Someone somewhere, at some point in your life, told you, "Sit up straight!" Your mom, your nana, your dance instructor, your kindergarten teacher - whoever it was, they were right (mostly, but more on that later).
Thing is, your posture may have been near its best when you were a kid! You may have picked up a few bad posture habits when you were young, but plenty of things in the modern life of an adult can make us want to slouch instead of stand tall: 8 hours at the office spent slumped in front of a computer, day after day hunched over your workspace, stooped down to talk to your kids, scrunched over by shoulder-slung laptop bags and ultra-chic but oversized purses - to name a few.
When you practice good posture, you give your body the shape it needs to function well, and the benefits can be felt instantly and over the long run, in your body and in your mind.
When you practice proper posture
- You may feel fewer aches and pains. Good posture allows your spine to be as aligned and balanced as possible. Properly stacked bones, muscles, and ligaments function smoothly and with minimal effort when you walk, run, turn, or dance. In contrast, bad posture forces your muscles and ligaments to strain for that balance. All that extra work can trigger lower back pain, neck pain, headaches, tendonitis, and worn-out, imbalanced muscles.
- You help to protect your joints. An aligned, balanced spine puts less force and pressure on your joints, which means less strain on joints and the resultant pains and headaches. Good posture also reduces the risk of wear and tear that can lead to limited range of motion and arthritis.
- You free up your breathing. For most people, lazy posture simply makes breathing more work than it needs to be. When slumped over in a poor seated posture, it takes more effort to breathe deeply. In proper posture, your lungs and diaphragm have more room to expand and contract as you inhale and exhale.
- You may feel more energized. You know that mid-afternoon slump at work? Worn down or stressed, you sink into your chair. It just seems like less work than sitting upright, doesn't it? On the contrary, slouching forces your muscles to work hard to hold you up, making you even more fatigued. Proper posture arranges our body in the most efficient position. The result? Efficient energy use and less chance of fatigue.
- You use your deep "core" abdominal muscles. Good posture and stronger abs go hand in hand. When you stand or sit in proper posture, you gently engage your abdominal muscles, which support your lower back.
- You may feel better about yourself. You give off a strong impression to the world when you stand with your shoulders thrown back, your body relaxed but vibrant, your gaze steady. With stellar posture, the world perceives a star - poised, self-assured, and strong. Just so happens, that your own perception of yourself soars pretty high when you stand or sit in proper posture. Research shows this, but you've probably realized it for yourself!
- You'll look good! Align your body in correct posture and check yourself out in the mirror. Does it seem that belly pooch has shrunk? Don't you seem a smidge taller than you thought you were? You might chalk it up to that confidence boost you get from good posture, but standing tall really does make you look taller!
When told to stand up straight, you might be tempted to go into full military salute stance - shoulders thrown back, chest thrust forward, arms at your side. Truly proper posture isn't really "straight." Your body isn't built out of 90-degree angles, after all.
Postural dynamics will change whether you're standing, sitting, or engaged in a specific activity, like raking leaves or shovelling snow, but the basic elements of good posture remain the same.
Good sitting posture looks like this:
- your head: Many of us jut our chins forward, when we should really tuck it down slightly. To do this, imagine a string gently pulling your head up and straight so your ears are in line with your shoulders.
- your shoulders and arms: Let your shoulders relax down your back so your chest can feel more open. If you're working at a table, your forearms should be parallel with the ground.
- your stomach: Lightly engage your abdominal muscles so your belly stays comfortably tucked. This supports your lower back. If you can, adjust your chair to lend extra support.
- your back: Lean back at an angle of about 135 degrees. Sitting up straight unnecessarily strains your back.
- your legs: Keep your legs uncrossed. Spread your weight along the length of both thighs.
- your knees: Arrange yourself so your knees are at or just above the level of your hips. Let a small gap remain between your knees and your chair.
- your ankles: Angle your ankles forward so they're out in front of knees. No 90-degree angles!
- your feet: Plant your feet on the floor. If your feet don't reach the ground, adjust your seat or use a footrest.
Good standing posture looks like this:
- your head: The same head rules apply as when you're sitting. Tuck your chin slightly and let that imaginary string lightly lift from the top of your head and align your ears with your shoulders.
- your shoulders and arms: Roll back your shoulders so it feels as though they're cascading down your back. Your arms should effortlessly hang at your sides.
- your stomach and back: As with your sitting posture, you need to support your lower back as you stand. So, lightly engage your abdominal muscles to feel your stomach tuck toward your back.
- your knees: Let your knees slightly bend to avoid locking.
- your feet: Position your feet so they are shoulder-width apart, and distribute your weight evenly across both feet. If you stand for long periods of time, like while working or cooking, shift your weight from one foot to the other and lay down a rubber mat to cushion your feet.
When you're sleeping
A firmer mattress supports your spine, and a well-placed pillow cradles your neck and head while you dream. Your choice of sleeping position will depend upon individual comfort, but strive to situate yourself in a way that maintains your back's natural curve. This might mean placing a pillow under your knees or a lumbar roll beneath your lower back if you're a back-sleeper, or placing a pillow between your legs if you're a side-snoozer. And tummy time may work for babies, but stomach sleeping can strain your back and neck. Make getting out of bed easier on your back by first pulling your knees up and swinging your legs off the side of the bed. Push yourself up with your hands and don't bend forward from the waist.
When you're driving
Maintaining proper sitting posture when you're driving becomes especially important if you're driving long distances or stuck in commuter traffic. Place a lumbar roll, small rectangular pillow, or rolled-up towel to support your lower back. Adjust your seat so that your feet comfortably reach the pedals without crowding or stretching. If possible, position your headrest to cradle the middle of your head and encourage proper posture. Catch and correct yourself if you lean forward too far or jut your chin out, as this puts undue stress on your neck.
When you're carrying something
Toting one big bag can throw your weight off-kilter and compromise proper posture. Splitting your parcels in to two smaller bags - one for each hand - would be more balanced. Backpacks should be carried on both shoulders and should be no more than 10% of a person's body weight. Keep objects you carry close to your body.
When you're texting
Whether you're standing or sitting when you're tapping out a message on a tiny PDA screen, try to maintain proper, non-hunched posture. Keep your head over your shoulders with your chin slightly tucked, your eyes looking down rather than your head. Reduce tension on your neck by resting your forearms on a pillow.
When you look at a computer monitor
Position your monitor at a comfortable distance for your vision and so the top sits just below your eye level. If you notice yourself straining to see at a normal distance, consider changing the text size setting on your monitor or having your eyes checked.
When you use a mouse
Arrange your mouse so it stays close to your keyboard. Apply a light, natural touch to your mouse, your fingers loose, your wrist in a neutral position, your whole arm moving with the mouse.
When you type on a keyboard
Place your keyboard in the flat, rather than up-tilted position, just far enough away from your body that your elbows stay at about a 90-degree or greater angle. Type with curved fingers, neutral and relaxed wrists, and forearms parallel to the ground. Allow your whole arm to move rather than stretching your fingers to reach keys.
A few more random posture tips:
- Get up and move. Avoid sitting or standing in a static position for more than 20 minutes. Take breaks, stretch, or go for a quick walk. Even just a jaunt to a coworker's desk makes a difference.
- Sit in a swivel chair. If you must turn to look at something or someone while sitting, swivel chairs let you turn your chair rather than twisting your body.
- Wear comfy shoes. High-heeled or ill-fitting shoes can throw off your body's center of gravity and affect your postural alignment.
- Be your own posture pal. Set up periodic alerts on your computer or post up sticky notes to remind yourself to check your posture. Or else, enlist a friend to give you posture cues when they notice you're slouching.
- Women: strengthen your support system. Ill-fitted bras can trigger muscle tightness and aches and pains, while a well-fitted one provides support and lifts the breasts, which might make it easier to maintain proper posture.
- Strengthen your core. Exercise that involve stretching and strengthening - like yoga, Pilates, and tai chi - may help bolster your abdominal and lower back muscles, lending support to your posture habits.