According to the 2001 Back Pain Survey, 2.5 million Brits suffer from bad posture every day. Meanwhile, 28 per cent of Americans suffer from chronic lower back pain, and 14 per cent say their shoulders often hurt. Which amounts to a right pain in the spine.
But what exactly is bad posture, and why does it matter? Originating with the Latin verb ponere, posture simply means the position in which you hold your body to counteract the force of gravity. And the general consensus is that the straighter your back, the less pain you’ll encounter now, and down the line.
Anything that messes with the position of your spine will only cause you trouble. So if you hunch over a tablet for the duration of your commute, occasionally get your form wrong in the gym, or spend all day at a desk, then you probably have some work to do.
“An individual’s ability to maintain good postures is an indicator of their stability and control,” says Ben Fletcher, an exercise physiologist at Push Doctor. “Poor postures become more apparent when the body is challenged, for example, in certain positions or with external loads such as sitting at an office desk for long periods of time or looking down at your phone.”
It’s a serious problem; in the UK, 119 million work days are lost to back pain each year, at a cost of £12.3 billion to the NHS. This amounts to 22 per cent of the country’s annual health expenditure – the equivalent of 793 GPs working full time on your back. In the US, 45 per cent of workers complain of neck pain. And we’re not just talking about a twinge every now and then, or tight shoulders. Poor posture can have long term implications. If an individual is off work with back pain for one month, there’s a 20 per cent chance they’ll still be off sick a whole year later.
But putting time into your posture won’t just leave you feeling better at your desk; there are myriad proven health and fitness benefits to getting your posture straight. Plus, standing proud and tall is always a good look…
The Benefits of Good Posture
According to the Cleveland Clinic, improving your posture will help prevent muscle ache and fatigue, as well as increase your sporting prowess. You’ll also protect your spine, and open up the chest to promote a better flow of oxygen around your body. This, in turn, boosts the functionality of everything from your nervous system to key organs. In short, standing a bit straighter could be the solution to many health problems (and, just possibly, the beginning of your athletic career).
When it comes to injury prevention, good posture is like a good spotter at the gym. Standing or sitting for prolonged periods puts your bones and ligaments out of alignment, which means other areas have to work harder to compensate for the imbalance. This is why one of your knees might feel tighter than the other, or hurt when you run, and why you’ve had a knot between your shoulder blades that you can’t get rid of. And when you exercise with these biomechanic imbalances, you’re more likely to injure yourself as your body isn’t working as efficiently as it should.
Thankfully, while the International Encyclopaedia of Rehabilitation found that the longer you endure bad posture, the longer recovery can take, the opposite is also true. In addition to this, focusing on good posture has been found to improve your oxygen intake by 30 per cent, which means there’s more oxygen available in your muscles to power performance, and break up stitch-causing lactic acid deposits.
The benefits of good posture can be psychological, too. A study by Ohio State University found that our opinions are closely linked to our physical behaviour. Specifically, the study found that regularly walking around not only improves posture, but increases energy levels. Standing or sitting tall also helps you remember positive memories, such as the last time your boss actually said ‘Well done’. Handy if you’ve hit the 3pm slump.
Crucially, practicing good posture is more likely to make you feel more confident, right down to accepting more positive ideas of yourself and rejecting negative self-images.
“There’s been a lot written on how good posture improves how other people see us, and how it helps us to appear more authoritative to them,” says confidence coach Jo Emerson. “This is all true. However, much more interestingly, there’s increasing amounts of research to show that good posture has a positive impact on how we see ourselves.
“In essence, if we stand tall we send a message to our brain that ‘We’ve got this.’ Traditional science suggests that the brain needs to tell the body to be confident but this new research proves the opposite can also be true; that the body can tell the brain to be confident.”
Naturally, you’ll also look taller and your clothes will handle as they’re meant to, instead of becoming bunched up around an unnecessarily-protruding stomach or hunched shoulders. “Clothes do look much better on people with good posture, but anything looks good on someone who smiles and exudes positive energy,” says Emerson. “Confidence is an inside job.”
What Good Posture Looks Like
So if good posture is so great, why aren’t we all practising it? Lindsay Newitter is a certified ‘Alexander Technique’ posture coach – a system to promote being ‘mindful in your body’ – based in New York City. She’s been helping people practise good posture for 11 years, and has some tips worth sitting up and paying attention to.
“When you’re standing, your rib cage should be in line over your pelvis, as opposed to tipped back, which is how many people stand without thinking about it. Essentially: your pelvis shouldn’t be tipped forward or backward, your neck shouldn’t be pushed forward or over-straightened and the head should be easily balanced on top of the spine.”
Newitter explains that there is a natural curve in the neck that sometimes gets exaggerated when it gets tight. And, while it’s helpful to let these muscles relax and lengthen, forcibly straightening your neck can cause serious damage. Instead, get the back right, and the rest will follow.
A good way to test this is to stand with your back against a wall. If your posture is good the back of your head should touch the wall, and your shoulder blades will be flat against it. Your abdomen will be tucked in, and your shoulders back and relaxed. Your head, meanwhile, will be looking ahead, with your chin very slightly tilted forward.
Using ergonomic chairs, getting your computer monitor at the right height and your keyboard in the correct position can all help if your 9-5 involves jockeying a desk all day. Naturally, a sympathetic HR department can help you upgrade your working conditions, but you can also take workplace posture into your own hands.
According to health experts Posturite, your chair should be as close to your desk as possible so that you’re not having to awkwardly lean forward to actually get any work done. A chair with a tilt of 5-15 degrees will raise your hips above your knees, encouraging the spine to sit supported against the back of the chair.
What Bad Posture Looks Like
“There are a lot of misconceptions going around about what good posture looks like,” says Newitter. “Most of these things, such as pulling the shoulders back and lifting the chin and chest, can actually make your posture worse. These sort of ‘fixes’ are very rigid movements, and don’t actually fix anything. In fact, they can cause compression in the back, which causes your ribs to lock, making it difficult to breathe properly.”
When standing or sitting, bad posture can involve your head being either pulled back or pushed forward unnaturally; your shoulders slouching forward, pulled back, pressed down, or a combination of all of these; your upper back tipped back, like you’re a soldier on the parade ground; your pelvis tipped either forward or back; and a general appearance of being stiff. Any one of these will make you appear ill at ease, or lacking in confidence, as well as making your neck tight, and your breathing too shallow.
It’s not hard to imagine what bad desk posture looks like. Perching on the edge of your seat with your pelvis rotated to either side is a key culprit. Likewise, bringing your eyes close to your computer screen, or your chin over your keyboard will put strain on your neck. It is, however, okay to slouch. You’re only human, after all. The key is not to allow your body to slide too far forward off the chair. You’ll knock your spine all out of whack and also, you’re not 15 years old.
On A Mobile Phone
Here’s the only notification you need to pay attention to today. We spend 90 minutes per day looking at our mobile phones. Which most likely means we’re standing or sitting with rounded shoulders, a slumped core, and our head tilted forward.
Your head is heavier than you think – a 60-degree incline puts an extra 27kg of pressure on your neck – and staying in this position can put strain on it, which is passed on down your spine. This in turn can lead to kyphosis, or rounding of the back, which can tighten your chest muscles, too. Put it down.
How To Correct Bad Posture
Help is at hand. These expert tips will help you untangle yourself with a minimum of fuss. Try them out at your desk, on your commute, and at home at least once per day.
“Balance training helps to improve posture as it allows your body to quickly find stable postures when it is pushed out of position,” says Emerson. “In addition, core stability exercises that target multiple directions – such as crunches – will help improve postural control.”
“To counteract your head dipping forward, bring your attention up to the top of your head. Try scratching the very top of your head, in the middle, then focusing your attention on this spot when you’ve taken your hand away,” says Newitter.
“Keeping your feet on the floor when sitting and being aware of your contact with the ground while standing will help you get the support you need to maintain your balance,” says Newitter. “When standing, try balancing your weight evenly between both feet and keeping the weight even between the heels and the balls of the feet.”
“Breathing is an excellent gauge of posture. If you’re breath feels shallow, you are probably trying too hard to fix your posture and getting stiff, so relax,” says Newitter.
The simplest way to elongate your spine and prevent painful knots is to keep moving. Get up from your desk once an hour and make a cup of tea. Pull on your running shoes and jog home from work. Get up off the sofa and get some snacks from the corner shop – anything that prevents your spine from resting in one position for too long.
Of course, actively stretching out your back will always be beneficial. Here are three exercises you can complete at home or in the park to help ease out tension.
Get down on your hands and knees, then extend your legs so your bodyweight is supported by your palms and toes, and your back forms a straight, horizontal line. Hold this for as long as you can. Thirty seconds is a good start. Two minutes is a pro level killer.
More and more parks include exercise bars these days. But anything will do, from a sturdy tree branch to any safe, horizontal bar (although don’t try it on public transport). With your palms facing away from you and your hands slightly wider than your shoulders, squeeze the bar, focusing on contracting your shoulder blades as you lift yourself from the ground, then slowly lower. Don’t be dismayed if you can only manage a handful of pull-ups at first; this is a notoriously difficult exercise, but fantastic for stretching out your back.
An easy one. Stand with your back flat against the wall, as outlined above. Hold your hands up, so your elbows are at right angles. Your arms and head should form a ‘W’ shape. Without moving your hands from the wall, push them up so your arms form a ‘Y’ shape, then slowly lower. Do 10, then relax.