Did you spend your youth being yelled at about your posture? Parents and teachers can sometimes seem a bit obsessed with standing up straight.
And they might have a point: Bad posture can do some real harm, and good posture can be almost miraculous.
Bad posture can cause many physical problems, and some might not be what you’d expect. Sore neck? Sure. Aching back? Oh yes! But constipation, incontinence and heartburn?
Yep, those problems, along with breathing difficulties and reduced energy, are also among the unhappy consequences of not holding yourself up straight.
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Effects of Bad Posture
The damage from poor posture can be cumulative, too. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), long-term slouching can even make your spine fragile and more easily injured. As we get older, decades of neglecting our posture can result in reduced flexibility and balance problems, both of which can increase the risk of falls.
But not all of the ill effects of a sustained slouch are physical. Have you ever pulled back your shoulders and lifted your chin when preparing to make a presentation or before walking into your boss’s office to ask for a raise? There’s a reason we tend to do that — and it’s not just because our moms told us not to slouch.
Posture for Confidence
In one study, researchers demonstrated that an upright posture can improve confidence by making us think better about ourselves. In a press release announcing these results, Richard Petty, a professor of psychology at Ohio State University and one of the study’s authors, explained how this works.
“Most of us were taught that sitting up straight gives a good impression to other people,” he said, “but it turns out that our posture can also affect how we think about ourselves. If you sit up straight, you end up convincing yourself by the posture you’re in.”
Anxiety and Posture
You might want to keep your head up and your back straight the next time you stroll into math class as well. A 2018 study found that good posture can help fight math anxiety. Students with math anxiety had more difficulty on a math task if they slouched than if they sat up straight. Why does posture matter in math class? The study’s authors speculate that “Head-upright/erect postures may make it easier to access positive and empowering thoughts and memories, thereby helping students to perform better.”
Much like posture’s effect on self-confidence, the benefit of working on math problems seems to be tricking yourself into thinking you’ve got this. The authors suggest that this approach should work not just for math but for pretty much any situation where nerves might otherwise get the better of you — in athletic performance, for example.
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What is the Correct Posture?
So you’re convinced that your mom was right all along, and you want to improve your posture. What can you do?
Even experts don’t always agree about what constitutes correct posture, particularly when it comes to the modern world’s favorite activity: sitting in an office chair. In a 2012 survey of almost 300 physiotherapists, the posture professionals were asked to identify the best sitting position for preventing low back pain.
The two most commonly recommended postures were almost completely opposite from one another. (Though it’s worth noting that neither involved curling your body into the shape of a comma and slumping over the keyboard.)
How to Fix Bad Posture
Fortunately, experts do converge on some basic advice for how to fix bad posture. And the suggestions are pretty much what you’d expect.
Keep your head more or less in line with your spine, not drooping over or tilted back.
Pretend there’s a string running from your tailbone to the top of your head. Try to keep that string as straight as possible. This will naturally pull your shoulders back, your stomach in, and your head up.
Keep your core muscles in good shape.
If you spend a lot of time sitting at a desk, arrange your work area so that you’re sitting comfortably upright. If you can afford it, invest in an ergonomic desk chair.
Now stop slouching and stand up straight!
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