As a physical therapist I am very lucky because throughout the day I am generally constantly moving. I get to experience a variety of body positions and tasks that keep me from succumbing to the typical desk worker slouch. However, there are times I do have paperwork to do at my desk, and when I’m there I’m usually waiting for my next patient who will come in the front door to the front desk a little behind me on the left. For many years when I sat, it was with my right leg crossed over my left and my body slightly turned to the left, looking for that next patient.
Rather quickly, I developed right sided hip and low back pain from just that little bit of sitting and waiting for the next patient. I had to retrain myself to not cross my leg and keep my pelvis facing forward. It was hard to constantly remind myself to check in with my posture, but ultimately it paid off and I was able to eliminate my pain through changing that habit.
I can only imagine how hard this might be for someone who has to sit all day!
So, if you’re struggling like I did, here are some helpful tips on changing your posture.
What is posture?
“Posture: the position or bearing of the body whether characteristic or assumed for a special purpose” (Merriam-Webster). When we do Pilates we pay close attention to our posture. It makes a difference in how the exercise affects us. Poor posture in Pilates can cause pain or injury. It can decrease the positive effects of the exercises we are doing. It is the same in the rest of our lives.
Our “characteristic” posture, the posture we generally assume for sitting and standing, affects so much of our efficiency of movement and even breath and heart function. If we are sitting in a slouched posture we lose range of motion in our neck, in our shoulders, even in our spine.
Try it! Sit in a relaxed posture with your head forward and shoulders rounded. Look right and left. Raise your arms. Try to turn your trunk to look behind you. Notice how far you can move and how comfortable it is.
Not very, right?
Now, roll your pelvis forward so you are sitting on your sit bones. Lift your chest and balance your head with your ears over your shoulders. Look right and left. Raise your arms. Try to turn your head and look behind you.
Do you feel how much freer the movement is? It’s even easier to take a deep breath when we have good posture.
Components of good posture
Having good posture is not necessarily easy. It requires the use of muscles. That might seem obvious, but often what we tend to do is hang on our ligaments and avoid using our muscles. This causes some muscles to become shortened and tight and other muscles will become weak and over stretched.
These suboptimal conditions can cause anything from headaches to shoulder pain, to hip and low back pain. It can even contribute to carpal tunnel syndrome, TMJ (jaw) pain and foot and knee pain.
How we stand still is a great example. We might stand with our hips thrust forward, hanging on those front hip ligaments. In that position we aren’t activating our abdominals or our glutes at all, giving us a belly pouch and a flat butt. Try standing up with your hips under you. Do you feel how your glutes are activated a little, your abs are pulled in slightly? What a difference! Not only do you look taller and stronger, but you probably feel better, too, right?
Why is it so hard?
Postural muscles are made for holding us up. They are endurance muscles, not power muscles. They aren’t necessarily the ones you see bodybuilders checking out in the mirror! Getting stronger postural muscles won’t give you a six pack, a defined quad, or a sexy calf, but they will definitely help you feel and move better. They are deeper and more subtle than those power muscles, but just as important.
Beyond simply having strong postural muscles, you have to retrain your brain! This long process remaps the motor pathways so our brains recognize good posture as normal and natural. It has been said that learning good posture takes 1000 posture checks a day. 1000! That’s every few minutes.
If we are trying to correct our posture, we should know that our brains recognize the old, bad posture as normal. It will take from two to six weeks of constant posture checks throughout the day to change our brains’ perception of “normal.”
What is the best posture?
All that said, any posture that is maintained for an excessive amount of time is bad. That’s because our bodies were made to move!
According to the World Health Organization. decreased activity leads to increased stiffness. Joseph Pilates, the founder of Pilates said “If your spine is stiff at 30, you are old. If it is flexible at 60, you are young.” I recommend changing positions frequently to avoid that stiffness—set an alarm for 15 to 20 minutes. It’s ok to, say, sit on one leg for a bit. As long as it is not always the same leg and not for more than 15-20 minutes at a time. Any posture that repeatedly causes us to favor one side of our body can lead to pain and weakness.
Just like in Pilates, if we know we are going to be in an unusual or new position for an extended period of time, we can use props. Here are a few tips:
- Put a towel roll or small wedge under your hips when you are sitting at a desk.
- Use a keyboard tray with a mouse pad to keep our elbows close to our sides.
- Adjust your monitors so you are looking at the top of the monitor when you gaze straight ahead to avoid that chin up posture that shortens the muscle in the back of the neck.
- Avoid that “tech neck” when you are looking down at your phone by keeping your chin in and hold the phone up a bit in front of you instead of on your stomach. This may mean you put a pillow under your elbows to help support your arms.
We can all change our posture. It takes work and persistence. But having better postural awareness and habits will set us up for healthier and more efficient bodies so we can do the activities we want and look and feel younger and healthier.