Improving your posture might not be the first thing you think of when it comes to ways you can improve your health and wellbeing. But it can bear a lot on whether or not you run into certain chronic problems (like osteoporosis, arthritis and bone spurs), as well as how your body feels and functions on a more day-to-day basis (muscle spasms, lower back pain, knee pain, anyone?).
“It’s not just a long-term issue,” explains Sheri Dewan, MD, a neurosurgeon and spine surgeon at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage and Delnor Hospitals. When your bones and muscles are being held in a way they’re not designed to be held, things get strained and bones are left un-cushioned. Poor spinal posture can even lead to nerve damage because the nerves get compressed, which can trigger leg or hand pain, she says.
The good news is that some quick posture fixes can make a big difference. Here are a few bad habits to get out of and how to sit, stand and lie instead.
Are you making these common posture mistakes?
1. Not moving enough
The number one posture mistake, according to all of the experts in this article, is staying in any one position for too long. “Our bodies are meant to move and have postural changes throughout the day,” Dewan says.
Ideally, move or stretch or somehow change your body’s position approximately every 30 minutes, says Cordelia W. Carter, MD, orthopedic surgeon and director of the Center for Women’s Sports Health at NYU Langone Health. Whether you’re sitting at a desk, standing at a desk, staring down at your cellphone, or curled up in a ball on your couch watching a movie, staying static in any of those positions for too long is going to lead to pain and discomfort, she says. Essentially any “good” posture can be a bad one if you stay in it for too long.
2. Hunching your shoulders
Rolling your shoulders forward starts a chain reaction of bad posture, explains Lauren Shroyer, a certified athletic trainer and senior director of product development at the American Council on Exercise. It exaggerates the curve in the upper spine, pulls your head and neck into an unhealthy tilt (more on that below), and may even cause the pelvis to tuck in. It also limits how much the lungs can expand and can decrease lung capacity (which affects your heart and respiratory health), she says. Plus, the longer you spend in those positions, the more habit-forming they become — so if you tend to do it while you sit, over time you’ll started to do it when you stand, too, Shroyer says.
Avoid overcorrecting the mistake and sticking your belly or chest out. Do focus on lengthening your spine to give your body as much height as possible and relaxing the shoulders down to get you to where you need to be.
3. Gazing downward for too long
Working on a computer or at a desk (or reading or typing on a cellphone) is usually the culprit of this posture no-no. Our heads are heavy and tilting them forward for too long puts a lot of tension in the neck and upper back muscles, rather than the weight being evenly supported by all the muscles of the spine, Dewan explains. Instead, you want to be holding your head up straight with your line of sight being parallel to the ground beneath you.
Hold handheld devices directly in front of you at eye- or shoulder-height, rather than down around your waist. Raise your computer screen or stack books underneath it so that you can keep your neck and spine in that neutral position when looking at it, Dewan suggests. Also consider adjusting the zoom on your screen to avoid having to lean in.
4. Obtuse and acute angles
When it comes to sitting for long periods of time (desk workers, we’re talking about you), think 90-degree angles, Shroyer says. Tucking your legs and feet underneath your chair can cause the hips to roll forward and put extra pressure on the low back because it’s being overarched. Stretching your legs out in front of you causes your hips to tilt under you, which also puts added pressure on the low back. Similarly, leaning too far forward or too far back in an office chair for too long a period of time can put unnecessary strain on muscles that weren’t designed to support your body in that way, she says.
You should sit with your feet flat on the ground with shins perpendicular to the floor, your knees bent at a right angle, your thighs forming a right angle with your spine, and your spine resting on the back of your chair (and parallel to the seat back), Carter explains. Pull your hips all the way back to the back of your chair to help make this position more comfortable or use a lumbar support pillow (which supports the natural small curve in the lower spine without exaggerating it), she says.
5. Using the wrong size keyboard
When using a keyboard forearms should be resting on the surface you’re working at and elbows should be hanging straight down at your side, rather than being splayed out at a wide angle (which causes your chest to open up too much and potentially to come forward) or tucked in too close together (so that your arms and shoulders end up pulling in toward one another), Shroyer says. Using a keyboard that’s too wide or too narrow also encourages bad posture.
“People with a larger shoulder width, wider chest or a bigger frame should have a bigger keyboard in front of them,” she says. “And somebody’s who a slighter build should be using a smaller keyboard.”
6. Keeping elbows and wrists bent for too long
Another no-no when it comes to keyboard use: resting your wrists on the desk as you type, which can leave your wrists over-flexed for too long. Keeping either the wrists or elbows bent for too long puts extra strain on the joints and the nerves across them, Carter explains. Over time, this undue pressure can lead to tingling and numbness in the fingers and potentially more long-term problems like carpal tunnel syndrome and cubital tunnel syndrome, she says. Hold wrists up or use a cushion to support them.
7. Not using your core muscles
If you’re allowing your belly to push forward or lower back to slouch backward while sitting or standing, you’re probably not engaging your abdominal (a.k.a. “core”) muscles to support you and your spine. Either of those positions over time can trigger lower back pain and problems like herniated discs in your low back or spinal stenosis (tightening of the nerves), both of which are exceedingly common, Dewan explains.
Focus on pulling the belly button in toward the lower spine — not so much that you curve the lower spine backward, but enough that those lower abdominal muscles engage, she says. “It’s a great way to increase your core muscle strength.” (And once you get in the habit of doing it, you’ll find yourself doing it without having to think about it.)
8. Using your couch for work
Curling up on the couch in a comfortable position isn’t bad for your posture — as long as you’re not staying in it for too long (remember, the body is built to move!) and it feels good to you, Shroyer says. If you have your legs tucked beneath you for example, switch direction after a little while to stretch out the other side.
What tends to cause more problems when it comes to positions assumed on the couch is when laptops or other work is involved. Craning your neck to read a screen positioned on your lap can cause you to adopt awkward, non-ergonomic positions for long periods of time, leading to neck and back pain, says Charla Fischer, MD, an orthopedic spine surgeon in New York City and spokesperson for the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.
9. Skipping strength and flexibility exercises
If you don’t have the muscle strength and tone to hold yourself in good postures, you likely won’t, Shroyer says. Abdominal, back and leg muscles are all important for posture. Exercises and workouts that strengthen these muscles (and make good posture come more naturally to you) include Pilates, yoga, barre workouts, holding plank positions and bridge positions, Fischer adds.
10. Sleeping in the wrong position
Ideally you want to try to keep your spine straight, similarly to how you should be trying to keep it straight throughout the day while you’re standing and sitting. Sleeping on your side (with a pillow between your legs) or back (with a pillow under your knees) is ideal, Dewan says. Stomach sleeping tends to be the worst for keeping the spine in alignment, as it can strain both your neck and lower back. Sleeping on a firmer mattress may help alleviate some of this strain for belly sleepers, she notes.
11. Not stretching (multiple times) throughout the day
Again, the body is meant to move, Shroyer says. If there’s one thing you learn from this article it should be that! If you’re standing or sitting for too long in any one position, your body is going to start to ache. Stretching is a great way to release muscle strain and is something we should all be doing multiple times throughout the day. Don’t think of it as something you might just do before or after a workout and not think about for the rest of the day, she says.
Shroyer recommends doing these stretches frequently:
- Expand the chest and reach out the arms (to open up the chest, mimicking the motion of a big yawn)
- Extend one leg back behind you and lunge into the front one to stretch the front of the hip muscle
- Stretch the inner thigh muscles by holding a side lunge
- Do squats (they’re a strengthening exercise, but if you sit all day, getting up and doing a few of them is a great way to loosen up the muscles and get blood flowing through the legs)
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