Illustrated by Gabriela Alford.
Head up, shoulders back, stomach in. The vision of perfect posture can conjure up some pretty old-school and anal-retentive images: cotillion; finishing schools; the young lady in a sensible box-pleat dress, walking across the room with a stack of books on her head.
The quest for ladylike poise may have given the upright posture game an uptight rep, but modern-day research shows that body alignment isn’t just about sitting pretty, or even physical well being for that matter — we’ve long known that proper posture can reduce muscle pain, joint strain, headaches, and more. Studies are showing that standing tall is also about emotional health. As it turns out, our slouchy ways can do more than mess with our musculoskeletal system, they can negatively affect the way we feel.
A 2012 San Francisco State University study found that carrying the body in more upright position can improve mood and energy levels, while slouching can make us feel less energetic and more depressed.
Another study, by researchers at Columbia University, examined people when sitting at a gaming table. Those who sat with an open, expansive position showed a greater sense of power and control than those who sat with limbs folded toward the body. What’s more, this group also had higher testosterone (which is responsible for vitality) and lower levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) than the group who sat with constricted posture. Likewise, in a Northwestern University study that mimicked workplace scenarios, both managers and subordinates were more confident and powerful when employing expansive postures.
If we can trick our minds and moods into happier, more vibrant states simply by making adjustments to how we sit or move, then why aren’t more of us joyfully conquering the world in a more upright position? The truth is, the demands of maneuvering in modern-day society keep us from holding a more powerful pose.
Donna Ray, a California-based psychotherapist and Feldenkrais Method movement specialist, explains why. “One of the things that happens with people in our day and age is that we tend to gaze downward because of the demands of our busy culture," she says. "People are looking down at their computer and phone screens. They’re also looking down at the sidewalk, to make sure they don’t trip — or because they don't want to look into the eyes of other people who are walking around them.”
“This downward gaze encourages poor posture by contracting the flexor muscles on the front of the body,” she continues. “What we need to do is activate the extensor muscles in the back that keep us upright.” What’s the most intuitive way to activate the extensor muscles? Looking and reaching upward does the trick.
“Looking at birds and at the sky actually activates back muscles for upright posture, and that makes people feel immediately better because it makes them feel more alert,” Ray says. She notes that when very young babies need to wake up, they lie on their bellies, lift their heads, and look around. “We need to do that as adults. We need to lift our heads up, look around, and make eye contact — that definitely improves mood.”
Illustrated by Gabriela Alford.
Likewise, better posture can boost our energy and help us become more alert when we’re sitting in the cube, staring at the screen. One way to do this, Ray suggests, is by elevating our screens so we are looking out and up at it, not downward, which encourages a hunchback position — the very position that researchers have shown encourages sleepiness and lack of confidence. Another quick ergonomic fix? Use a chair that provides support underneath the sit bones, which will allow a body to sit upright.
When working in front of a screen, it’s extremely easy to forget about what it is that our bodies are doing. So, Ray suggests taking little breaks every 20 minutes to notice how you’re sitting and engage the body in movement by trying the following exercise:
Look toward your knees, then slowly look up towards the ceiling. Go back and forth like that while rounding your back, then gently arching your back when looking up. Repeat this movement until you find an easy, upright sitting posture again.
Taking frequent breaks to notice our posture may seem like a nuisance, but Ken Baldwin, executive director of The National Posture Institute and sport and wellness professor at the State University of New York, also endorses the practice. "You need to think about your posture every 30 minutes you are awake,” he says.
Baldwin has developed a four-step re-alignment sequence that will correct posture (and elevate moods) when sitting, walking and exercising:
1. Stand or sit as tall as you possibly can. If sitting, avoid crisscrossing limbs and ensure that when your feet touch the floor, your body is forming a 90-degree angle with your torso, hips, and legs.
2. Elevate your chest. Elevate the scapula so it becomes level. Position your shoulders so the form a squared-off, 90-degree angle instead of dropping down.
3. Retract shoulder blades and pull them back. To do this, envision holding a pencil between the shoulder blades.This activates the rhomboids and middle trapezius muscle groups, which are weak and distorted in 95% of the population, according to Baldwin. Additionally, to reduce forward head protrusion, use your fingers to press on the chin and push it back, which will better align your neck (and deter lateral deviations in the spine).
4. Isometrically contract your abdominal muscles. To do so, draw the belly button inward, toward the spine, and contract the core muscles to help maintain the position you’ve achieved by following the previous steps.
True: the tech specs of better posture haven’t changed all that much since the mid-century schoolmarms and etiquette teachers taught our foremothers to lift their heads, pull their shoulders back, and tighten their tummies. But, with this new research, the vibe has changed. Perfect posture is no longer about prim discipline. It’s about the freedom and strength gained from feeling more vibrant, confident and joyful with every move. Straight up.