Good posture makes you look taller, slimmer, more confident. And it has health benefits, too: it can prevent back, neck, hip and knee pain and give your diaphragm and rib cage more room to expand when you breathe.
But good posture can be elusive. Modern life and old-fashioned gravity conspire to pull us out of natural alignment. Fortunately, you can make your way back to proper alignment fairly easily. “If you make little changes throughout the day that involve your pelvis, legs and feet, you can create a foundation for better posture,” says Mary Bond, M.A., a posture specialist and author of The New Rules of Posture: How to Sit, Stand and Move in the Modern World.
Many of us sit virtually all day long with only an occasional stroll from house to car, desk to cafeteria, sofa to bed. Yet our bodies are made to move, not sit in a chair all day long. Because it’s pretty much impossible to avoid chairs, the next best thing is to sit using good posture principles.
Start by uncrossing your legs and planting your feet on the floor, says occupational therapist Deborah Read, president of ErgoFit Consulting Inc., in Seattle. Then adjust your chair height so your hips are slightly higher than your knees. This will create a slight downward slope of your thighs. “If you’re doing it properly, your weight will be evenly distributed in the chair between your feet, thighs, hips and low back,” says Read. Your shoulders should be relaxed and open. Your abdominal muscles should be firm but not too tight. Your head and neck should be in line with your spine.
Maintaining this position is much easier when your keyboard and computer monitor are in the right positions. Place both directly in front of you, not off to the side. Adjust the height of your monitor so that your screen is at eye level. If you use a laptop, consider getting an external monitor to avoid hunching over your screen.
Every half hour or so, take a break from sitting. Get up and walk around for a minute or two. This keeps your hamstrings and lower back from tightening up and pulling your spine out of alignment.
Check it: “Every once in a while, place one hand behind the small of your back to see if there’s still a curve there,” Read says. If there isn’t, consider using a lumbar support cushion.
Feel it: You’ll likely notice your thighs more now that you’re not crossing your legs. No, they haven’t grown; it’s just that you’re more aware of them. That’s natural, so don’t let it bother you.
A healthy spine has three curves: an inward curve in the lower back, an outward curve at the shoulder blades, and an inward curve at the neck.
To achieve this alignment, plant your bare feet on the floor a few inches apart. Distribute your weight evenly between your feet. “Most people put their weight on their heels. Bring your body weight forward enough so you feel your weight evenly distributed through all of each foot,” says Bond. “You’ll feel your chest and abdomen move forward a bit when you do this.”
Keep knees slightly bent. “When you lock your knees, you tip your pelvis forward and squeeze the discs in the lower lumbar region of the back,” says Read. “Gently pull your belly button toward your spine. This forms a foundation of stability.”
Your shoulders should be relaxed, not hunched or rounded. Keep your head and neck in line with your shoulders, your chin parallel to the floor.
Check it: Roll up a small bath towel, then stand against a wall using good posture. Slip the rolled towel into the curve of your lower back. If it fits, you’re likely standing with good posture. If your back is flat against the wall, this curve isn’t present.
Feel it: You may feel taller and lighter-and a bit awkward if you’re accustomed to slouching.
Exercises in alignment
These three exercises are simple, yet powerful; practiced regularly, they can fundamentally remake your posture. Start by doing a set of each exercise once a day for a week or two, just to get used to them. Then bump up the frequency to three times a day, or whenever you feel your posture sagging.
This subtle move counteracts neck-craning. Bring your teeth gently together and slowly, softly glide your head backward-¼ inch to 1 inch-without tilting it, until you feel mild tension. Keep your shoulders relaxed. Hold for 5-10 seconds. Repeat two more times.
Extend your arms out and up to about shoulder height, bent at the elbows with palms pointing up. Squeeze your shoulder blades together. You should feel a stretch along your chest and the front of your shoulders. Hold for 5 seconds. Repeat 5 times. If you feel sharp pain, ease off until you feel only mild tension. If this hurts, hold your arms a bit lower; after doing this exercise for a few weeks, gradually raise them.
This technique trains your pelvis to support your spine. Stand using good posture. Relax your hips and let your buttocks protrude somewhat. Place thumbs on lower ribs and fingers on hip bones. Tuck your buttocks under, so your hip bones line up under your lower ribs. Hold for 5 seconds, then repeat at least three times.