It’s nothing most of us haven’t heard before – the command to “sit up straight!” is one almost every kid has gotten at school, or at the dinner table. But good posture is about much more than manners. It may be the key to some serious pain relief.
Good posture is about using your muscles to hold the body in an alignment that minimizes stress on the joints and bones in the body. Although it might not be immediately obvious, our body is under constant pressure. Gravity itself pulls us down, enacting a slow but steady compression of the spine. With proper posture, the effects of gravity on the body are minimized.
But with a poor posture, our spine is subjected to constant shearing forces, damaging the tissue between our spinal discs, and increasing the chances of spine problems and back pain with age. Poor posture also forces the muscles in the back to work harder to keep the body together, leading to sore and stiff muscles and tendons, less flexibility, and side effects ranging from chronic headaches to knee pain.
Although it may not seem like very much, simply sitting, standing, walking, and sleeping the right way can tremendously affect your spinal health and overall physical well being.
The Basics of Posture
Imagine the body as a series of lines joined together by flexible points. The goal of good posture is to minimize the pressure put throughout the lines of the spine by matching them up in such a way that the natural curve of the spine is maintained, thus allowing all vertebrae to lock into place as intended, absorbing pressure equally. Poor posture causes one or another part of the spine to take more pressure than intended, leading to centralized pain in one or another area of the back (usually either above the butt or between the shoulder blades).
As you move throughout the day, your posture needs remain the same, but the techniques you might apply to maintain them are different. For example – to pick something up without stressing the back, consider squatting down instead of bending over. When lifting something heavy, scoop your hips as far under your shoulders as you can while maintaining a straight back and keeping your heels on the ground, then lift with the legs. Take precautions when moving heavy objects. When waiting in a queue, stay aware of the alignment of your shoulders, head, and hips, don’t completely lock your knees, and keep your bodyweight either directly on your midfoot or just slightly more on the balls of your feet (as opposed to the heels). When walking, keep your trunk stable, your chest out, head and neck at neutral.
Spending more time familiarizing yourself with techniques to maintain a healthy posture and becoming more aware of posture errors in the mirror can help you internalize these cues and maintain a healthy spine for decades to come.
Why Posture Matters
The basic gist of why you should care about your posture comes down to pain. A poor posture not only exacerbates existing back pain but may be a major cause of it. If you suffer from any spinal condition likely to cause pain – including an injury, scoliosis, stenosis, or arthritis – then poor posture can make the pain worse, by continuously stressing the spine and surrounding muscles, forcing your body to fight against excess pressure rather than relieving said pressure.
Because the body is one great big interconnected system, poor posture can also cause one issue to migrate and turn into something else. It’s not just about the spine. Poor posture in the way you walk might translate into flat feet and bad arches, causing ankle problems, misaligning the foot with the knee, translating into pressure on the tendons in the knee, causing problems with the way the femur sits in the hip socket, greatly exacerbating issues of muscular imbalance and inflexibility, causing an array of pain symptoms brought about by an entire collection of physiological problems from poor body mechanics.
Poor posture when running can massively increase the amount of shock the knees have to absorb, leading to the destruction of knee cartilage and inflamed tendons. Poor posture due to tight shoulders can cause serious upper back and neck strain, reduce mobility in the shoulder joint, and lead to a host of issues surrounding tight or tired muscles in the thoracic and cervical area.
The way we move is critical to overall musculoskeletal health – and while poor posture leads to a host of issues or greatly affects existing problems, good posture (and the practices that help maintain good posture) can lead to great benefits and a reduction in overall pain.
Maintaining Good Posture
Good posture is not subjective, but rather follows a simple goal: to minimize stress placed on the joints in the body. This includes the ankles, knees, hips, spine, neck, and shoulders. For the spine, the main takeaway is to align yourself in such a way that your head, shoulders, and hips are generally always in a straight line.
Your abs shouldn’t cave in one direction or another, so your lower back should be neutral, rather than curved. When standing, the hips should flow naturally into the knees and ankles. When sitting, keep your legs at a 90-degree angle with your feet flat on the ground, knees and toes pointed in the same direction.
A simple rule to remember when checking your posture in the mirror is that your earlobes should be squarely above your shoulders, your chest should be up and out, your hips should be in-line with the shoulders, and your lower back should be straight, not curved.
The only way to maintain a good posture is to regularly check yourself. As tedious as it may be, forming habits this way is important. Posture braces may help in cases of serious spinal or muscular damage, wherein you cannot maintain your posture without external help. However, healthy individuals should not rely on posture braces.
One way to help maintain a healthier posture is by keeping your muscles strong, but balanced. This means training the core, chest, back, glutes, legs, and arms equally. A strong core, strong glutes, strong upper body and strong legs should not only help take a lot of pressure off the spine, but also helps you maintain a stable trunk and healthy spine by pulling and pushing in equal measure, avoiding problems such as a hunched back or a duck butt. Sports that prioritize one part of the body over another are likely to produce a poor posture if not corrected with prehab exercises. On the other hand, some sports are great for maintaining good posture, such as swimming and weightlifting.
The fight to maintain good posture is a continuous one, and it’ll take a while to see major improvements. Consider setting an hourly timer to get up, walk around, and check yourself in the mirror. Working while standing or buying an ergonomic posture-promoting chair can also help.