Every kid has likely heard the order to “stand up straight,” but as adults, we don’t get that directive very often. Maybe we should: Posture is often an overlooked part of wellness, but it can certainly be connected to health in many ways.
Being able to maintain good posture can bring a wealth of benefits, from a lower incidence of back pain to better sleep. This is just a handful of advantages you may find from taking the time to stand and sit better:
When posture is off, the neck is often straining, especially when you hold your head forward for a large chunk of the day — as many people do by looking down at their phones. Cue the tension headaches.
“Poor posture places an increased strain on the muscles, ligaments, discs and joints in your neck,” says Devin Christman, DPT, of Good Shepherd Rehabilitation in Pennsylvania. He adds that the strain can not only lead to chronic headaches but also create inflammation that may irritate the nerves in the neck and head, possibly causing eye strain, runny nose and even dizziness.
Poor posture can put quite a bit of strain on your joints, and depending on how you’re standing or sitting frequently, this can become chronic. For example, slumping your shoulders forward and keeping hips tilted back can strain the lower spine, hip joints and even your knees and ankles when you walk. Over time, this can lead to injuries that often plague walkers and runners, such as plantar fasciitis.
Working on better alignment takes the pressure off these joints because they’re lined up correctly and can work in concert, rather than a small number of joints taking up most of the work when it comes to keeping you stabilized.
Just as your joints work more efficiently with good posture, your muscles do, too. You’re not “loading up” the same muscles over and over, which means they don’t have to be in constant contraction.
That gives your body the opportunity to fire numerous muscles as you move, stand and sit, reducing the chances you’ll be overworking just a few of them.
Can how you hold yourself really influence your digestion? Yes, if your usual sitting and standing postures include crunching forward to some degree. When your shoulders slump and your back rounds, it can create compression in your midsection, making it more challenging for your digestive system to work.
Basically, you’re reducing the amount of space in the abdomen, and even that small amount can make a difference when it comes to digestion. According to Meghan Markowski, a physical therapist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, the result can be constipation, heartburn and pelvic floor problems.
When your joints and muscles operate effectively, and you’re not compressing your organs, you tend to be able to breathe better and have better circulation. That leads to more oxygen getting into your system, and more relaxation overall.
The result? Your energy can skyrocket. It’s like letting your body be in constant vacation mode instead of overworked-and-overstressed mode. With more energy, you tend to sleep better and have less fatigue during the day, which improves your overall energy even more.
One thing you may not know about good posture: It also helps us breathe more deeply, says Emma Shapiro, a New Jersey-based physical therapist who specializes in geriatrics. “When you hunch forward with bad posture, it prevents your diaphragm and ribs from completing the motion needed to fully expand your lungs,” she explains. As a result, you might find yourself breathing more shallowly — and feeling more fatigued — when slumped over. The fix: “Make sure your shoulders are pulled back and in line with your ears,” she suggests.
“Good posture allows your muscles to be maximized when working out,” says Kristen Gasnick, a board-certified physical therapist practicing in outpatient orthopedics in New Jersey. What that means for you: Better muscular endurance and strength for cardiovascular exercise like walking, running, HIIT and strength training. Here, the benefits are two-fold: “Good posture allows you to perform better and maximize your calorie burn while losing weight and getting in shape can further improve posture by taking some of the burden off of the core muscles.”
While good posture isn’t the only ingredient necessary for good self-esteem, sitting up straight may help you feel better about yourself and your capabilities (and it’s worth a try if you have a job interview or important presentation coming up). In fact, one study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology found those who sat upright viewed themselves as more confident than those who slouched.
The standard advice for excellent posture tends to be “shoulders back, chest up,” but that can actually create a new set of problems.
For example, if you have a rounded upper spine — which is called postural kyphosis if it’s caused by how you sit and stand — trying to pin your shoulders back all the time could lead to an overcorrection, or a condition called lordosis or swayback. You’ll be arching instead of slumping, and both can cause muscle imbalances.
A better tactic is to take a whole-body approach to correcting your posture gradually. That starts with your feet.
- When standing, your weight should be primarily on the balls of your feet, and your knees should be slightly bent.
- If you’re sitting, keep your feet flat on the floor, which usually requires putting a gap between the back of your knees and the front of your seat.
- Whether you’re standing or sitting, keep your feet about shoulder-width apart.
- Rather than squeezing your shoulders back, think about keeping your stomach tucked in — a good strategy for that is to imagine your lowest ribs tilting slightly inward and down. This can put your pelvis in a neutral position that allows your arms to hang naturally down the sides of your body.
- Position your head correctly by keeping your earlobes in line with your shoulders. Many people tend to jut the head forward, causing neck tension.
Another good habit is to move often, particularly if you’ve been sitting in the same position for a while, Markowski suggests.
In general, it can take time to reset your posture, and a good deal of awareness — after all, if you’re like many people, you’ve created unconscious movement, sitting and standing patterns that you will probably slip back into if you’re not paying attention. But with so many benefits, it’s worth making the effort.
With additional reporting by Lauren Krouse
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