Good posture may seem like a quaint, even silly thing to worry about — associated with fussy grandmothers and strict music teachers. But it's not just a cosmetic issue. Lots of things happen to your body when you have bad posture. Chronic bad posture can lead to stretched-out back muscles and contracted chest muscles, making the problem into one that snowballs over time. Those tight muscles in the shoulders and upper back can cause nerve pain or even numbness in the arms and hands, said ergonomics and wellness professional Jessica Kennedy. It can also hurt your circulation over time.
I had my own brush with the problems of bad posture a few months ago, when the muscles in my neck, chest and shoulders contracted to the point where I lost all feeling in my left hand one morning. When I spoke with my physician, she asked if I spent a lot of time with my computer and my smartphone.
Oh boy, do I ever.
But I'm certainly not alone. And the patients complaining about chronic pain in their shoulders, back and neck are getting younger and younger, Kennedy said.
"As we age, we naturally start to slouch more; but I see a lot of interns," she said. "It's about 50-50 in terms of older or younger people coming in; I see people who are fresh out of college to those about to retire."
Research from Lumo BodyTech, which makes a small wearable device that buzzes when you've slouched for too long, has also found that there's also an emotional cost to slouching." Even a few minutes of "bad posture increases your level of stress and can cause problems from heart issues to headaches," said Tansy Brook, a research lead at the company. The company has also found that good posture improves self-confidence, particularly among women, who tend to have poorer posture than men.
"Men are told and taught to stand tall, whereas women tend to try and minimize themselves," Brook said. "Girls who become very tall feel self-conscious about it and develop bad posture to hide that." The same goes, she added, for well-endowed women who want to avoid drawing attention to their chests.
As with nearly any problem, awareness is the best way to fight it — preferably before you get to the tingling/numbing stage.
Learn what makes good posture and conduct regular checks: The name of the game here, really, is muscle memory. You have to check posture regularly to retrain your body to stand like a human. The Lumo Lift, Lumo's wearable, is actually designed to do exactly that: users attach the brooch-like $100 device to their shirts and set it to buzz when their shoulders are slumped for too long. The device connects to a smartphone app that tells you how you're doing that day, and over time.
Kennedy said you can also set reminders on your phone every hour or so to see if you're slouching.
The easiest way to learn what good posture feels like, by the way, is to stand against a wall with the back of your head touching it and your feet about 6 inches away. You should have less than two inches between your neck and the wall — the same goes for the small of your back.
Another quick check to do throughout the day is to check the position of your head. It's easy to get into the habit of pushing your head forward to get a closer look at the screen in front of you, but you should be keeping your head back a bit more — if your ears are over your shoulders, you're doing it right.
Lumo has found that its users tend to slouch most in the mid-afternoon — that slump we all get after lunch — so that's a particularly good time to think about checks. I've been using the Lumo Lift pretty regularly for two months now — in addition to the exercises recommended by my physical therapist — and have definitely noticed improvement.
At the very least, I now notice when I'm slouching — a small indication that it's at least no longer my default position.
Stretch: Regardless of how you stand, you should be taking some breaks from the computer throughout the day. So when you go get that cup of coffee or take a short jaunt around the block, consider adding a few stretches to the mix.
Kennedy recommends shoulder rolls and head bends as easy things you can do to help the muscles that keep you standing tall. "It's amazing how beneficial it is to the body," she said. "You just need to keep those muscles loose throughout the day."
For a slightly more advanced move, you can also do the "doorway stretch," in which you hold your upper arms parallel to the floor with your elbows bent and palms facing forward. (Mimic a football goalpost, basically.) Then place one hand on either side of a doorway and put one foot forward. That stretches out the muscles in your chest.
Chin tucks are also really helpful both as a reminder to keep your head back and as a way to stretch your neck muscles. Just tuck your chin into your neck and hold it for two seconds. As a much more subtle exercise, this is one you can do at your desk.
Raise your phone up when you look at it: This one's simple: When you're looking at your phone, hold it up in front of you rather than looking down at it.
You've probably thought about the set-up of the computer on your desk, and tried to keep the screens level with your eyes. But you should be doing the same with your phone, tablet and laptop if you're spending any significant time with it.
That's even true for when you're walking — really, for the best posture you shouldn't be looking toward the ground, but ahead of you. And at least if your head is up — even if you're looking at a screen — you'll probably be less likely to walk into things.
How are you sleeping?: Kennedy also said that those concerned about their posture should think about how they sleep. When people have posture-related back or shoulder problems, she said, they tend to sleep on the side that curls up the most — particularly if you're cozying up to a screen while you're drifting off to sleep.
But consider putting the devices away once you're in bed. "We encourage people, when you're falling asleep, to sleep on your back," she said, to avoid having a rounded back while you snooze.