A straight-up guide to good posture

Good posture is important in many ways. It improves your appearance and helps you project self-confidence and self-assurance. It is worth achieving just for the aches and pains it may prevent. In particular, bad posture may contribute to back pain, and conversely, back pain can adversely affect your posture. Once your back starts hurting, it becomes a vicious cycle.

Unfortunately, for many of us, good posture does not come naturally. So long as people aren't actually in pain, they tend to forget how delicately their backs are engineered. The three spinal curves—neck, upper back, and lower back—need to be kept in balanced alignment. Sitting and standing exert pressure on the lower back. Sitting is actually harder on the back than standing, and standing is five times as demanding on the spine and muscles as lying down.

Strong, flexible muscles are important in keeping the spinal curves aligned. Poor posture can strain both muscles and ligaments, making you more vulnerable to injury—as well as making everyday tasks, such as carrying groceries, more difficult. It can narrow the space between vertebrae, thereby increasing the risk of compressed nerves. Bad posture can also increase the wear on joint surfaces, and thus may also contribute to the development of osteoarthritis.

Posture is not simply what happens when you are sitting or standing still. It's also dynamic—that is, how you hold yourself when you move. Poor posture includes many telltale elements

  • rounded shoulders
  • protruding buttocks and abdomen
  • overly arched lower back
  • head pushed forward in an exaggerated position

It may go along with previous injuries, certain medical conditions, poor muscle tone, and emotional stress. A sedentary lifestyle can reduce muscle strength and lead to bad posture.

Contrary to what some people may believe, "straightening up" now and then isn't enough. Retraining postural habits takes time and effort.

Evaluating your posture

If you are having neck pain or back pain, your doctor may evaluate you and refer you to a physical therapist or other professional. But you can begin to evaluate your posture on your own. You can also work with a partner and inspect each other's posture.

From the side: Stand before a full-length mirror, naked or in tight clothing and flat shoes; use a hand mirror to see yourself in the long mirror. Assume your normal posture and do the following:

  • Imagine dots at the front of your earlobe and shoulder, at the center of your hip, just behind your kneecap, and just in front of your ankle bone. Connect these dots—they should form a straight vertical line.
  • Notice how your back curves. There should be a mild inward curve behind your neck and lower back. Your upper back should curve slightly outward.
  • Check your chin. It should normally be parallel to the floor but not thrust forward.

Sit in a straight armless chair. You should still be able to draw a straight vertical line from earlobe to hip, and the three natural curves of your back should be visible.

From the front:

  • When standing, your hips, shoulders, and knees should be level—one side should not be higher than the other. The spaces between your arms and waist should be the same on each side. Your kneecaps should face straight ahead, your ankles should be straight (not rolling inward), and your head should also be straight.
  • When sitting, your shoulders should be at equal height, knees facing forward, and ankles straight.

Source: Originally published in The University of California, Berkeley Wellness Letter (May 2011)

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at HealthCommunities.com

Published: 04 Apr 2011

Last Modified: 21 Jul 2015