Are you sitting down? More importantly, are you paying attention to exactly how you’re sitting down? Chances are, you’re doing it wrong. Between ‘tech neck,’ ‘Zoom hunch,’ and ‘lounging’ on the couch while binge watching Tiger King, your body is very likely out of alignment.
Maybe you’ve clicked on those posture trainers that keep popping up on your Instagram feed — the ones that buzz, beep, or shock the hair off your head should you dare inch forward a few degrees — but do they really help you in the long run? Or perhaps your mom’s voice is on repeat: Stand up straight, she chirps in your head as you shift listlessly in line at Trader Joe’s.
But, seriously, what does ‘stand up straight’ really mean, anyway? What is ‘proper’ posture, and why does it matter? We asked the experts.
What Is ‘Proper’ Posture?
Let’s get this out of the way up front: What you likely think of as ‘good’ posture isn’t. “A lot of people, when they hear the word ‘posture,’ think ‘stand up straight, chest out, hold your head up,’” says Elisa Rodriguez, a Beverly Hills-based exercise therapist trained in the Egoscue Method. “But, in our perspective as therapists, your posture is how you’re holding yourself up statically — what you’ve been training your body to do subconsciously.” Founded by decorated veteran Pete Egoscue in an effort to find solutions for chronic pain, Rodriguez describes the method as “a postural corrective exercise therapy that looks at the whole body as a unit, looking to identify the root problem.”
That holistic view of how we carry ourselves is common of other posture techniques, too. “Good posture really is about getting your body in balance, not about holding a position,” says Lindsay Newitter (a.k.a. the Posture Police), a New York City-based AmSAT-Certified Alexander Technique teacher. “It’s about being able to sense when you’re centered.” Newitter is certified in the Alexander Technique, which trains people to be more aware of their postural habits and where they may be holding unnecessary tension. The technique is named after Australian actor Frederick Matthias Alexander, who discovered that studying his posture in the mirror and making adjustments could help his voice projection (and so much more).
What Is ‘Poor’ Posture?
You’re probably picturing it in your mind: Someone with shoulders slumped forward over a desk or texting with their head pitched too far forward. Maybe you’re guilty of it right now as you're reading this.
Technically speaking, whenever you’re holding your body out of balance or alignment, you’ve got poor posture. And there are common ways this manifests. Whenever we hunch forward, the spine — which should resemble an S-shape — forms more of a C-curve. Surprisingly, slouching while standing actually involves leaning backwards (usually with shoulders rounded), Newitter says, reversing that C-shape in the lower and mid-back.
“If you’re standing there while we’re taking pictures and one shoulder is higher than the other, one hip is higher, that’s the result of your function or lack of function,” Rodriguez shares. “While we look at what your ‘posture’ is, the meaning behind that is: What is your function? What are your compensation patterns? Because your body in movement is what’s going to affect how you feel.”
We tend to think of aches and pains as being isolated. But our experts emphasize that everything is related. That knee pain you can’t seem to shake? Maybe it’s all in your head — literally. Perpetual poor posture has myriad side effects including joint degeneration, breathing problems, digestive dysfunction, tension headaches, weak core muscles, poor circulation, fatigue, and even mood disorders (more on that later).
What Causes Poor Posture?
Ever seen a slouching toddler? Probably not. Truth is, we’re hardwired to hold ourselves up properly. So where do we go wrong? “Poor posture happens gradually,” Newitter says. “People get so focused on what their shoulders are doing, but they don’t realize that it involves the whole body.” Newitter and Rodriguez blame the modern age. We’re more sedentary. And, not only are we moving less, but we’re moving less mindfully. “We’re not having to make micromovements and adjustments or be alert,” Newitter explains. “We don’t have to be as aware.”
People often take their poor posture straight from sitting at work all day to slouching through their workout at the gym. “When you sit, you’re not moving in a lot of different directions,” Newitter says. “Your pelvis, neck, and shoulders can get really locked and then you go and exercise and that can all contribute to injury.”
With the advent of smartphones and, more recently, the COVID-19-related Zoom boom, it almost seems like proper alignment has become the exception rather than the rule. Hunching over a computer desk, or looking down at a cell phone for long periods of time, counteracts the spine's natural curvature, increasing tension in some back muscles and weakening others. It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.
How to Improve Your Posture
Our experts agree that while many people have the desire to correct their posture themselves, they don’t usually have the necessary tools or background. “The first thing we think of is slumped shoulders, and that’s usually the first thing that people try to fix,” Newitter explains. “So, sometimes our posture might be particularly held and stiff and at other times it might be kind of collapsed and slumped.”
Alternating between two extremes isn’t very practical or sustainable, she says. To make matters worse, there’s often a disconnect between our perception and reality. In other words, what we think we're doing with our body and what we're actually doing are two different things. It’s not possible to “correct” something without knowing exactly what’s right and wrong.
That’s where the pros come in. There are various schools of thought when it comes to the best way to improve posture, and it’s important to find the one that works best for you. Below, our experts shed some light on their practices:
- Alexander Technique: “So many people come to me saying ‘I saw this picture of myself and I had to do something about it,’” Newitter says. Under the Alexander Technique, she begins by simply observing the way a client carries themselves. Then, she sets about training them how to “undo” those old habits by releasing muscle tension and avoiding slouching for a more efficient, balanced posture with less pain and discomfort. She usually sees clients for a series of 10 one-on-one lessons, and she also offers group classes. Many people see a noticeable improvement after just one session.
- Egoscue Method: “We look at the posture from top to bottom,” Rodriguez says of the Egoscue Method. “We look at the eight loading joints: the ankles, knees, hips, and shoulders. We do an assessment from those and then from functional testing, where we start to look at the movement pattern of our clients to be able to identify the main dysfunction that the body is compensating around.” Most clients book once or twice weekly sessions that last several months and ultimately learn daily exercises — a blend of yoga, strengthening, pilates, and stretching — that can be done at home, too. “You should see and feel progress at every session,” she says.
Oh, and if you’re wondering about the efficacy of the so-called posture trainers you see on social media, our experts say that they can do more harm than good. “They’re a little crude in the information they give you,” Newitter explains. “A lot of them basically buzz if you’re leaning forward.” This can be annoying if you’re just reaching for something. “Most people who tend to slouch while they’re sitting tend to lean back when they’re standing,” she continues. “That’s equally a posture issue, and it’s probably not going to tell you that.”
The Benefits of Good Posture
We know that good posture is good for us, but how does it impact our appearance? Newitter breaks it down.
- Glutes & Core: You're more likely to exercise the muscles you intend to, if you have good posture and body mechanics. Body awareness and good posture habits help you to do the exercises properly. So, if you want a more toned butt and firmer abs, working on posture can help a lot.
- Breasts: If you slouch, your breasts will likely droop more. Better posture, perkier breasts — sans scalpel.
- Face: Sometimes people slouch with their faces, in addition to their shoulders. Being more upright — without undue strain — can help counter the impact of gravity.
- Eyes: Posture has a lot to do with focus and attention. When we're more present, we're more engaged and receptive. That is reflected in our eyes.
- Weight: Better posture generally makes people look leaner, even if they haven't actually lost weight.
- Youthfulness: We tend to associate stooped posture with aging. Same with disengaged eyes and having a narrow focus. People who are present and attentive look younger and more approachable.
Additionally, good posture has a lot to do with how we feel. It may seem obvious, but the way we feel directly affects the way we carry ourselves. “If you picture a person who is depressed, you can almost automatically picture what their body language is going to be,” Rodriguez explains. “Their head is hanging down low or forward, their upper back is rounded, their shoulders are drooped. If you flip that around and think about changing the upper back position, so they’re extended, pulling their shoulders back, that automatically changes how that person comes across.”
The reverse is also true. Good posture and keeping the body balanced has a measurable impact on our wellbeing. “When people are more physically centered, it usually means they’re more emotionally centered,” Newitter says. “They breathe easily, and they feel more grounded, confident, present, and engaged with people.”
With all the stressors of daily life, worrying about your posture may be low on your list of priorities. But consider focusing on your alignment to be an act of self care. The experts we talked to help clients rediscover an innate sense of mindful balance by teaching skills designed to last a lifetime. “We want clients to understand their own bodies,” Rodriguez says. Newitter agrees, adding that being present and engaged is central to the process. “Part of what you learn is to be able to sense your whole body in everything that you’re doing.”
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