You likely have a childhood memory of someone – a parent or a piano teacher – chastising you for bad posture. When we are young, our good posture makes us seem older. When we are older, our good posture makes us appear younger. This is one instance of duality working in our favor.
“We tend to think the brain and body relationship goes one way. In fact, the passages go both ways. When you choose to put your body in a different mode, it’s harder to drop into depression.” Erik Peper, PhD
What exactly is good posture?
Good posture is a matter of training your body to stand, sit, and lie in positions where the least strain is placed on supporting muscles and connective tissue. Good posture keeps the bones and joints in aligned properly so that the muscles function properly. Harvard Medical School outlines good posture as defined below.
When seated (as you likely are right now reading this), good posture involves:
- Hips pushed back far in the chair
- Feet flat on floor
- Knees and toes facing forward
- Shoulders relaxed away from ears
- Chin parallel to floor
When standing, good posture involves:
- Chin parallel to floor
- Shoulders relaxed away from ears
- Spine in a neutral position (you don’t want to feel an arch or a curve)
- Arms at your sides with elbows relaxed in a straight position
- Abdominal muscles lifted up slightly (try pulling your pubic bone up towards your navel)
- Knees and toes pointed forward
- Weight distributed evenly on both feet
- Weight more in heels than in the ball of the foot
Simple enough, right? All you have to do is overcome muscle weakness and/or dysfunction, and years of bad habits. Our modern lifestyle of sitting frequently has allowed our leg and trunk muscles to get weak. If we aren’t working to strengthen and lengthen muscles, inflexible muscles reduce the range of motion of the joints. So we end up with tight hip muscles pulling us forward and weak gluteal muscles that won’t keep us upright. Our chest muscles tighten and shorten as we hunch forward and the back muscles meant to hold up upright get weaker with every next episode we binge watch.
How much is poor posture really harming us? Poor posture has been shown to have a negative effect on:
- Intestinal health – Everybody poops!
- Pelvic floor health – Everybody pees, too.
- Energy levels
Tech neck can also lead to headaches. “When sitting at a desk, as the muscles in the back and stomach start to tire and the spine starts to slump, we tend to stick the neck and chin forward to keep the eyes in a good position, so we can still see the screen,’ says osteopath Robert McCoy. ‘Tension in the muscles at the base of the skull, caused by the spine rounding and the neck sticking forward, can pinch the trigeminal nerve in that area, leading to something called cervicogenic headache.”
It’s hard to concentrate when you have a headache. Your work performance suffers as you endure the pain of a headache. And if you’re like me, headaches make you a bit grumpy as well.
Increased blood pressure
Poor posture, especially a forward head position, may increase your blood pressure. Neuroscientists at University of Leeds found a connection between the neck muscles and the area of the brain that helps regulate blood pressure. Cut off that connection for hours daily while you stare at screens and you may be in trouble. The Mayo Clinic states that high blood pressure can lead to aneurysm, coronary artery disease, heart disease, stroke, dementia, cognitive impairment, and kidney failure.
Are you sitting up straight yet?
Sometimes it feels easier to slouch. I think our bodies are supremely efficient, which can sometimes translate as lazy. If there is a muscle that doesn’t want to work (or cannot function properly because of injury), there is ALWAYS another muscle group that will jump in. When we get in postural habits, suddenly trying to convince our bodies to be in correct alignment can feel like a lot of work. But the truth is, proper posture increases your energy levels. Relieving uneven pressure on the joints and using muscles as they were designed to be used means your body requires less energy to perform simple daily tasks, like getting out of a chair.
It seems a logical conclusion that if proper posture can keep your blood pressure regulated, improve your breathing, reduce headaches, help you let the gas out but keep the urine in, improve your mood, and increase your energy, your stress will be greatly reduced. You don’t need to wait for years to feel these results, however. When faced with a stressful situation, sometimes simply sitting or standing upright can help you tolerate stress better in that moment, as this study shows.
Heard of tech neck? It’s not the latest app. It’s the latest epidemic. Having your neck out of alignment for hours a day is a huge problem. Jutting your chin out results in weakening of the erector spinae muscles, the muscles needed to keep you standing erect. It also lifts the shoulder blades, rounding the shoulders forward, and creates tension in the upper trap muscles (that “knot” that we all feel just above our shoulder blades). More importantly, the very muscles we need to breathe well are weakened (SCM, scalenes, upper trapezius, pectoralis major, and thoracolumbar ES muscles for my fellow anatomy nerds).
Tech neck primarily refers to the forward head position we adopt when using our smartphones, but can also happen in front of a desktop or laptop computer. If you have learned how to hold your phone up higher in front of your face (so it always looks like you’re taking a video of someone), you are a posture pro. Good for you!
It’s not just smartphones that make it hard for us to breathe, though. Sitting in a crumpled position can constrict your airways and make it difficult to catch your breath. Not straightening your back also leaves your ribcage in an unnatural position, which puts added pressure on your lungs.
If you are this deep into reading about your Quality of Life, I am sure I don’t have to convince you of the importance of breathing deeply. I have read volumes on the yogic practices of breath control, but I will keep this conversation incredibly brief.
Dr. Herbert Benson, Director Emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute (BHI), and Mind Body Medicine Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, has been researching the connection between breathing and the body’s physiological stress response since the late 1960s. His research has repeatedly proven that the ability and the practice of breathing deeply (for which you need good upright posture) affects the heart, the brain, digestion, the immune system — and maybe even the expression of genes.
If you want to learn more about how to breathe deeply, see the instructions on the stillness page.
Intestinal Health: Not all farts are created equal
No one likes to be backed up. When our digestion is off, we feel lousy, and depending on the symptoms, perhaps we make others around us suffer, too. (Anybody got a match?) In this National Institutes of Health-sponsored study, eight (8) brave souls allowed themselves to be pumped with gas AND to have their farts measured by having a tube inserted into the rectum and attached to a bag. There is an expression I learned in New Jersey – “bag of ass.” Who knew it was scientific? Conclusion of this small population indicates that expulsion of gases happens significantly faster in an upright position rather than a reclined position. And the faster we can process our metabolic wastes, the better.
Fart jokes aside, poor posture has been cited as a potential cause of constipation, acid reflux and even hernias. All that downward pressure adds up over time, so we must fight gravity with long, strong muscles!
Speaking of private areas
I’ve met people who claim to never have gas. While I suspect that claim is bogus, I don’t want to research it in detail. I do know that everyone urinates. And every adult I know prefers to be in complete control of their urination. But if you are sitting slumped in a chair, with your tailbone tucked under you and your spine curved like the letter “C” you may start to lose bladder control. This tucked position leads to more weight bearing down on the pelvic floor muscles. Over time (and time will come), your pelvic floor muscles are left weak and unable to fight the urge to urinate.
William Merritt Chase, The Young Orphan (An Idle Moment), 1884. Oil on canvas.
Ladies, if you want to be able to laugh out loud in public when you’re 65 without fear of peeing on yourself, stand tall. Gentlemen, unless you want to memorize the location of every public restroom in your town so you can go out in public in your 60s, stand tall.
It stands to reason that if you are in complete control of your body’s elimination of waste, you will be confident going out in public. But you can boost your confidence even more with your posture. Social psychologist and TED Talk star Amy Cuddy studied power poses. Putting yourself in a posture that takes up space and feels expansive can not only reflect power to those around you, but can also make you feel more powerful.
“…adopting high power poses increases explicit and implicit feelings of power and dominance, risk-taking behavior, action orientation, pain tolerance, and testosterone (the dominance hormone), while reducing stress, anxiety, and cortisol.”
That’s a pretty good payoff for a minute or two of putting your arms behind your head and your spine tall.
Power poses help you take action. And that’s what improving your quality of life requires. Action. So strike a pose and get to it.
Stand Tall to Boost Your Mood
Certainly if we are breathing better and eliminating our wastes better, we can be in a better mood, right? But there’s more to it than that. Muscular states have been shown to relate to emotional states. Research on body language and facial expressions has historically focused on interpersonal relationships, how our own facial expressions and stances have been interpreted by those with whom we interact. Recently, research has turned to examine how our postures effect our own moods. Body posture is now shown to be important in the initiation and the modulation of emotions. In other words, our bodies can tell our brains what emotional state we should be in AND our brains can tell our bodies to change posture to improve our emotional state.
This may sound like a chicken-and-egg problem, but it’s more of a fake-it-til-you-make-it problem. In the theory of embodied cognition, your brain looks to your body and your face to determine how you are feeling. Your facial expressions and your body posture tell your brain if you are feeling energetic, motivated, bored, lethargic. In her book Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting it Right When You Have To, Sian Beilock, PhD states “One of the ways we shape our thoughts is through our physical movements.”
Adopting an upright seated posture in the face of stress can maintain self-esteem, reduce negative mood, and increase positive mood compared to a slumped posture. Furthermore, sitting upright increases rate of speech and reduces self-focus, as noted here.
Dr. Erik Peper at San Francisco State University demonstrated this connection in a study that involved students walking in a slouched position and then skipping down a hallway. The things people do for science! This sounds like a much kinder study than the one measuring intestinal gas. Students were asked to rate their energy levels and their general levels of depression. The conclusion? “What we’re saying is that if you start integrating more body movements into your daily life, your energy level stays higher and your quality of life is better,” he said. “It’s very similar to the principle of ‘fake it till you make it’ — you can convince your body to have more energy.”