Stand Corrected

Poor posture may be the culprit behind many of your health problems.

By Marie Look

You likely already know that poor posture negatively impacts your health, but you might not know just how much damage it can do.

What is Bad Posture?

Bad posture includes twisting or extending the neck forward or backward, hunching over, rounding the shoulders, or holding or moving the torso in an awkward way. Less obvious parts of the body, such as the wrists, can also be affected by poor posture if they are held in an unnatural position for a long period of time, or endure a repeated motion that places those bones and joints under stress.

The Effects of Bad Posture

Your muscles work hard every day to push and pull your skeleton into the right position, even just to keep you upright. Consistently bad posture, however, places even greater physical demands on your body. For example, tilting the head forward or rounding the shoulders contracts the muscles in the back of your neck to support your head. As these muscles contract, they shorten. At the same time, the muscles on the front of your neck relax and lengthen. Repeated over time, this can lead to severe musculoskeletal imbalances.

Poor posture of the neck can also cause headaches. If you frequently hold a telephone between your head and shoulder, look down at a desk or repeatedly check a monitor to your right or left, the muscles in your neck may be putting pressure on your occipital nerve, which can lead to migraine-like headaches.

How you carry yourself even affects your breathing. Stooping minimizes chest cavity space and prevents your lungs from fully expanding. Some researchers claim this reduces lung capacity by as much as 30 percent. Such inefficient breathing can translate to respiratory conditions or worsen symptoms of seasonal allergies, particularly in people who have repeatedly practiced poor posture, for example, since childhood.

In a way, bad posture is mistreatment of your spine, and since your spine (part of the central nervous system) is crucial to so many bodily systems, its dysfunction can mean numerous problems, including pain, poor digestion, and lack of bowel and bladder control. Some experts also link slouching to weight gain, anxiety and heartburn.

But not all effects of bad posture are physical. When you slouch, whether consciously or unconsciously, you may project timidness, shyness, low self-esteem or depression. Even if you’re not actually experiencing those feelings, others might interpret your body language this way, ultimately creating those very feelings in you.

What is Good Posture?

Good posture means your spine is in alignment and able to move efficiently, without pain. To check your posture when standing, try to stack certain parts of your body: Ears over shoulders, shoulders over hips, and hips over feet. Lift your chin, direct your gaze forward and roll your shoulders back and down. When seated, place both feet flat on the ground directly beneath your knees, sit up tall and reach the top of your head toward the ceiling.

The Effects of Good Posture

Proper posture is not only kind to your muscles, joints and bones, it improves your breathing and circulation. When you sit or stand up straight, your chest fully expands and your lungs can take in and expel air more efficiently. Deeper breathing means better oxygen distribution, which can increase your athletic ability, focus, energy, sense of calm and overall well-being. Additional benefits include a taller, younger and more confident appearance, and likely even a better attitude.

Practice Makes Perfect

Improving your posture is easier than you think. Start with simple changes right away: limit what you carry, replace your office chair with one that swivels, and take breaks from sitting every 15 to 20 minutes to stand up.Try to place TV screens, computer monitors and your phone (if you’re a texter) directly ahead of you; otherwise, turn your whole body to look to the right or left (this is why a swivel chair works best).

Did you know there’s also a right way to sleep? Your pillow should be high enough to offer head and neck support, but low enough that your neck isn’t at an angle. Also, lying on your side places the least amount of pressure on your spine. Try sleeping with a pillow between your knees to further support your spine and keep your pelvis from twisting.

One of the best things you can do for your posture is strengthen your core muscles, as they play important roles in supporting the midsection, spine and entire body. But simply cranking out crunches won’t cut it. There are multiple major abdominal muscles, and if you’re not performing exercises that strengthen all of them, you’ll create imbalances in your body and actually put yourself at more risk for injury. (Also, don’t forget you have core muscles on your back, so exercise those too!)

Work with your doctor and a certified trainer to create a fitness regimen that will strengthen your core all the way around and safely improve your posture.