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 Don’t Neglect The Neck 
The following is one in an ongoing series of columns entitled Keeping Fit by . View all columns in series
Dr. Westcott

A few years ago, we conducted a research study with elderly residents of a large nursing home in Orange City, Florida. The 20 study subjects averaged almost 90 years of age, and spent most of their waking hours in wheelchairs. Their major problem was physical frailty, which we sought to address through a basic and brief program of regular strength training. Our major challenge was to get them out of their wheelchairs, and we selected four weightstack machine exercises that effectively served this purpose. However, our fifth exercise was the neck machine to strengthen the muscles that were supposed to hold their heads erect.

We included the neck machine because these frail older adults were almost incapable of lifting their chins off their chest. Due to incredibly weak neck muscle that could no longer hold their heads erect, these seniors had more difficulty breathing, eating, drinking and looking forward, as well as considerable discomfort in their neck/shoulder area.

After 14 weeks of strength training (1 set of 8 to 12 repetitions of the 5 exercises twice a week), the subjects added 4 pounds of muscle, lost 3 pounds of fat, increased their leg strength by 80 percent, increased their upper body strength by 40 percent, improved their functional capacity (FIM score) by 14 percent, and spent much less time (if any) in their wheelchairs. However, in our opinion, the most impressive outcome of the study was the renewed ability of the participants to hold their heads erect. In their opinion, the best result of the strength training program was the reduced discomfort in their necks and backs (we also included the low back machine in the five exercise training protocol).

Because an average-sized head weighs between 12 and 15 pounds, the neck muscles are extremely important for maintaining proper head position whether we are walking, standing or sitting. Strong neck muscles are our basic defense against the force of gravity that constantly works to pull our heads downward and forward. When our heads spend too much time in the downward/forward position, we typically experience a variety of undesirable degenerative problems (and discomfort) in our musculoskeletal system.

In addition to reducing the risk of chronic neck problems, strong neck muscles help protect us from traumatic neck injuries, such as severe whiplash from rear-end car accidents. Athletes who play contact sports, such as football, basketball, soccer, lacrosse, hockey, rugby and baseball are also at a greater risk for neck injuries. So are sports participants who have a higher probability of falling, including gymnasts, skaters, skiers, rock climbers, horseback riders and cyclists.

Even people who are completely sedentary can benefit from strong neck muscles, because muscle condition and bone condition are closely related. With progressive resistance exercise, neck muscles add myoproteins to become stronger. The same training stress is transmitted through the tendons to the bones, which likewise add collagen proteins to become stronger and more resistant to osteoporosis and other degenerative processes.

Unfortunately, most people pay no attention to neck strengthening exercises. Their necks gradually become weaker and weaker, and the cervical vertebrae inevitably do the same. How sad to see so many middle-aged women (and men) with an uncomfortably curved neck, forward head, and humped shoulders.

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 About The Author
Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., is fitness research director at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, MA. He is strength training consultant for numerous national organizations, such as the American Council on Exercise, the......moreWayne Westcott PhD
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