Your mom telling you to sit up straight may have been an eye roll–inducing experience when you were a kid, but it turns out when it comes to posture, mother does know best. How you stand (and sit and lie down) can have a serious impact on your health. Proper posture is helpful not just in social settings—it can boost your confidence and help you avoid modern health problems that stem from poor posture as well.
The Sedentary Lifestyle
Think about your average day. You sit in your car commuting to work, sit at your desk for eight hours, sit driving home, then sit to watch some Netflix and go to bed. Even if you have a regular exercise routine, there is a fairly good chance you’re spending most of your day sitting.
All that sitting isn’t good for you, and research shows that now more than ever we’re living a sedentary lifestyle, which basically means we’re spending most of our time sitting and not moving all that much. A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that adults who sit for more than 11 hours a day had a 40 percent increased risk of dying over a three-year period when compared to people who sat for less than four hours per day.
If you’re starting to panic, don’t worry; all you need is a regular exercise routine.
People who get regular exercise a minimum of four hours per week are just as healthy as people who sit for less than four hours a day. If you squeeze in a little more than a half-hour workout per day, you’ll hit the four-hour mark, and that exercise will help decrease your risk of sedentary lifestyle–related health concerns such as obesity and cardiovascular disease.
Unfortunately, exercise alone won’t take away the damage caused by sitting with poor posture for a good part of the day.
Even if you do get enough exercise to mitigate the risk of a totally sedentary lifestyle, your desk job may be negatively affecting your health.
Poor Posture and Poor Health
Having a desk job is known to promote bad posture. This study from the Association of Schools of Public Health found that seated computer use led to improper posture over time. Surprisingly, men and women showed different types of poor posture from sitting at a computer desk. Men were found to have more posture issues around the neck, and women were found to have more issues in the lower back.
And it isn’t just sitting at your desk that’s cause for concern. Staring at your phone can be bad for your posture and your breathing, according to a study published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science. Researchers discovered that prolonged phone use led to forward head posture, rounded shoulders, and impaired respiratory function.
That forward head posture is actually really bad for your health. You know the look—when you’re leaning forward to look at a screen, be it your phone or a computer. Having your head held at such an angle can lead to headaches, vertebrae disorders, lowered shoulder mobility, and neck pain. The worst part is that it’s subconscious. We all slouch from time to time because we don’t always notice when our necks are out of proper alignment.
Bad posture can even negatively affect your balance, which demonstrates without a doubt that the impacts of slouching over our desks are farther reaching than most of us have ever considered.
Not only can improper posture cause physical health problems; it can also make it harder to have a positive attitude. This is one of those areas where “fake it till you make it” is key. Sitting or standing with proper posture in a confident position can improve your confidence and decrease feelings of fear, whereas poor posture can make you moody, resulting in risk-averse decision making.
We know you probably won’t be doing the superhero pose during most of your day, but if it’s a quick confidence boost (and stretch!) you need, it may just do the trick.
What does proper posture look like?
Avoiding all those health risks is as simple as practicing good posture. Standing or sitting with proper posture isn’t the hard part: It’s making sure you do so consistently. Staying aware of your posture in the back of your mind is key until you naturally sit, stand, and lie down using proper posture.
Orthopedic surgeon David Geier says the key to proper posture is to avoid slouching at all times. This probably has that “Sit up straight!” eye roll popping back into your mind. We know that taking the time to focus on your posture may seem antiquated, but once you become used to it, the benefits are well worth the effort.
When you’re sitting, Geier suggests you “sit up with your weight on your sits bones.” The sits bones, formally known as the ischial tuberosities, form the lowest part of your pelvis or your hips. Instead of scooting your butt forward and leaning backward, you want sit up straight so the pressure is on your sits bones, not your glutes.
Your feet should be flat on the floor, uncrossed to avoid unintentional twisting of your hips or spine. Geier advises you continue to “lift your head so that the bones behind your ears are elevated. That position should pull your shoulders back and keep your chin parallel to the floor.”
Proper standing posture is also anti-slump. You’ll want to stand with your hips even, which means not leaning into one side of your hip. Standing into one side of your hip keeps the majority of your weight on just one leg and makes it hard to keep your spine aligned. Remember the superhero pose we mentioned earlier? Think about that, minus the power arm position. Keep your hips in line over your heels and your shoulders in line over your hips. Hold your head up high with your chin parallel to the floor.
Obviously this stance can be hard to maintain in stilettos. Surprisingly enough, another study published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science found that the ideal heel height is four centimeters (or 1.5 inches). The study found that both flats and taller heels had “adverse effects on the body” caused by changing the center of pressure on the foot.
So if you have a job or event that requires you to stand or walk for long periodse, it may just be a good idea to invest in a few pairs of kitten heels!
When it comes time for bed, Geier recommends sleeping on your side for proper spine alignment. Use a pillow to support your neck and head, and keep your arms in front of you, not crushed underneath you. Also, it can be helpful to use another pillow between your legs to keep them separated and your hips in line. If you are going to lie down on your back, make sure your pillow is supporting both your head and your neck. In this position it can also be helpful to use a pillow under your knees for support.
Tips for Improving Posture at Work
Back or shoulder pain from habitual poor posture isn’t surprising, and it can be managed through proper posture exercises. But it’s not like you’re going to pull out the weights at work. Instead, you need to focus on sitting with proper posture during the workday and finding opportunities move regularly so you aren’t totally sedentary. You can also do stretches at work to keep your body loose and your spine comfortable.
We like to shake up our work day with a bit of desk yoga. Getting a little bit of a stretch in can help you feel more relaxed mentally, too! We recommend putting on this Yoga With Adriene video to guide you in a little yoga sesh at your desk. Or you could also do this lunch break yoga routine if you need the extra stretch!
Other ways you can make your work week a little more bearable for your bod may require improvements to your desk. Choosing to work from a treadmill desk would be a great option, but isn’t necessarily feasible for everyone. Having the option of a standing desk can also help, though less so than the treadmill desk because you can’t keep moving throughout the day.
The one desk improvement that we wholeheartedly do not recommend is switching to an exercise ball instead of a traditional chair. An exercise ball has no lumbar or upper back support, and it can be a safety issue. Plus, studies show exercise balls result in minimal actual improvement in posture or gains in calories burned.
Instead, work from a chair and use a lumbar pillow if you experience lower back pain during the day. Lumbar pillows aren’t necessarily the cutest way to make your workspace feel homey, but they can help you get the back support you need. We recommend this memory foam lumbar pillow, as it has straps to hold onto your chair and it comes in a few shades in case you want a pop of color!
Sitting with proper posture can help you have a better mood at work and lead to higher self esteem. Fortunately, these improvements can help to ease pain (and stress) for office workers. We’re totally on board for taking an hour to spruce up our desks to make them healthier and more comfortable spaces to work.
Exercises to Improve Posture
When you’re at the gym getting in those four hours of exercise per week, Geier suggests doing back exercises: “Working on the muscles of the upper or lower back and core muscles can help with posture and help to decrease discomfort from poor posture.”
If working out isn’t your jam, don’t try to do this alone. A personal trainer can help to make sure you are doing exercises properly so you don’t hurt yourself. If you’re experiencing chronic bad back pain, it may be a good idea to see a doctor or physical therapist to build an exercise plan that’s right for you.
When it comes to the core, you want to focus on strengthening your “deep trunk muscles” to help relieve lower back pain. You can target your core by doing exercises like the dreaded plank. This is the move in which you hold your body in the pushup position (on your elbows or on your hands for more advanced plank practitioners) for as long as you can. It’s an isometric exercise (you’re not actively moving), and we can say from experience that it’s way harder than it looks. If you prefer more active exercise, we suggest following along with this Pilates for the People workout video.
The Importance of Good Posture for Kids
If you have children, it’s important to note that proper posture is equally important for their health as it is for ours. Kiddos, especially of school age, can start to develop posture problems when sitting at desks and when heavy backpacks are involved.
In fact, carrying heavy backpacks can be dangerous for children. A study published in Gait and Posture found that backpacks loaded with weight heavier than 15 percent of a child’s body weight cause children to lean forward. Leaning forward while carrying a heavy backpack can help to maintain center of gravity, but it can also create a greater risk of falling. It’s also helpful to make sure your child’s backpack fits properly and that they use both straps; using a cross-body backpack or a tote bag (which leads to uneven weight distribution) can result in back pain.
Making a few small changes to your posture can make a world of difference in your day-to-day life. Reducing back pain while at work can lift your spirits, and proper posture can contribute to your overall feelings of confidence and wellness. Once proper posture becomes your go-to, we’re sure your back will thank you.