“Sit up straight.”
From a young age the importance of posture is ingrained in us. But fast-forward a couple decades and most of us spend the majority of the day twisted into some sort of contortion in front of a computer screen or huddled over our phone. The hunched back, the rounded shoulders, the neck tilt — just how bad is poor posture for our body?
According to experts? Pretty bad.
What is “posture” exactly?
Essentially, posture is how we hold our body in space.
“There are two types of posture: static posture is how one positions and holds their body when not moving, such as when they are sleeping or sitting. Dynamic posture is how one positions and holds their body when they are moving, such as when they are walking or running,” said body performance and injury expert Rami Hashish.
Most commonly, it is referring to how we hold our body in an upright or weight-bearing posture, said Karena Wu, physical therapist and owner of ActiveCare Physical Therapy in New York City and India. “When we have a good upright posture, we are using our muscles well and holding our bodies up biomechanically in an optimal way so that all of our associated systems can work well together,” she added.
The difference between good and bad posture comes down to spine alignment. “When someone has good posture, they are maintaining the ‘normal’ alignment of their spine,” said Hashish. “The spine has three main curves to the cervical spine (or neck), thoracic spine (or mid back) and lumbar spine (or low back). The thoracic spine has a “C” shaped curve. In contrast, the neck and low back have a backwards “C” shaped curve. So, good posture is when someone exhibits the normal amount of curvature in the spine, whereas bad posture is when someone exhibits too much or too little curvature in the spine.”
Why is maintaining good posture so important?
Earlier this week, I found myself doing neck rolls while standing over the stove cooking dinner. After spending the day slouched in my desk chair, my neck and shoulders were on fire.
“Maintaining good posture is important because it promotes balance to the muscles, tendons and ligaments, and also ensures optimal alignment of the bones and joints,” said Hashish. “For example, consider someone working at a computer. Regardless of how much motion they exhibit at the different levels of the spine, they need the same amount of total motion to sit and type. So, if they are sitting hunched, such that the low back is bent too far forward, the mid-back and neck may have to compensate by bending too far backward. This results in improper bone and joint alignment, and excessive strain to various muscles, tendons and ligaments.”
Well that explains the searing pain radiating down my neck. But are these minor (albeit uncomfortable) aches and pains the only consequence of my poor posture? Or is there more at stake?
“Maintaining a good posture is important as it puts us in the best position to mechanically perform any activities and offset any stresses in the system,” said Wu. “When we have bad posture, we can reduce the function of our other organ systems, like the cardiovascular, respiratory, digestive and psychological systems such that they can cause problems in those specific systems.”
In fact, pain and discomfort are just the tip of the iceberg — over time, this stress on the body can lead to some pretty serious issues.
“Bad posture, over time, can result in poor alignment of bones and joints, and strain to muscles, tendons and ligaments. If the joints are in poor alignment, it may result in not only wear and tear to the joint itself, but also weakness, fatigue and inefficiency of the muscles,” said Hashish. “Essentially, poor posture over time can result in breakdown of your body, leading to a poor quality of life.”
It can also “cause issues with blood pressure, breathing, metabolism, digestion, lead to chronic conditions and cause pain,” added Wu. “It can affect your mood and psychological state in a detrimental way.”
How can I tell if I have good posture?
OK, so we know that good posture is important to keep our body functioning in a healthy way, but can you tell if you have it?
“The simplest thing people can do is to listen to their body. If you have aches and pains in your back, or discomfort with maintaining positions for a long period of time, that may be an indication of a bad posture,” said Hashish. “Another sign of bad posture is if you feel that there is an uneven distribution of your weight between the left and right side of your body. Always remind yourself that whether sitting or standing, your weight should be evenly distributed, your shoulders should be back, and all three curves of your spine should be present.”
If you are experiencing some of these symptoms, seeing a physical therapist for an assessment may help. “We teach our clients to be aware of what they feel in their bodies and then to see if they can change their posture in space,” said Wu. “We take the time to educate them on what it looks and feels like to have good and bad posture so that they can correct on their own.”
How to correct poor posture
If, like me, you are feeling the effects of poor posture, there are things you can do at home to correct course. Hashish suggests starting with these two things to improve posture:
- Listen to your body. Be aware “so that you remember to maintain good posture when standing, sitting, driving, lifting and sleeping,” said Hashish.
- Exercise. Strengthening your core and stretching the body is key. “Five exercises that can help improve your posture are child’s pose, cobra pose, pigeon pose, thoracic rotation and planks,” said Hashish.
Wu recommended two more specific exercises that can help. I’ve started doing these throughout the workday (without even getting up from my desk!) and I have noticed an improvement in my neck pain at the end of the day.
- Slouch over-correct. In this exercise you will first intentionally slouch and then sit up too straight in order to find a happy medium. First, slouch forward rounding your spine, then sit up with an overcorrected ‘military’ posture. Do this a few times and then from the over corrected posture, relax and back off of that position about 10% — that should be your good upright posture.
- Shoulder blade squeezes. This exercise can help improve posture in the chest and upper back. Sit with good upright posture and then squeeze the shoulder blades together, pulling the arms out to the sides. This contracts and shortens the muscles in between the shoulder blades and stretches the muscles in the chest. Do this a few times and then let your body relax into a better upright posture in the upper back.