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Quit your slouching! How to fix bad posture

How slouching hurts your body
Slouching—with your shoulders and upper back rounded forward—can lead to aches and pains in your back, neck and shoulders. “Headaches and tension in the shoulders and back are often created by chronic bad posture,” says Peggy W. Brill, a physical therapist based in New York City and spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association. “If you’re slouching, you may also have gastrointestinal reflux or feel fatigued because you’re unable to breathe deeply.”

Check yourself out in the mirror
Most of us are so accustomed to hunching over our desks, computers or handheld devices that we don’t even know what good posture is. “Look in the mirror. If your palms face your thighs with the thumbs pointing ahead, that’s good posture,” says Brill. “But if your palms face backwards, you’re probably slouching.” To see what your posture is supposed to look like, pull your head back and your shoulders down and back. It will feel as if you’re sticking out your chest if you’re standing up correctly.

Sit properly
Sit all the way back in your chair. If you sit too far forward, there’s pressure placed on the pubic bone; too far back, there’s pressure on the tailbone. “Find the middle range by keeping your feet flat and centering your weight with your buttocks and pubic bone creating a triangle,” says Brill. On bleachers, keep the triangle position in place, which will naturally align everything (stadium chairs don’t help much, so get up and move around every so often). In the car, it’s important to support your lower back to prevent pain. You can adjust the seat or use a small pillow behind your lower back.

Work from a better position
“There’s a natural tendency to lean forward toward your computer, which puts strain on your back,” says Melanie Kinchen, M.D., an orthopaedic surgeon and medical director of Baylor Regional Medical Center in Grapevine, Tex. “Sit back in your chair, use a lumbar pillow and slightly elevate the knees instead of slanting them downward.” The monitor should be about an arm’s length away, with the top of the screen at eye level so you’re not looking up to see it. With a laptop, attach an external monitor or keyboard to prevent hunching. Use a phone headset to avoid neck strain.

Get flexible
A lack of flexibility can lead to muscle imbalances and poor alignment. Include stretching in your weekly exercise program, and stretch daily to relieve specific points of discomfort. Try this super-easy stretch to relieve neck and shoulder stress: While standing or sitting, pull your head back, and center it over your spine. Pull your shoulders back and down, moving your arms as if you’re trying to put your elbows in your back pocket. Push palms outward—as if you’re inside a door frame—and hold for at least six seconds. Do this a few times during every hour you’re sitting at your computer.

Stretch when you get up
When you’re stuck in one position too long—whether it’s in an office chair, a car or on a plane—your muscles become fatigued. “Cats and dogs stretch when they get up from sitting or lying down and you should, too,” says Brill. While standing with feet slightly apart, place hands on the small of the back (fingers will be pointing downward). Lean back as far as you can, holding a few seconds; repeat. At home, lie on the floor face down, raising yourself up on your elbows and letting the lower back sag toward the floor. Hold a few seconds; repeat.

Strengthen your core
“The core refers to the entire area from under the rib cage to mid-thigh, not just the abs,” says Kinchen. “All of these muscles work together to help you sit and stand tall.” Yoga or Pilates are good ways to improve core strength because you use controlled movements to hold positions. For a strengthener at home, lie on your back, lift your legs off the floor and bend your knees as if you were putting your feet flat on a wall. Pull in abs, then extend one leg straight. Keep your back flat and the other knee bent. Bring one leg back, pause, and then extend the other leg; repeat.

Watch your sleep posture
Even sleep posture can leave you achy if you’re not properly positioned. If you’re a side sleeper, use a pillow that keeps your spine aligned by supporting your head so that your neck isn’t held at an awkward angle. Also, when you lie on your side, your top knee drops, pulling down on your back, so place a pillow between your knees to stay aligned. Back sleepers can place a pillow under the knees to open up the joint spaces in the spine. If possible, avoid sleeping on your stomach because it creates neck strain.

Lift the right way
Lifting kids, luggage or groceries can really hurt your back if you don’t use proper posture. “The most dangerous position is bending and twisting because there’s nothing supporting the spine,” says Brill. When you lift, stand directly in front of the object, not to the side. Place your feet slightly wider than your shoulders and squat from the knees, using the gluteal muscles to lift. Pull in your stomach, exhaling on exertion. To pick up small items, such as toys, bend at the waist, keeping your head and back straight while extending one leg off the floor straight behind you.

Be wary of other bad posture habits
When it comes to lugging backpacks and purses, there’s no way to maintain good posture, especially if they’re loaded up. So try to limit how much you carry, and choose cross-body bags to distribute weight more evenly, says Kinchen. As for high heels, they throw you forward and put strain on the lower back. Limit how often you wear them, and if you need to do a lot of walking or standing in heels, opt for lower heels (2” or less) or wedges.

A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.