Did you spend your youth being yelled at for your posture? Parents and teachers sometimes seem a little obsessed with standing up straight.
And maybe they’re right: bad posture can cause real harm, and good posture can be almost miraculous.
Bad posture can cause many physical problems, and some may not be what you expect. Neck pain? Sure. Back pains? Oh yeah! But constipation, incontinence and heartburn?
Yes, these problems, along with shortness of breath and decreased energy, are also among the unpleasant consequences of not keeping upright.
Read more: Chronic pain makes you think differently
Effects of bad posture
Damage from bad posture can also be cumulative. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), prolonged slouching can even make your spine fragile and more prone to injury. As we age, decades of neglecting our posture can lead to reduced flexibility and balance problems, both of which can increase our risk of falling.
But not all ill effects of prolonged slouching are physical. Have you ever pulled back your shoulders 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.
In one study, researchers demonstrated that upright posture can improve confidence by making us think better of ourselves. In a press release announcing these results, Richard Petty, professor of psychology at Ohio State University and one of the study’s authors, explained how this works.
“Most of us have been taught that sitting up straight makes a good impression on 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 of the posture you’re in.”
Anxiety and posture
You might want to keep your head up and your back straight the next time you walk into math class. A 2018 survey found that good posture can help combat 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 speculated that “the standing/upright position may facilitate access to positive and empowering thoughts and memories, thereby helping students perform better.”
Like the effect of posture on self-esteem, the benefit of working on math problems seems to trick you into thinking you have it. The authors suggest that this approach should work not just for math, but for almost any situation where nerves might otherwise get the better of you — such as athletic performance.
Read more: What is anxiety and how can anxiety defeat us?
What is proper posture?
So you’re convinced your mom was right all along, and you want to improve your posture. What can you do?
Even experts don’t always agree on what constitutes proper posture, especially when it comes to the modern world’s favorite pastime: sitting in an office chair. In 2012 research of almost 300 physical therapists, 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 of each other. (Although it’s worth noting that neither involved curling your body into a comma shape and plunging onto the keyboard.)
How to correct bad posture
Fortunately, experts are rallying around some basic tips on how to correct poor posture. And the offerings are pretty much what you’d expect.
- Keep your head more or less in line with your spine, not drooping 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, 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 workplace so that you can sit comfortably upright. If you can afford it, invest in an ergonomic desk chair.
Now stop slouching and stand up!
Read more: The science of forming healthy habits