Growing up, most of us were told at some point by our parents or grandparents to “Stand up straight!” or “Stop slouching!” Although it might have felt like they were nagging, studies have shown that this was in fact excellent advice. There is a direct correlation between maintenance of proper posture and efficient body function throughout your daily activities and work tasks. Poor posture habits, such as slouching while standing or hunching over your computer at work, can create numerous physical stresses such as back, neck and shoulder pain; can alter your ability to accurately perceive pain; and can lead to debilitating pain or complete disability if untreated over time. With improved posture, your overall alertness increases and your level of fatigue at the end of the day decreases. In addition to the physical improvements, proper posture can have a positive emotional effect: standing taller makes you appear more confident!
Improving your posture takes time. I commonly see patients become frustrated at the lack of initial progress. Remember: in most cases you are trying to eliminate poor postural habits that have been around for years or decades. Understanding proper posture is the first step, but it can be challenging to achieve due to the multitude of positions your body is put in to complete daily and work tasks.
Below are the characteristics of normal standing posture:
- Maintain the natural spinal curve
- Your ears, shoulders, hips, knees and ankles should be in a straight line
- Your weight should be evenly distributed on your feet with knees slightly flexed and not locked
- Chest and ribs should be uplifted but not pushed inward or outward
- Shoulders should be level and relaxed, away from your ears
- Your chin should be parallel to the floor
While research has shown that the average person generally demonstrates a certain posture, there are individual variances, as most people do not maintain a static standing posture throughout the day or during their jobs. There is a simple way to determine your neutral posture and gauge how well your current posture is, which is called the “Wall Test:”
- Stand with head, shoulders, and back against the wall with your heels about 5-6 inches forward
- Draw in the lower abdominals, decreasing the arch in your lower back
- Push away from the wall and try to maintain this upright, vertical alignment
If the Wall Test shows you are unable to maintain all points of your body (foot, buttocks, shoulders, and head) against the wall, then you may want to have your posture addressed by a physical therapist.
In addition to learning and adapting to better standing posture, it is important to identify faults in your sitting and sleeping positions that can negatively affect your physical and mental health. In fact, learning to have better sitting and sleeping posture can create more strong short-term effects given that we spend most of our days sitting or sleeping. Below are the characteristics for proper sitting and sleeping positions.
Best position for sitting:
- Sit with your back against the back of your chair
- Feet should be flat on the floor with hips and knees at a 90 degree angle, thighs parallel to the floor
- Maintain head and neck in a neutral position with shoulders straight and parallel to the hips
- Get up and walk around or stretch every 30 minutes
Best position for sleeping:
- A mattress with firm support is recommended for comfortable and pain-free rest. If your mattress is lumpy, soft or sagging, it should ideally be replaced. If you cannot afford a new mattress right away, you can place a piece of plywood between the mattress and box spring for temporary relief.
- The best sleeping position is lying on your side with your legs slightly bent. Sleep with a pillow between your knees to keep your spine straight.
- Avoid sleeping on your stomach, which can cause curvature of the spin as well as neck and shoulder strain
- Place a pillow or rolled towel under your head or neck to make sure your neck is supported in alignment with your spine
Lastly, frequently carrying handbags or backpacks throughout the day can lead to postural compensations due to muscle weakness. While changes may seem subtle, this may be a good starting point for newcomers to postural re-training, as you can more easily change how and what you place on your body versus how you hold your body. Here are some recommendations:
- A handbag or backpack should not exceed 10-15% of your body weight
- Shoulder straps should be wide and adjustable
- Handbags should be worn across the body, and backpacks should be worn with both shoulder straps and a hip strap
Overall, the important lesson to learn is that, just like poor posture, good posture is a habit, so keep practicing! And if you have trouble achieving improvements at home, don’t hesitate to discuss your posture with your primary care physician and consider the possibility of a referral to your physical therapy office at Harvard Vanguard. Physical therapists are a great resource for “tips and tricks” and can help individualize a plan for you.