What if someone told you there was a way to add height to your frame, trim some flab from around your middle, and look more vibrant -- instantly, and without spending a cent? You'd sign up, right away, of course.
The truth is, you can get all these benefits from following a simple bit of advice your mother gave you long ago: Stand up straight.
In the rush to become leaner, stronger, healthier versions of our former selves, many of us neglect our posture. Yet fitness experts who spoke to WebMD say posture is an essential part of the way we look and feel.
Why Posture Matters
The No. 1 reason to stand tall? It looks better.
"When we're slumped over, our folds of excess flab are bunched together," says Lynn Millar, PhD, PT, a professor of physical therapy at Andrews University and a fellow at the American College of Sports Medicine.
The opposite is true, too.
"Good posture makes you look younger, thinner, and taller," says Rebecca Gorrell, a movement therapist at the famed Canyon Ranch Spa. "Other people will see you as more energetic and relaxed."
But that's not all. Good posture, as it turns out, is good for you.
"Forget what it looks like; it's a matter of functioning," says Joan Breibart, president of New York's PhysicalMind Institute and a pioneer of the U.S. Pilates movement.
Most people hunch over when they stand, or sit with one leg crossed over the other, notes Breibart. "This creates compression, by stretching certain ligaments too much and others not enough, throwing the body out of balance," she explains.
When we improve our posture and relieve this compression, bodily benefits naturally follow, according to Breibart: "The internal organs function properly, respiration deepens, the joints are lubricated, blood flows properly."
A balanced body also helps keep joint pain at bay. "Most clinicians agree that people with good posture tend to have fewer muscle imbalances and in turn, less joint pain," Millar says.
For people who suffer from certain health conditions, posture takes on special significance.
Consider stroke victims. They are often left with a severe imbalance in their muscles, resulting in poor posture. "If we can get them into better posture, we open their lungs up and get them breathing better so they fatigue less easily," Millar says.
Good posture may also make for easier breathing for people with asthma.
"We can't prevent asthma," Millar tells WebMD. "But data show that if we can improve posture, we use our diaphragm more when we breathe, which aids in respiration and can decrease the severity of an asthmatic attack."
Good posture can also help those with scoliosis, or curvature of the spine. "You can't change your skeleton, but you can minimize the effects of scoliosis and remove the discomfort it causes," Breibart tells WebMD. The same holds true for osteoporosis, she explains.
What Does Good Posture Look Like?
"There's something called 'ideal posture', and then there's the posture you normally see," Breibart says.
Millar concurs, estimating that 80% of the adult U.S. population could stand to improve their posture.
"In ideal posture, everything is lined up -- from the top of your head to the toes of your feet -- so that you're not having to resist gravity in a way that exhausts the body," Breibart tells WebMD. In this more suspended state, you should feel weightless, she says.
How do you achieve ideal posture?
"Think of pulling the entire body up, as with a string," Millar advises. From a side view, that invisible string would follow right behind and through the ear, just behind the midline of the neck, down through the shoulder joint and the hip joint, then slightly in front of the knee's midline, and in front of the ankle joint, explains Millar.
How can you tell if you're doing it right? "Look in the mirror. You can't fix your posture unless you can see it," Breibart says.
You may be shocked to see what's staring back at you.
Why We Slouch
When you consider modern-day living, our often-poor posture comes as no surprise.
Some of our daily habits promote "side-to-side imbalances," in which one shoulder is forced higher than the other.
"We're carrying laptops and large purses on the same shoulder, with cell phones squeezed in between the ear and the shoulder. Or we're sitting in our cars with cell phones crouched in our ears. All these things create side-to-side imbalances," says Michele Olson, PhD, professor of exercise physiology at Auburn University and a spokesperson for the American College of Sports Medicine.
Other habits -- like long stretches in front of a computer screen or behind the wheel of a car -- leave our spines stuck in a forward-hunching position.
Simply changing how you sit in front of our computer can do wonders for your posture. Millar suggests the following: sit with your trunk erect, not leaning back or slouching forward; uncross your knees and bend them at a 90-degree angle; line up your head over your shoulders; and keep your eyes level with the computer screen.
If you want to improve your posture plus strengthen your trunk muscles while staring at the computer screen, Olson suggests forgoing the usual desk chair and sitting on an inflatable physio ball (also called an exercise ball).
"These balls help prevent trunk muscles from getting lazy because you're forced to use them to keep you upright," Olson tells WebMD. "They also help us naturally relieve the joints of undue stress. "
Mistakes Active People Make
A sedentary lifestyle isn't the only thing wrecking our posture. You can find plenty of bad posture at your local gym, too.
"You see people on the Stairmaster, and they're usually not aware of their posture. They're often hunched over, their head buried in a book," Olson tells WebMD. This increases an unwanted curve in the spine and places undue pressure on the lower back.
If this sounds familiar, try this the next time you hit the Stairmaster:
- Slow down the machine to a level where you can comfortably rest your fingertips on the handrails -- don't grip the handlebars,
- Look straight ahead. If you must read a book or magazine, make sure it's at eye level.
Curved spines abound in yet another popular gym pursuit -- indoor cycling.
"In indoor cycling class, people are often working harder than they should, which is forcing them to hunch over the handlebars," Olson says. She suggests that they slow down to where they can maintain a relatively flat, upright back.
Overworking certain muscles while ignoring others also leads to postural imbalances.
"It's easy to see pectoral and abdominal muscles," Millar says. So people tend to focus on them, but neglect other muscles that help support good posture, like those in the back.
Some sports can also be problematic.
"Golfers often develop imbalances in their torso, because they're constantly swinging from left to right, and that can lead to poor posture," Gorrell tells WebMD. She suggests that golfers compensate by swinging the opposite way twice after hitting the ball.
"Tennis and racquetball also create a bit of a muscular imbalance," she says. Switching the side you hit from can minimize these imbalances.
Some increasingly popular fitness options -- like Pilates, yoga, tai chi, the Alexander technique, and Feldenkrais -- focus on better body awareness, with improved posture being one of their primary benefits.
"People are tired of going for the burn," Breibart tells WebMD. Indeed, last year, IBM Magazine named Pilates the No. 1 trend in the fitness industry. Pilates works to develop a strong "core," or center of the body, by engaging the muscles of the abdominals, lower back, upper leg, and pelvic floor. Pilates instructors often refer to this group of muscles as the "powerhouse."
A strong powerhouse can indeed improve posture and decrease the risk of injury from muscle imbalances. But keep in mind that it's not a good idea to jump right into advanced Pilates moves -- particularly if you're not used to using this group of muscles.
"A progressive program ... with more basic movements would be warranted for some people prior to attempting conventional Pilates exercises," advises Fabio Comana, MS, personal trainer and spokesperson for the American Council of Exercise.
Bottom line, the experts say, is that paying closer attention to your body and its alignment -- however you choose to do it -- will result in better posture.
"You need to find out how the body needs to work," Breibart says. "Posture isn't hard. It's just that we've always ignored it,"