When you consider your health and fitness, nutrition and exercise are the obvious correlations. We eat well for good health, and we break a regular sweat to improve our fitness. But what if we’re missing something simpler and far more fundamental in our approach to wellness?
In theory, the body is designed to be symmetrical. Ideally, your muscles should get equal use on the left and right sides, and all your systems should be interconnected. Unfortunately, that’s not often the case. Injury, habitual one-sided use, and too much time on the couch (or at your desk) render the human body out of whack.
“If your posture is off, you’re bringing improper alignment into everything you do and compromising the efficiency of everything from your workouts to your energy levels,” says renowned physiologist Pete Egoscue.
Here are eight ways that improving your posture will enhance your life, and three strategies to help you straighten yourself out.
1. It will make you more confident
Primally, your posture reflects whether you’re a predator or prey, whether you’re thriving or weak, says Egoscue. Slouching was a way to protect vital organs during attack. To stand tall, however, showed that humans were not in fight-or-flight mode. Today, good posture communicates that you’re physiologically healthy and strong—the opposite of weak prey.
A 2017 study in the British Journal of Psychology found that we judge others as more competent if they stand with strong posture as compared to neutral or weak. But it’s not just about perception: Posture can actually help you feel more confident about your own abilities. In an older study from Ohio State University, when people sat up straight while filling out job applications, they were more confident that the positive qualifications they wrote down were true compared to when slumped at their desk.
2. You’ll be able to breathe easier
“Poor posture can place compression on and limit the effectiveness of the stomach, intestines, lungs, and other vital organs,” says Alexa Rohach, a physical therapist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center’s Performance Therapy in Santa Monica, CA. Try this: Sit in an upright position, shoulders back, chest out, and take a deep breath in. Now, lean forward and slouch your shoulders, and take another deep breath. It’s nearly impossible to take in a full breath in a slouched position.
Research out of Saudi Arabia shows healthy lung muscles aren’t able to draw air in as well when they were slouching versus sitting upright. Meanwhile, a 2016 study in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science reports that even the poor posture we assume when we’re typing on our phones is enough to restrict our ability to breathe properly and efficiently. “Breathing, digestion, and bladder function—as well as other major organs—are all much more efficient when the body is aligned appropriately,” Rohach confirms.
3. You’ll digest food better
Poor posture compresses everything in your trunk, including your stomach and intestines. “What moves broken-down food through your small and large intestines is peristalsis, the undulation of the colon,” Egoscue explains. This movement comes from your diaphragm, which drops down into the abdominal cavity as you breathe, and your hip, back, and abdominal muscles all contract as a response. This tighten-and-release helps facilitate peristalsis, but only if your trunk is stretched with room to move rather than compressed, Egoscue says.
To top it off, when you sit with bad form—that is, your hips posteriorly tilted and your butt tucked under—the unnatural curve in your spine causes your transverse colon (the middle of your intestines) to jam up into the thoracic cavity, impinging the nerve that triggers the diaphragm to drop with each breath. The result: Everything literally stops. “You can take all the psyllium supplements in the world, eat all the roughage, but if you’re sitting with poor posture all day, nothing is going to move out of your colon,” Egoscue says.
4. You’ll burn more fat and have a stronger core
“Good posture may not directly result in six-pack abs, but it will definitely strengthen the core muscles that support the body,” says Rohach. Your core muscles support your spine, so staying erect keeps them engaged. Initially, the body may utilize more calories as it works to stay upright. As time goes on and your core muscles become stronger, they become more efficient at maintaining alignment without effort, and good posture becomes inherent, Rohach adds.
And it’s not just your core that will benefit. “The more you allow your big postural muscles—shoulder girdle, pelvis, hip girdle, knees and ankles—to engage as you walk around throughout the day, the more energy you burn while simultaneously becoming more posturally sound,” Egoscue says.
That higher energy burn boosts your metabolism, but also helps you become more efficient in how you expend energy. “We’re an all-terrain vehicle, designed for tremendous feats of physical accomplishment. When all the muscles are doing their job, we become incredibly efficient not only in the fuel we’re putting in, but the capabilities we’re putting out,” Egoscue says. It’s like having all eight cylinders of an engine firing versus just a few—you are capable of reaching the full potential your machine was designed for.
5. It will boost your mood and relieve anxiety
Just changing your posture can actually ease anxiety, according to a 2018 study in NeuroRegulation. The authors explain that when we feel threatened, we tighten our muscles, lift our shoulders toward our ears, and hold our breath. These movements, which happen naturally when we are anxious, tell our brain and nervous system there’s a threat, and so the body should be on guard. But doing the opposite—sitting up straight, shoulders down, relaxing tension—communicates to our body that it doesn’t need to engage the fight-or-flight response.
What’s more, tuning in to your posture can be a form of mindfulness. A 2017 study in Trends in Psychiatry Psychotherapy found this to be an effective way to treat mood and anxiety disorders. “When you bring your consciousness, brain, and spirit into the present moment, you’re letting go of the worry about yesterday or tomorrow and instead allowing yourself to be present and calm,” Egoscue confirms.
This has a domino effect. “If your emotional state is, ‘All is well,’ then the thoughts naturally flow from there, and you become a positive person with a positive outlook,” Egoscue says.
6. You’ll have fewer headaches
Because poor posture compresses your joints and creates undue tension, it’s no surprise that it can exacerbate headaches.
When you are sitting at a computer, you’re likely slouching forward, rounding the shoulders, and pushing the head forward. “These poor mechanics compress joints in both the neck and low back, tighten the shoulder muscles, and weaken the core,” says Rohach. “Furthermore, this joint compression can alter the feedback the brain receives about body position. If this occurs often, it can lead to the onset of frequent headaches and joint pain.”
In fact, a 2016 study from Italy found when people regularly took breaks during their workday to do head and neck relaxation exercises, they had significantly less muscle tenderness and fewer headaches.
7. You’ll have more energy
When your body is in optimal alignment, everything functions better. But there are two specific ways better posture leads to more energy. Remember how sitting up straight allows your lungs to function better? In addition to deeper breaths, people have better blood flow to and from their lungs when standing upright, according to a 2017 study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology. Since oxygen is transported via blood, better blood flow means more oxygen throughout your system, which translates to more energy, Egoscue points out.
Second, better posture also means that you generate a higher cell exchange, Egoscue adds. Every muscle in the body requires energy. More energy means a faster cell exchange for everything from glucose to clearing out waste. ”The faster this exchange happens, the more efficient and healthy the cell is, and therefore the energy level of the human is higher,” Egoscue says.
8. You’ll get a better workout
“When you’re in a good upright position with minimal strain on your body, the joints have normal mobility and, therefore, the surrounding muscles can work much more efficiently to support these structures. This directly translates to how they will perform during gym workouts and day-to-day activities,” says Rohach.
You know that all your power comes from being hip-driven. “When people bring a dysfunctional body to a workout, the hips are under-activated and you’re only getting a small percentage of the actual work from a workout. But if you are posturally functional and moving from the hips, then you’re bulletproof in both the motion and motionless world,” Egoscue says.
Related: The Feel Good Workout
Convinced? Here’s How to Improve Your Posture
Good posture means your body is optimally aligned and in homeostasis. Your muscles are neither shortened nor lengthened, and your body has a natural tension (but not stress) on the surrounding muscles. Here are a few simple ways to make daily improvements.
1. Pull your shoulders back
Ideally, you should sit and stand with your feet hip-width apart and parallel to one another. Your shoulders are locked back and down, core engaged. Our shoulders are typically the first to go, Egoscue says, as we reach forward for the keyboard or look down at our phones. Once our top load-bearing joints are off, the curve in our spine and tilt of our hips follow shortly after.
2. Get up and walk around at least once an hour
Your hips are the driver of your body. When you engage and move from your hips, all other alignment will follow, Egoscue says. The problem: Your glutes and psoas have become trained to take the backseat as we sit all day. Adding some motion throughout the day can do wonders. And when you plop back down, it’ll remind your body that sitting properly is an active state rather than the passive one most of us treat it as, Egoscue says.