Sitting and standing put considerable pressure on the lower back; standing exerts five times more pressure than lying down, and sitting, surprisingly, is even more strenuous. In fact, researchers believe that poor sitting posture is a major contributor to low-back pain. Poor standing and lying posture aren't good for your back either.
In addition to helping prevent back and neck problems, good posture is important in positive ways. It improves your appearance and helps you project self-confidence and self-assurance. It can help you mentally and emotionally. And certainly it is worth achieving just for the aches and pains it may prevent.
As long as people aren't actually in pain, they tend to forget how delicately their backs are engineered. The three spinal curves (neck, upper, lower) need to be kept in balanced alignment, and to do this, strong, flexible muscles are important. Poor posture can strain both muscles and ligaments, making you more vulnerable to injuryas well as complicating such everyday tasks as carrying groceries or even sitting at a desk. An improperly aligned spine may narrow the space between vertebrae, thereby increasing the risk of compressed nerves.
Posture is not simply what happens when you are sitting or standing stillit's also dynamic, and includes your posture when you move. Poor posture may include many elementsrounded shoulders, protruding buttocks and abdomen, overly arched lower back, and the head pushed forward into an exaggerated position.
Symptoms of Posture Problems
- Slumped, hunched, or rounded shoulders, protruding abdomen, swayback (an excessive forward curve in the lower back), caved-in appearance of the chest
- Bent knees when walking or standing
- Back and neck pain, headaches
What Causes Posture Problems?
Poor posture may be caused by many factors, including previous injuries, disease, poor muscle tone, and emotional stress. A sedentary lifestyle can reduce muscle tone and strength and lead to bad posture. Sore, aching feet have a negative effect on posture, too. Foot pain may mean simply that you’re choosing the wrong shoes. Or you may need special supportsorthotic devicesin your shoes and an evaluation by a podiatrist. One very important factor is habit. Contrary to what some people believe, straightening up now and then isn't enough: you need to be aware ofand to practiceother strategies to improve standing and sitting. In addition, fatigue can result in bad posture.
What If You Do Nothing?
In itself, poor posture isn’t a health problem. But it won’t improve without some effort on your part, and in the meantime it can have an adverse impact on your musculoskeletal system. If you don’t take steps to improve your posture, you may eventually limit your lung expansionwhich means less energy available to your body and brainand develop chronic muscle aches, including headaches and back pains.
Home Remedies for Posture Problems
- Standing. Take a look in the mirror for these signs: a protruding abdomen, slumped or rounded shoulders, or swayback (an excessive forward curve in the lower back). Any of these could be putting extra pressure on the muscles and ligaments of your spine. A slight hollow in the lower back is natural and desirable; in fact, good standing posture maintains this and the two other natural curves that are visible from a side viewa gentle forward curve in the neck area and backward curve in the upper back. The goal is to avoid exaggerating these curves. The military stance, with chest thrust forward and shoulders and derriere pushed way back, isn’t desirable, since it creates a swayback.
- Think tall. Simply stand with your head held over your shoulders, your chin parallel to the floor, and your neck straight. Your shoulders should be level without any slumping, and in front your chest, waist, and hips should all line up.
- Practice tightening your abdominal muscles and flattening your stomach. Clasp your hands and press against the abdomen as you slowly draw in the muscles, flattening them as much as possible. Hold the position for a few seconds, then relax. Repeat three or four times, and also on occasion throughout the day. Without the hand movement, this is an almost invisible exercise that you can do anywhere.
- When standing for long periods, minimize stress on the lower back. Put one foot on a low stool or another stable object. Frequently shift your weight from one leg to another. To relax, bend over and let your head, neck, shoulders, and arms hang down briefly. Don’t stand too long in one position.
- Sitting. The extra pressure that sitting exerts on your lower back comes from the upper body shifting forward, forcing the back muscles to strain to hold you upright. Slouching increases the pressure on your lower back to about 10 to 15 times as much as when you’re lying down. Hunching over tenses the muscles in the neck and upper back. Good sitting posture involves the same slight forward curve in your lower back that’s also the key to good standing posture. The following steps can help improve your sitting posture.
- Choose a chair that firmly supports your lower back. For long periods of sitting, choose a straight chair. The chair shouldn’t be heavily padded, since that can cause excess curving of your back. It should fit under your desk or table so that you maintain your upright posture. Chair armrests are a plus, too, since you can support some of your weight on them, especially when you shift positions in the chair. Propping up reading matter also helps.
- Sit firmly back in the chair. Don’t sit on the edge. Keep your shoulders against the chair back, your chest lifted, and your upper back straight. A rolled up towel or small lumbar pillow can provide extra support. When working at a desk or table, bring your chair close enough that you needn’t lean over. Your feet should touch the floor comfortably—if they don’t, rest them on a small stool or telephone book. Sitting with your knees slightly higher than your hips can reduce excess curvature in your lower back. Crossing your legs occasionally can be a good idea, too. Change sitting positions frequently, and get up to stretch and move around every half hour, if possible.
- Adjust for work. If you’re typing or working at a computer, make sure any work you’re copying is at a comfortable level. Looking up or down for long periods can put stress on your neck, shoulders, and upper-back muscles.
- Maintain driving posture. Position your seat so that you can easily reach the wheel and get your foot on the brake and accelerator. Many seats adjust for height, so try to have your knees slightly higher than your hips. Change the seat position occasionally (tilting slightly forward or back) if you’re driving for long periods. Avoid slumping forward or sitting in a twisted position (for example, with your elbow resting heavily on the windowsill or armrest). Stop every couple of hours and stretch or walk around. If your seat provides inadequate support for your lower back, try a rolled up towel or lumbar roll. A seat pad may also help. Frequently repositioning your hands on the wheel can take some strain off upper back and neck muscles.
Some exercises to improve posture
These simple stretching and strengthening exercises target muscles (such as the hamstrings and abdominals) essential to good posture. Try to do these in the morning and again at night.
Lower-back and abdominal workout. Lie on your back with arms out to your sides. Bend your knees and raise them toward your chest. Slowly lower both knees to the floor on one side. Hold for 15 seconds. Bring knees back to starting position, keeping arms and shoulder blades on floor, then lower to other side. Repeat 5 times on each side.
Thigh stretch. Lying flat on your stomach, grasp left ankle with left hand. Press the bent leg back against your hand’s resistance. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds. Then pull that leg upward so that the heel touches your buttocks. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds, then lower your leg part way. Repeat 5 times with each leg.
Hamstring stretch. Working with a partner, sit on the floor with legs straight and hands behind you for balance. Put one leg on partner’s shoulder and press down 20 to 30 seconds. Then ask partner to press down gently just above your knee while he rises up slightly to create a passive stretch. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds. Repeat 5 times with each leg.
Neck stretch. Sitting on a stool or chair, and holding the seat with your right hand, put your left hand on the rear right side of your head. Gently pull your head down while rotating your chin to the left. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds. Change hands and repeat on the opposite side. Repeat 5 times on each side. You can also stretch your neck by gently pulling head down toward shoulder without rotating head.
Shoulder and upper back workout. Sit on a straight chair, but without touching the back. (1) With hands clasped behind your head, raise your shoulders toward your ears, then press down. (2) Press the back of your head into your hands, so that muscles along your upper spine tighten; hold for 5 seconds. (3) Press your elbows back 10 times, so that you feel the movement in your shoulder blades.
Back stretch. Hold the rim of a sink to brace yourself, with your arms straight but not locked. Place our feet hip-width apart, right under your shoulders, with knees slightly bent. With your head hanging slightly and neck muscles relaxed, let your hips sink back as if you were about to sit down. Feel the stretch down the length of your spine. Hold position for 10 seconds. Gradually straighten up. Repeat 5 times.
A simple test can make you more aware of what constitutes good posture and can help improve your spinal flexibility. Stand in a normal, relaxed posture with your back against a wall—upper back and buttocks touching it. Slip your hand into the space between your lower back and the wall; it should slide in easily and almost touch both your back and the wall. If there’s extra space, you may have a swayback. To correct it, imagine that a string is tied to the top of your head and is pulling you straight up; then tuck in your abdomen and tilt your hips so that the space between your lower back and the wall is lessened. When you walk away from the wall, try to maintain the stance and the mental image of the string.
All of the self-care measures for standing and sitting suggested above can help prevent poor posture. Here are some additional tips.
- Choose a firm mattress to support your spine. Try to avoid sleeping on your stomach—it’s better to be on your side with your knees bent. If you do sleep on your stomach, choose a large pillow that gives your shoulders some support. Whatever your customary sleeping posture, make sure your pillow supports your neck in a straight position. This may prevent neck pain and the sore muscles that can interfere with good posture when you’re awake.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Obesity is hard on the muscles in your back and abdomen and can cause bad posture.
- Avoid high heels and platform shoes. Use them only for short periods. For daily wear, especially when you’re on your feet, make sure your shoes fit and offer good support. For exercise, including walking, invest in a shoe that not only fits but supports your foot. High heels throw the back out of line and adversely affect posture.
- Get regular exercise. Besides promoting weight loss and better general health, exercise tones and strengthens the muscles that are important to good posture. Walking is one of the best ways to improve posture.
Beyond Home Remedies: When To Call Your Doctor
Contact your physician or an orthopedist if you have chronic neck or back pain caused by poor posture, or when your own efforts to correct bad posture don’t succeed.
What Your Doctor Will Do
After taking a careful history, your doctor may prescribe a course of physical therapy or recommend an exercise program. Many kinds of sports, exercise, and movement therapies can help improve posture.
The Complete Home Wellness Handbook
John Edward Swartzberg, M.D., F.A.C.P., Sheldon Margen, M.D., and the editors of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter
Updated by Remedy Health Media