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Proper posture might not have crossed your mind until one day you wake up, no longer a spring chicken, with a throbbing ache in your back.
Good posture has some aesthetic perks––like making you appear taller and more confident––but there are other health benefits as well. Proper posture can improve your balance and your weight distribution so instead of putting more weight on one joint, you spread the stress evenly. Various health conditions associated with poor posture are characterized by chronic pain, such as arthritis or fibromyalgia.
The office desk slouch is real and it can be a hard habit to break. And hunching over a phone during hours away from your desk doesn’t help. So where do you begin if you’re looking to improve your posture and wake up with a less achy back? Start here.
Different types of posture
There are two different types of posture: dynamic posture and status posture. Static posture is what we think of most often. It’s how we hold ourselves while standing, sitting, and sleeping (or when we’re not moving). Dynamic posture is how the spine aligns while we’re active and moving.
Both types of posture maintain the three natural curves of your spine, which are found at the neck, mid-back, and lower back. If you’ve taken a biology class, you may know these terms as cervical, thoracic, and lumbar.
Mastering both types is important to prevent injury and maintain your spine’s curves without increasing them. An easy test to see if you’re in proper standing posture is to stand with the back of your head against a wall. Your shoulder blades and butt should touch the wall, while your back remains a few inches away.
How to improve posture
Posture is a simple concept, yet it’s physically complex. Improving posture can be done in seconds, but retraining yourself to sit or stand consistently with proper posture can take time.
Strategies for correcting spinal alignment break down into three groups: exercises and stretches, lifestyle changes, and tools. Some people require a combination of all three. If you feel sharp pain or have a severe range of motion issue while working on your posture, you may need help from a physical therapist. Don’t push past sharp pain as you could cause an injury or worsen an existing one.
Exercises and stretches
Alignment is important for maintaining proper posture, but it’s only part of the puzzle. Exercises and stretches are needed to loosen up stiff muscles and strengthen the core ones supporting your back.
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Your body needs muscular strength to hold itself in correct positions. Exercises that train muscles to support your spine are necessary for making postural changes. Although specific stretches can help lengthen the spine and loosen stiff muscles from poor posture, you may need deeper work in these areas.
Specific areas to strengthen that can improve posture include:
- Upper and mid-back muscles
- Abdominal muscles
- Neck flexor muscles
- Muscles around the shoulder (rotator cuff)
Fixing your posture through exercise takes time, but the corrections stick. One study incorporated stretching and strengthening exercises into a physical education class. The students working on their posture did exercises for 15 minutes twice a week for 32 weeks. By the end of the eight months, their posture had significantly improved. Even better, their posture didn’t relapse after four months without training (Ruivo, 2016).
Tools and techniques
Myofascial release is a popular technique that uses tools to massage the layers of tissue between your skin and muscles.
Areas myofascial release targets include the chest and neck muscles (specifically the sides of the neck) to loosen up static areas. One study found that paired with strengthening exercises, myofascial release is more effective than stretching alone (Kaur, 2019; Ruivo, 2016).
Myofascial release can be done by a professional, however, there are tools you can use at home. These include vibrating myofascial tools (which aren’t cheap), foam rollers, and trigger-point products that are relatively inexpensive. Tennis and lacrosse balls, which some people already have at home, can also be used for trigger-point myofascial release.
Other tools that can help improve posture include sensors and harnesses. At-home sensors beep to alert you when you’re slouching, while harnesses are used for support. Studies on similar technologies have found posture measurements to be accurate and successful at correcting posture while being worn. That said, we don’t know yet if they’re helpful long-term for maintaining proper posture (Simpson, 2019; Bootsman, 2019).
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There are lots of easy ways to improve your posture in everyday life, it’s just a matter of doing it consistently. If you’re working at a desk, take regular breaks to move your body around. Standing desks have become a popular investment to ensure you’re not sitting all day.
Other tips to try that can help your posture (especially if you work at a desk) include:
- Regular exercise
- Ergonomic office equipment
- Using a footrest or lower back support
- Staying mindful of your posture when doing daily activities
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Regularly switching positions
Why correct posture is important
Correct posture does more than prevent back pain––though that’s a significant benefit. Slumping or slouching can also cause neck and shoulder pain, decrease flexibility, and lead to breathing issues like sleep apnea (Tate, 2020).
Causes of bad posture
Sometimes poor posture is a result of something we can’t help like an injury or our genetics. Other times it’s something that’s easier to change than we think. Here are some common culprits that can affect posture.
For some, bad posture is the result of a genetic condition affecting the bones or joints––especially ones in the spine. Researchers estimate up to 3% of children have scoliosis, a condition that affects the curvature of the spine. Scoliosis is only one of several genetic conditions that affects the bones and joints of the spine (Menger, 2021).
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Some research suggests that a process called “muscle guarding” occurs if you’re hurt. The theory is that muscles tense up around an injured area to protect it. These tensed muscles may protect against further injury, but also limit movements and affect posture (van der Hulst, 2010).
The shoes you wear can have a big impact on how you move and hold yourself. High heels in particular encourage less-than-ideal posture. One study found that high heels change the curvature of your back and encourage a slower walking pace (which also doesn’t help poor posture (Jandova, 2019).
It’s not just the height of a shoe that matters, which means high heels aren’t the only ones that produce bad posture. One small study on lifts in sports shoes found that the stiffness of inserts also affected posture (Hessas, 2018).
Believe it or not, mental stress can change your posture. One study found that when concentrating on harder tasks, office workers moved their heads forward and out of alignment for good posture. More studies in this area are needed, but some researchers theorize that childhood trauma and marginalization can impact posture long-term (Shahidi, 2013; Ogden, 2021).
Office chair setup
Of course, one of the biggest culprits is your office chair where many of us spend roughly half our day. For an optimal position, adjust your chair so both feet are flat on the ground and shoulder-width distance apart. If your feet don’t reach the ground, use a footrest. Ensure you can reach the computer without leaning or shrugging your shoulders forward (Dunstan, 2012).
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Upgrade to a chair with back support if you don’t already have one––especially if you’re retraining your spinal alignment. An ergonomic chair designed to encourage correct sitting posture helps support the natural curves of your spine and prevents pain when sitting for long periods. You can also add a back support to your current setup to keep your body at the right angle while sitting.
If you know what good posture is but find yourself sinking lower into your chair as the day goes on, schedule in time to check how you’re sitting. You can set an alarm on your phone as an easy reminder. As you can see, many aspects of our daily lives may encourage bad posture, but the good news is fixing them can help reverse it.
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Yael Cooperman is a physician and works as a Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.