8 simple tips to improve your posture and why you should
Standing up straight sounds simple enough; it makes you look taller, slimmer and more relaxed. Correct posture takes the strain off the joints of your neck and shoulders as well as aligns your hips, knees and feet. But on a deeper level, it can also improve your breathing, digestion, mood, energy levels and how well your internal organs function.
A recent study from San Francisco State University showed that “slouchers” reported increased feelings of depression, while a Harvard study showed that when people adopt a powerful posture (shoulders back and upright spine) there was a 20 per cent increase in testosterone levels and a 25 per cent decrease in cortisol levels.
Having good posture can be challenging in our modern technological world, as a large portion of the day is spent sitting bent over, checking computer screens and mobile phones. Consequently, poor posture can cause fatigue, neck and back pain as well as joint degeneration. Making small simple changes to improve your posture throughout the day can have a beneficial impact on your physical body and overall health.
What is good posture?
The first step to good posture involves developing an awareness of how your body exists in space and then training it to stand, sit, lie and exercise in a way that puts the least amount of strain on your muscles, ligaments and joints.
Pilates instructor Sheridan Nuss advises to “take stock of your posture by looking in the mirror and checking your alignment. Start at your head and check that your shoulders and hips are level as well as that your ankles and knees are directly aligned under your hips. From side-on, use a plumbline to make sure your ear is over your shoulder, your shoulder is in line with your hip, knee and ankle, and your front ribs aren’t sticking out.”
Good posture involves developing an awareness of how your body exists in space and then training it to stand, sit, lie and exercise in a way that puts the least amount of strain on your muscles, ligaments and joints.
“Good posture is the position you should ideally be holding yourself in where the spinal alignment is centred and balanced,” explains Stephanie Brindal, a chiropractor and kinesiologist. “Standing with an open posture and becoming mindful of how you’re doing your everyday tasks is the starting point to good posture.”
Rod Hinchey, a strength and conditioning coach and sports trainer with more than 30 years’ experience, agrees: “A more upright posture [with your] shoulders back and down, ears in line with shoulders and directly over the hips allows the nervous system to fire more efficiently and in the correct patterns for that movement to be achieved. Correct posture is critical for the brain to send the right messages to the right muscles, creating better function in everyday movements.”
How does poor posture affect overall health?
The spine has two natural curves at the neck or cervical region and at the lumbar or lower back region. Between the bony components, small fluid sacs called discs act as shock-absorbers. Altering the natural curve too much by constantly hunching, slouching when sitting or not having enough muscle tone to support the spine can reduce or flatten the disc space. This, in turn, impacts on organ function and biomechanical messages leaving the spine.
“The nerves that exit the spine control your muscles and sensations, but also your organs. If your spine is under stress — and poor posture is definitely going to affect that — there’s a lot of research to show that it has a negative impact on not just your musculoskeletal system, but also your digestion, breathing and cardiovascular systems,” says Brindal.
“A more upright posture allows the nervous system to fire more efficiently and in the correct patterns for that movement to be achieved. Correct posture is critical for the brain to send the right messages to the right muscles, creating better function in everyday movements.”
“The nerves that exit from your cervical spine send messages to your eyes, sinuses, thyroid, arms and fingers. From your thoracic spine or rib section, messages travel to your heart, lungs, stomach, spleen, liver and pancreas. The lumbar nerves serve your large intestine, bladder, reproductive organs and lower extremities. If the natural curves of the spine are maintained, keeping the discs healthy, then your overall physiology will benefit.”
A recent study conducted by the University of Auckland’s psychology department tested the resilience of young people doing a stressful task. It showed that people who sat in an upright position could cope much better with the task than those who sat in a slouched posture. It also found they had higher self-esteem, better mood and lower fear compared to those with a slouched posture. “It’s not just looking directly at being depressed or unhappy, but the resilience factor as well,” says Brindal.
Hinchey explains, “Poor posture recruits the wrong muscle groups to contribute to holding posture. This, in turn, creates mental and physical fatigue of those muscle groups and possible injury.”
Nuss continues, “People who sit for long periods of time tend to roll their shoulders forward, allowing the head to move in front of the body. Your head weighs around 5kg — that’s a lot of strain on the neck and upper back muscles. The front of the shoulders become tight and eventually breathing will be inhibited.”
Tips to improve posture
Practising postural awareness is the first step in correcting poor posture. Bad habits develop over a long period of time and become the new normal. Retraining your brain and developing new movement patterns take time, but learning postural corrections and integrating them into your everyday movements will soon have beneficial flow-on effects to your whole health. Making small corrections several times a day can instantly ease back and neck aches, as well as improve your breathing and overall sense of wellbeing.
Check yourself in the mirror from side-on. Your ear should align with the middle of your shoulder, hip, knee and ankle bone.
“It’s amazing what a few exercises can do in a short period of time,” says Nuss. “A young mum with two small children can quickly develop problems with her back. Going from a desk job to breastfeeding, then carrying the children on one hip will rapidly create imbalances through her spine and disc health. Strengthening the upper back to counteract gravity, learning how to open through the chest, softening the knees and learning to use more leg strength will help take the strain out of her back.”
Straighten up and read on for more posture-perfecting advice:
- Have your spine checked by a professional. An osteopath or chiropractor will assess your spine to ensure all joints are functioning optimally. “On a case-by-case basis, we definitely see the effects of postural misalignment. One study suggested that correcting the lumbar spine can have a positive effect on pelvic floor function by up to 70 per cent, so things like prolapses and incontinence can be avoided,” says Brindal.
- Build a strong core. “Engaging your core is the foundation of most movements,” says Hinchey. “Holding your body in the correct position for the exercise is just as important as the exercise itself.” For example, when walking upstairs, straighten into a more upright posture so the glutes and quads can work more powerfully. The glutes are the powerhouse of many exercises, so if they’re not engaged the impact goes onto your knees, feet or back.
- Breathe deeply. Imagine your lungs as two balloons. Your in-breath should inflate them sufficiently to stretch your ribcage. “Messages travel along the nerves in both directions: poor posture will create shallow breathing, and poor or shallow breathing can lead to poor posture,” says Brindal.
- Become ambidextrous. If you’re right-handed, try using your left hand to vacuum or clean windows. Sleep on the other side of the bed, hold your child on the opposite hip — switching familiar habits will help avoid repetitive holding patterns.
- Reassess your workspace. Computer screens should be at eye level and the chair and keyboard should allow your elbows to be at right-angles. When using your mobile phone, lift it to shoulder height rather than tilt your head down to look at it. If you’re sitting all day, take a standing break. Set the alarm on your phone if you tend to get engrossed in your work. Get up, walk around the room, do some knee bends and knee lifts.
- Feet first: if you’re standing or walking for large parts of your day, ditch the thongs and high heels. A shoe that supports your arches and provides cushioning removes much of the strain from the ankles and lower legs. “If you can’t resist high heels, take a spare pair of flats and wear them to and from work and during your lunch break. Stretch your calves several times a day and strengthen them with balance work,” suggests Hinchey.
- Have your bra fitted professionally. “Heavy-breasted women are carrying an extra load on their upper spines, and a correctly fitted bra can provide added support,” advises Nuss.
- Reassess your everyday handbag. A large tote bag can hold up to 10kg of personal belongings. “Backpacks or cross-body bags with long straps are better options,” says Hinchey.
Easy exercises for anywhere, any time
- Check yourself in the mirror from side-on. Your ear should align with the middle of your shoulder, hip, knee and ankle bone. A forward head will place your ear out in front of the body, consequently straining the muscles at the back of your neck and upper back. Correct it by pulling your chin in towards your spine at the same time as lifting the crown of your head. Lift your chest off your tummy and pull your shoulders back and down. Gently draw in your belly-button and lengthen your tailbone.
- Strengthen calves and feet with daily balance exercises. Stand tall with your heels together and toes slightly apart, squeezing your legs together so the thighs are touching. From the crown of your head, lift onto your toes, keeping your heels and legs glued together. Clench your buttocks while lengthening the tailbone. Maintain the raised balance position for 30 seconds. Repeat 3 times.
- Wall angles: stand against a wall with your feet about 20cm out from the wall. Lay your spine against the wall with your bottom, back of shoulders and head touching the wall. Palms facing forward, keeping your elbows and wrists against the wall, raise your arms to shoulder height to a count of 3, then down again to a count of 3. Repeat 10 times, 3 times daily.
- Use a chair that supports the natural lumbar curve of your spine. Feet should be flat on the floor, knees at right-angles to thighs and hips at right-angles to your spine. Pull your belly-button in and up. Lift your chest off your tummy and grasp your hands behind your back, opening your chest, drawing your shoulder blades down towards your hips.
- Seated “Capital E”: press your bottom into the back of the chair while you engage and lift your core. Hold your arms out at shoulder height and keep your elbows bent. Press the elbows and the back of the forearms behind you.
- Use a foam roller or rolled-up bath towel about the length of your forearm with a diameter the size of your fist. Lie along it so the towel is between your shoulder blades, with your head supported, arms by your sides and palms facing the ceiling. Breathe deeply, allowing the front of your ribcage and shoulders to open and relax. Stay there for about 5 minutes, morning and night.
- Superman: lie face down on the floor, with your arms straight out at shoulder level. Pull your belly-button in away from the floor while gently pressing your pubic bone into the floor. Bend the elbows to right-angles and then curl your head, chest and arms off the floor without arching your lower back. Hold for 10 counts and repeat 3 times.
- Choose a medium to firm mattress that supports your spine and a pillow that is the right size for you. Side-sleepers need a pillow high enough to keep the head aligned with the spine. Place a pillow between the knees to take the pressure off the sacroiliac joints at the back of the hip. Back-sleepers need a flatter pillow so your head is not pushed forward, and place a pillow under your knees.
- “Stomach sleeping is an absolute no-no,” emphasises Brindal. “Research shows this position could restrict the blood flow to the brain and subtly block the carotid artery. Things like sleep apnoea and collapsing of your air tubes are going to have a huge effect on your mood, circulation, energy levels and oxygenation of the brain. A ligament takes nine minutes to overstretch and become lax. Lying on your stomach and turning your head to one side to breathe for an extended period is not only twisting your pelvis but also stretching one side of the cervical spine and compressing the other side.” Correct it by wearing a man’s pyjama shirt with front pockets and place tennis balls in the pockets so you’re woken every time you roll onto your tummy.
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