Listen to this story
Good Posture Matters Even More Than You Think
Give this a try: Stand with your head drooped and your shoulders rounded forward as though you’re playing a little old lady in a high school play. Try to take a few deep breaths.
Now stand with your head up, your neck straight, and your shoulders pulled back so that they’re in line with your chest. Again, take a few deep breaths. Notice how much easier it is to breathe when you’re standing up straight?
“Posture isn’t just about aesthetics; it’s about keeping the entire body functioning normally,” says Marilyn Moffat, a professor of physical therapy at New York University.
While many view good posture as a relic of some bygone and backward era — the kind of thing young women once learned in finishing school — experts say posture plays an important role in physical and psychological health.
Along with impairing breathing, poor posture makes it difficult for a person to turn their head or raise their arms above their head, Moffat explains. It also “compresses the inner abdominal organs,” she says, and strains a person’s spine in ways that, over time, can lead to back and neck pain.
Headaches are another concern. Craning your head forward all day long — a pose some experts refer to as “tech neck” because of its association with smartphone and computer use — can create chronic tension in the muscles of the neck and back, which can lead to headaches, says Wendy Katzman, a professor of physical therapy at the University of California, San Francisco. “Poor posture can also cause nerve problems and numbness and tingling in the arms and legs,” she says.
On top of all this, a 2012 study from San Francisco State University linked poor posture to low mood. “We found that if people had a history of depression, slouching seemed to activate those memories and evoke feelings of hopelessness,” says Erik Peper, a professor at SFSU and first author of the study.
Some of the research on posture and mood is controversial. But Peper says that every thought and emotion seems to have a corresponding body activity — and triggers can work in both directions. Just as sadness or fatigue can cause a person’s posture to wilt, assuming a slouched or closed body position seems to sap some people’s energy or enthusiasm, he says. Some of his newest experiments have shown that if a person is stressed, sitting up straight, taking a deep breath, and engaging in helpful self-talk is much more effective than just engaging in self-talk.
A single visit to a physical therapist is invaluable.
Combine all this with the lamentable state of posture in the U.S., and there’s reason to worry about your carriage affecting your health. “Just watch people walking in the street nowadays,” Moffat says. “This forward-head position you used to see in 70- and 80-year-olds you see now in 20-year-olds.”
Tech use aside, Moffat says too much time spent sitting down — in a car, in front of the TV, etc. — can erode a person’s posture. “Sitting is the new smoking,” she says. “It’s the horrible disease of our century.”
To fend off some of the risks associated with poor posture, she recommends standing up every 20 or 30 minutes and taking a quick walk. Also, ask a friend to take a side photo of you standing or sitting in your normal, relaxed pose. “A lot of people don’t realize how bad their posture is until someone gives them a look,” she says.
Regular bouts of stretching and taking a moment to “realign” your head and shoulders are good ways to break up the “prolonged static postures” that lead to problems, Katzman says. She also recommends strength training moves that target the shoulders and back, such as rowing exercises.
But when it comes to some popular posture-correcting gadgets, such as those frequently featured in ads on social media, experts say there’s not much evidence backing their benefits. Some of Katzman’s own research has shown that giving people accurate feedback about their posture can be helpful, but not all commercial posture fixers succeed in this regard. “Some of the ones we tried didn’t give good feedback,” she says. “We would deliberately slouch and they wouldn’t give us any cues.”
Wearable braces also aren’t the best solution. “Braces offer support, which tends to make the muscles not work so well on their own,” Moffat says.
On the other hand, she says a single visit to a physical therapist is invaluable. “One visit can help you know what to do and how to do it and when to do it,” she says. After years or decades of slouching, many people don’t understand what proper posture even feels like. Again, a physical therapist can help you sort this out, she says.
“The good news is that there’s a lot of research showing you can improve your posture,” Katzman says. But the longer you wait, she adds, the more difficult this becomes.