We live in a world of slouchers. We shuffle through our days, heads down as we stare at our phones. We slump over our laptops, then collapse on the couch to watch Netflix. That’s a shame, says A. Lynn Millar, chair of the department of physical therapy at Winston-Salem State University. “The evidence is pretty clear that poor posture results in all sorts of musculoskeletal problems, especially causing pain in the low back, neck and shoulder.”
Midlife can beat us down into gummy pretzels. “People are still working, and more often at desk-bound jobs,” she says. “They are also typically becoming more and more sedentary. It’s all very hard on posture.”
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The proof is probably as close as your rearview mirror. “Most of us start the day sitting taller,” she says, “but by the time we go home, we’re so fatigued and slumped that we’re not even the same height, and have to readjust the mirror.”
Improved posture has benefits beyond the physical; researchers have linked it with more confidence, more energy and less depression.
“People are more likely to have thoughts of helplessness and hopelessness when looking down, and more apt to feel hopeful when looking up.”
Try our five-day plan to make this mind-body connection and get the posture your mother always wanted you to have:
Monday: Start building back breaks into your day. Millar suggests that at least once an hour you make a conscious effort to stand, and think about how you’re standing. “Stand up and roll your shoulders, walk down the hall, squeeze and unsqueeze your glutes or reach for the ceiling. Even people with generally good posture find that sitting at a computer causes them to round the shoulders and drop the head lower.”
Tuesday: Skip. Seriously, skip for a minute. Then check your mood. “People think the brain tells the body what to do, and it does,” says Erik Peper, Ph.D., a professor at San Francisco State University’s Institute for Holistic Health Studies. “But they don’t realize that the body is capable of telling the brain what to do, as well. It’s not a one-way street,” he says.
His studies, many based on people in midlife, have shown that changing your posture to move in a more upright position (which he sometimes tests by having people skip, using the classic cross-crawl motion many of us haven’t indulged in since kindergarten) can improve your mood and energy level. For people who tend to suffer from depression, the connection is even more important: “Slumping enhances depression, and makes people who tend toward depression feel more depressed,” he says. This is a big deal, since it means “we are almost always in a shape that makes us a little preconditioned to being depressed.”
Just as posture says something to the rest of the world about us—think of the gestures of an Olympic athlete who’s just won an event—“it says something to us as well. It changes our own psychology and mood,” Peper says.
Like Millar, he’s a big believer in stretch breaks and suggests downloading an app that serves as a reminder. (Most wearables come with an activity alert that you can use as reminders to stand taller or you can use the free version of an app like Stand Up!)
Try looking up into the sky, instead of the dreaded downward head tilt; it can make a big difference. “People are more likely to have thoughts of helplessness and hopelessness when they are looking down, and more apt to feel hopeful when they are looking up.”
Wednesday: Re-evaluate your ergonomics. Now that you’re making the connection between standing taller and feeling better, look for all the good-posture support you can find. Millar suggests starting with your eyes. “Many of us don't realize that our eyesight is changing, so we hunch more and more to see the computer. Even adjusting the font size can make an impact.” While conventional wisdom says computers should be at eye level, she says that can be a nightmare for the millions of people who wear progressive lenses. Try lowering the computer so you don’t have to crank your neck up to use the bottom portion of your lenses, or talk to your optician about a prescription for intermediate lenses.
Then look at your chair, Peper suggests. Sometimes adding a cushion behind your lower back can make a big difference. And consider a wearable reminder, such as Upright. “Every time you collapse, it vibrates. It’s brilliant,” he says. (He has no financial interest in the company.)
Thursday: Size up your confidence. With all this practice sitting up straight, do a gut check on how confident you’re feeling. Richard Petty, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Ohio State University, says, “We’ve found that bodily movements are linked to confidence. What’s really interesting is that the confidence translates into people relying on thoughts and beliefs and doing something.” In other words, it’s one thing to feel confident that you deserve a raise. It’s another to walk into your boss’s office and ask for it.
The wrinkle, Petty says, is that the research demonstrates the posture-confidence connection when subjects don’t know why they’re being evaluated: “We don’t tell our participants that we’re trying to see if they feel more confident. So we still don’t know if you can use this strategically,” he says. But it’s worth a try.
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Friday: Check out a yoga or Pilates class, even if you don’t intend to stick with it. It isn’t that these exercises are necessarily better for you (or your posture) than other workouts, says Millar, but they do give many cues that aid postural awareness. “These instructors continually tell students to stand straighter, lower their shoulders and be aware of what they’re doing with their bodies. Those are great cues to bring into everyday life.”
Peper’s favorite stretch, for example, is right out of yoga 101: It involves cracking a half-smile (“as if to say thank you”), taking a breath deep into your low belly to feel your abdomen expand, and then reaching up, just like a tree. “It’s remarkable how fast that can change your energy. You’ll feel better in five to seven seconds.”