When the musician Sting was asked by Yoga Journal about his vision for growing older, he replied, "I want to get old gracefully. I want to have good posture, I want to be healthy, and I want to be an example to my children."
Posture was at the top of his list for graceful aging, and with good reason. Good posture not only helps you maintain a healthy spine and avoid injuries, but there's even evidence that it can improve your mood.
Posture 101: what good posture looks like
A healthy spine has three natural curves that make an elongated "S" shape: forward at the neck, backward at the upper back and forward again at the lower back.
When you're standing with good posture, "your head is on top of your body in alignment with your spine — not leaning forward or right or left," says Laura Deon, MD, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist at Rush University Medical Center. "Your shoulders are down and back, hips and knees are in a neutral position with feet shoulder width apart, and your body weight is distributed evenly."
Deon suggests visualizing an invisible string that extends from your tailbone up your spine and out the top of your head.
"You want the string to be straight at all times, drawing you up toward the sky with your hips, shoulders and head all aligned," she says. Your abdomen should be pulled in. Knees should be soft, not locked. And you should be looking straight ahead, not down.
The string visual applies when you're sitting, too. "Your back should be straight, shoulders back and your bottom touching the back of the chair," Deon says. "Your knees are bent at a right angle and both feet are on the floor."
Here, she offers five reasons why you should stand — and sit — tall:
1. Less stress on bones and joints.
Aligning your spine means that you're using your muscles properly, which reduces stress on your bones and joints, Deon says. This decreases abnormal wear and tear that, over time, can lead to osteoarthritis as well as lingering aches and pains. Joints in your neck, shoulders, low back and hips are some of the most vulnerable.
If your posture hasn't been good, correcting it might feel uncomfortable for a few weeks, but stick with the effort.
2. Strengthen crucial core muscles.
Your core muscles — the muscles in your back, hips, abdomen and pelvic floor — work together to stabilize your spine and provide a foundation for your body's movement.
Pilates and yoga classes provide excellent core-strengthening exercises, Deon says. "But standing and sitting properly are probably the best things you can do to activate your core. It's actually much harder work than you think!"
3. Breathe more easily.
Your lungs are made of soft tissue, so the more space you open up for them in your chest by standing tall and pulling your shoulders back, the more they'll be able to expand and allow you to breathe deeply.
To avoid "text neck," practice looking down at your phone with your eyes alone, not bending your neck.
4. Keep your neck and spine healthy for life.
Consistently good posture prevents your spine from becoming fixed in an abnormal position.
"If your usual posture is to keep your head down and your shoulders rolled forward, that can actually change the way your spine grows," Deon explains. "And after many years, it's extremely hard to reverse — all the more reason to work on bad habits starting right now."
5. Boost your mood and energy.
Research investigating the connection between posture and emotion has shown that good posture can actually make you feel better.
Posture affects our emotions and thoughts, and vice versa. Slouching makes it easier to think negative thoughts, while sitting or standing in a strong, upright position encourages empowering thoughts. Standing tall instead of scrunching up also means that you occupy more space and radiate more energy to others, which in turn can make you feel more confident.
Four tips for better posture
- Stretch. Simple stretches can relieve muscle tension and help you realign your posture. Try the shoulder roll: Sit or stand comfortably. As you inhale, raise your shoulders to your ears. As you exhale, pull your shoulder blades down and together. Do this five or 10 times in a row, a few times a day.
- Don't sit still. Sitting for long periods almost always leads to stiffness and slouching, Deon says, so she recommends getting up to move around every 20 to 30 minutes. If you need reminding, there are a number of smartphone apps that will nudge you to take periodic breaks.
- Keep your chin up, even when looking at your phone. Texting is the modern enemy of good posture, Deon says. "You never want to spend long periods of time with your head pushed forward — that's a really good way to develop a long-term neck problem." Tilting the head forward 30 degrees more than triples the amount of stress placed on your neck, which can result in muscle strain, pinched nerves or herniated disks. To avoid "text neck," practice looking down at your phone with your eyes alone, not bending your neck.
- Talk to a pro. If you're trying to reverse the effects of years of bad posture, a physiatrist or physical therapist can help. He or she will evaluate your posture and muscle strength and work with you on a program of exercises and stretching.