Did you spend your youth getting yelled at about your posture? Parents and teachers can sometimes seem a bit obsessed with standing up straight.
And they might be right: bad posture can do real damage, and good posture can be almost miraculous.
Poor posture can cause many physical problems, and some might not be what you expect. Neck pain ? Of course. Back pain? Oh yes! But constipation, incontinence and heartburn?
Yes, these problems, along with breathing difficulties and low energy, are also among the unfortunate consequences of not standing up straight.
Learn more: Chronic pain makes you think differently
Effects of poor posture
Damage from poor posture can also be cumulative. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), long-term sagging can even make your spine weak and more easily injured. As we age, decades of neglecting our posture can lead to reduced flexibility and balance issues, both of which can increase the risk of falls.
But not all of the adverse effects of sustained sagging are physical. Have you ever pulled your shoulders back and lifted your chin when preparing to give a presentation or before walking into your boss’s office to ask for a raise? There’s a reason we tend to do this — and it’s not just because our mothers told us not to slouch.
Stance for trust
In study, researchers have shown that an upright posture can improve our self-confidence by making us think about ourselves better. In a press release announcing the results, Richard Petty, professor of psychology at Ohio State University and one of the study’s authors, explained how it works.
“Most of us have been taught that sitting up straight makes others feel good,” he said, “but it turns out our posture can also affect how we think about ourselves. If you sit up straight, you end up being convinced by the posture you’re in.”
Anxiety and posture
You may also want to keep your head up and your back straight the next time you walk around in math class. A study 2018 found that good posture can help combat math anxiety. Students with math anxiety had more difficulty performing a math task if they were slouching than if they were sitting upright. Why is posture important in math class? The study authors speculate that “upright/upward head postures may facilitate access to positive and stimulating thoughts and memories, thereby helping students to perform better.”
Much like the effect of posture on self-confidence, the benefit of working on math problems seems to trick you into thinking you have this. The authors suggest this approach should work not just for math, but for just about any situation where nerves might otherwise get the better of you — in sports performance, for example.
Learn more: What is anxiety and how can worries overwhelm us?
What is the correct posture?
So you are convinced that your mother was right all along and you want to improve your posture. What can you do?
Even experts don’t always agree on what constitutes correct posture, especially when it comes to the modern world’s favorite activity: sitting in an office chair. In a 2012 investigation out of nearly 300 physiotherapists, posture professionals were asked to identify the best sitting position to prevent low back pain.
The two most commonly recommended postures were almost completely opposite to each other. (Although it’s worth noting that neither involved curving your body into a comma and collapsing on the keyboard.)
How to Fix Bad Posture
Fortunately, experts are converging on some basic tips on how to correct poor posture. And the suggestions are pretty much what you’d expect.
Keep your head more or less in line with your spine, without falling or leaning back.
Imagine there is a string running from your tailbone to the top of your head. Try to keep this string as straight as possible. This will naturally pull your shoulders back, stomach, and head up.
Keep your abdominal muscles in good shape.
If you spend a lot of time sitting at a desk, organize your workspace so that you are comfortably seated. If you can afford it, invest in an ergonomic office chair.
Now stop slouching and stand up straight!
Learn more: The science of forming healthy habits