (or up) to allow your neck tissues to stay loose. Alternatively consider raising the height of what you’re doing so that you aren’t forced to look down as far. Every little change helps.
7/ You Wake Up Stiff in the Morning
How often do you wake in the morning with a stiff neck or back?
It’s a common occurrence these days and yet another physical sign your body isn’t tolerating something from the modern world.
On the surface we tend to blame morning soreness on a few simple things. We blame sleeping funny, a poor mattress and/or pillow and sometimes even age and bad luck.
But this isn’t the case.
Much like a heavy workout which can leave you with some next-day exercise soreness, general aches and pains follow the same path. The real issue tends to be something from the day before, but less obvious than a heavy workout.
As I’ve covered before, poor daily postures and shapes can again be at fault here. In this instance, they can express themselves as morning neck and back pain.
Not only can waking up sore impact your day but it can be an important physical sign of future neck and back pain. Getting on top of those poor daily spinal shapes and positions should see a genuine improvement in how you wake up each morning.
How to Wake Up Pain-Free:
Use your mobility tool of choice to free up those stiff spinal areas. Try doing this before bed to give you the best chance of waking up feeling great.
As always, you can’t expect to make long-term change unless you can appreciate how you’re positioning those dysfunctional areas.
Try and get a sense of how you sit in the car, on the couch, up in bed, on the recliner, the computer, at the work desk etc. As mentioned before, consider how you hold your head and neck. Any shape that keeps you in a hinged position for too long needs your specific attention.
If there’s a local hinge anywhere, it’s highly likely to become stiffer, tighter and ultimately dysfunctional over time.
8/ You Can’t Hang Anymore
This isn’t an attack on your ability to last during a night out. It’s about your basic capacity to hold your body weight while hanging.
This isn’t necessarily an adult-specific skill but it’s one of the physical signs to look out for if you want a healthy, strong and mobile upper body.
Hanging engages the deeper stabilizing muscles of the upper body. The ones designed to help support normal shoulder function and protect us from injury. It’s also a great test of grip strength which many of us lack.
As children we have access to a number of hanging opportunities. How much fun were the monkey bars? How often were you climbing trees?
Yet when was the last time your adult self gave these a go?
For most of us, our exposure to hanging looks something like pull ups, chin ups, muscle ups and the occasional Ninja Warrior episode on the couch. But how often are you realistically doing these?
Instead, it’s more likely our long-term reliance on sitting and slouching has left these areas well short of optimal. And without many daily opportunities to reclaim this function, we can slowly head towards poorer upper body function and increased risk of injury.
How to Reclaim Your Hanging Strength:
Reclaiming shoulder mobility will help your ability to hang. Consider the same exercises from point #2 above. Realistically though, there’s no substitute for hanging practice.
Most adults should be able to do a dead two-handed hang for at least 60 seconds. Like many of these ideas, there’s no reason you can’t start hanging from a tree branch or door frame when the opportunity presents.Most adults should be able to do a dead hang for at least 60 seconds.Click To Tweet
If you have young kids, make sure you’re on the monkey bars with them. Don’t be scared to climb something every now and again. In terms of physical signs, this one needs specific attention to address.
You may be surprised at how much you’ve lost but also at how quickly things can return.
9/ You Feel Stressed Without Stress
This is a huge one. Take a moment to consider how you currently feel. Do you feel a little stressed or on edge?
If you do, this may be another on the list of physical signs to address.
Your body is designed to handle acute stress via the Fight or Flight response. An immediate challenge is met with an instant boost in human function to allow us to engage or get away.
Once this threatening situation has resolved, we are supposed to quickly return to a calmer, more relaxed baseline and move on. Something seen so clearly in the animal kingdom.
Yet for us it’s now different.
I’ve mentioned previously when discussing Fibromyalgia and chronic pain, that modern stress is no longer a fleeting experience.
Today’s stress is everywhere and often unrelenting. There’s financial stress, relationship stress, social stress, body image stress, cultural and religious stress, time stress, work stress etc.
As a consequence it’s easy for our nervous system to be “up” and ready for a fight as a matter of habit. We can wake up already stressed before we’ve even leapt out of bed in the morning.
Essentially we can feel stressed without specific stressor involved.Today's modern world can leave us feeling stressed without a specific stressor involved.Click To Tweet
This chronically heightened state can play havoc with our pain experience, sleep quality and mental health. It can also underpin many chronic pain syndromes and illnesses.
All without that acutely stressful cue.
How to De-stress:
Let’s get the obvious one out the way first, shall we?
Do your best to resolve those stressors. Control what you can control. For everything else, it’s important to know you may not be able to rid yourself of all stress, but you can influence how your body reacts to that stress.
I’ve covered a few great ways to manage your stress reaction in the Fibromyalgia article above. Think deep breathing and cold exposure.
Similarly, you may want to consider altering the next physical sign…
10/ You Mouth Breathe
The modern world with its constant stress and sitting demands can even show up in the way you breathe.
This is not something we typically think about, but the way we breathe matters.
Many are aware of the importance of Diaphragmatic breathing – the ability to breathe from your lower ribcage and abdomen, and not your upper chest. But the difference between mouth breathing vs nose breathing is relatively new.
Interestingly, it’s one of the best physical signs to look out for.
Our nasal cavities are directly linked to our respiratory system. This pathway is designed to optimally clean, absorb and process the oxygen we need to function.
On the other hand our mouth is directly tied to the digestive system.
Both can clearly be used to breathe, but only one is optimized for this process.Your mouth and nose can both clearly be used to breathe, but only one is optimized for this process.Click To Tweet
The role of stress plays an important role in deciding this.
Take running for example.
Nasal breathing while running can highlight an efficient oxygen processing system. However the more intense things become the harder it is for supply to meet demand. At some point the body will compel you breathe through your mouth to increase the amount of oxygen it can access. Albeit with consequences.
Breathing through your mouth involves the muscles of your chest, neck and shoulders. Muscles that require more juice to run. It’s also a direct line to your Sympathetic Nervous System – responsible for the up-regulation associated with the Fight or Flight response.
In today’s modern world, many of us are existing in this already heightened physiological state. Our mouths are open and we are using these inefficient systems for fuel. Not only can this perpetuate an already heightened neurological state, but contribute to other common issues.
The following are linked with chronic mouth breathing:
- Sleep Apnea
- Poor Sleep
- Heightened Stress
- Asthma and other Respiratory Dysfunction
How to Improve Nasal Breathing:
Like many of the physical signs on this list the answer is often just a change in mindset.
You don’t need to tape your mouth shut overnight but it is worthwhile closing your mouth more often. Practice when you know you don’t have to speak. Try it in the car, or when out for a walk. Give it a go when exercising and see how long you can do it for before you need to use your mouth. It’s a good measure of how you’re going, provided you see it improve over time.
11/ You Can’t Tolerate the Cold or Heat
How is your relationship with the heat and cold?
Interestingly, your tolerance to temperature is another important physical marker to consider.
These days we often shy away from any decent shift in temperature. As soon as it gets warm we reach for the air-con. If it’s getting cold – the heater goes on.
Many shudder at the mere thought of a cold shower.
And in some ways this is not our fault. The modern lifestyle revolves around being indoors. Work, school and home life leave many of us barely exposed to the elements much if at all during the day. Our lives are often comfortably boring temperature wise.
As a result our body’s ability to naturally regulate against shifts in temperature can diminish. So when faced with less than ideal temperatures it’s natural to want to avoid them. But we shouldn’t.
Poor adaptation to temperature can suggest a vascular system that’s lost its edge. With a strong link to the immune system, it’s vitally important we exercise these often dormant parts as much as the rest.
And if you’re not paying attention, these physical signs can be completely overlooked under the guise of comfort.
How to Better Tolerate the Heat and Cold:
The key to broadening your body’s tolerance to changes in temperature lies in exposing it to temperature change. Obviously gradual exposure works best, but exposure nonetheless.
If you want the cold to feel less challenging, consider finishing your regular warm shower with a cooler one. Don’t go full cold straight away, just cool enough to nudge your boundaries. Deep breathe to keep things under control. Gradually turn the temperature down each day.
The same goes with the heat. Consider having an extra hot shower, or spend time in a sauna or spa to challenge yourself. Similarly, when you first get in to the car on a warm day don’t immediately go for the air-con straight away. By all means open a window but give your body a chance to do its thing first.
Furthermore, try to get outside more. Try to go for a walk in the cool air before work or when the suns out during the day. Expose yourself to the elements with slightly less or more clothing than you’d regularly wear to again give your body a chance to adapt on its own. Obviously be reasonable and work within your tolerance, but start to push the boundaries a little.
This modern world of ours can be an uncompromising beast. And the list of things we must endure are stacking up.
Joint stiffness, tissue weakness, chronic stress and poor tolerance to temperature are just a few consequences we face. These issues can often go unnoticed unless you know what to look for. Thankfully there are some tangible physical signs to keep an eye on.
Do your best to reclaim these little pieces of lost function. It’s also worth remembering that these issues don’t happen by accident. There are specific things to rectify to help close the door on their return.
Ultimately, this is a lesson in perspective. To consider the impact of the modern world on your health and wellness is to ready yourselves against further developments others may not see coming. After all, this modern world of ours in not going away anytime soon, and neither are you!
What other physical signs can you see that suggest our bodies aren’t coping?
Let me know below and I’ll include them in the article!