Psst ... Hey! Wanna know a secret? Here's how to look up to 10 pounds thinner, have your clothes look better, and ooze confidence with every step you take. And you might just get rid of your tension headaches and lower back pain while you're at it. Sounds like a bad late-night infomercial, right? It's not. You may actually achieve these things if you pay attention to an often neglected area of body conditioning -- your posture.
"You would be amazed at what a difference making a few simples changes in how you hold your body can make in not only how you look, how your clothes fit, even how young you look," says personal trainer Sue Fleming, creator of the Buff Fitness line of DVDs and books.
Posture expert Janice Novak agrees. "We spend a lot of money on our clothes, our hair, our makeup, but without good posture, your midsection can look at least a couple of inches wider than it is -- and because you are also pushing your gut forward you are creating a potbelly that might not otherwise be there," says Novak, director of ImproveYourPosture.com and author of the Posture: Get It Straight series of books and DVDs.
What's more, she says, your posture influences how others see you.
"They did some research about 10 years ago at the University of Louisville where 60 people were asked to rate the appearance of two women in a series of pictures -- in some they were slumping, in others they were standing up straight . Consistently, viewers rated the women who were standing up straight to be younger and more attractive," Novak says.
In fact, she says, when subjects looked only at the bodies of the women, (their heads were masked) the researchers found that the woman who weighed more -- 125 pounds, compared to the 105-pound model -- was perceived as thinner and more attractive simply because she was standing up and taller.
Personal trainer Jessica Bottesch isn't surprised. "When you slump over, you lose inches in your height, so you are taking whatever your body mass is and scrunching it down, making yourself look shorter and wider," says Bottesch, co-owner of Empower Personal Training studios in North Carolina.
But, Fleming says, "when your body is in alignment, your head is sitting squarely on your shoulders, and your shoulders are pulled back with your core muscles pulled in, you not only increase your height and stretch out your body mass, making you look thinner, but you're also projecting an image of confidence, of being more alert, and more youthful -- all of which makes you look more attractive."
Posture and Your Health
If vanity isn't enough motivation to get you to stand taller, experts say posture can also affect your health.
"Low back pain, shoulder pain, neck pain, tension headaches, trigger points in neck or shoulders, sometimes tightness and stiffness -- all of these problems can occur when our skeleton is thrown out of alignment via bad posture," Bottsech says.
In a study presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America in 2006, doctors found that the typical "slouch" is linked to higher rates of wear and tear on the spine, which is often a contributing factor to chronic lower back pain.
In another study published in the journal Headache, researchers found that people whose posture caused their heads to jut forward had more frequent, longer, and more severe headaches than people who maintained a correct posture.
But even if you don't experience any short-term health consequences, you may not be off the posture hook.
Over time, studies show, faulty body alignment can lead to actual skeletal damage, including degeneration of the disks and joints, and even a breakdown of cartilage that can leave you achy and less mobile in your later years.
This may be particularly important for women at risk for osteoporosis. In a study published in the journal Bone and Mineral Research in 2006, researchers found that posture that continually causes the head to jut forward (known as hyperkyphotic posture) was linked to a higher risk of fractures in women aged 47-92 -- independent of bone mineral density or even a history of fracture.
The Big Slump: Why Our Posture Is So Bad
Right now, you're probably remembering all those times Mom whispered in your ear "stand up straight". And of course, she was right. But if you're also thinking poor posture is only about what goes on when you're standing, you're missing much off the message. Novak says slumping when we're sitting is by far the more serious problem.
"Over the last two decades we've become a nation of professional sitters, and what' I've experienced dealing with posture over the last 20 years is that most of the problems people experience are actually linked to the positions they assume while working on computers," Novak says.
Hunching over your keyboard, she says, causes muscles in the upper back to stretch and the corresponding muscles in the chest to tighten. This, in turn, pushes the head forward and the ribcage down.
Assuming that posture day in and day out can cause you to not only slump every time you're at your desk, but eventually, even when you're standing, Fleming says.
"Actual structural changes can begin to take place so that ultimately you're slumped over all the time and standing up straight can actually become painful and difficult," Fleming says.
Exercises to Improve Posture: The 1-Minute Solution
Although changing your posture may seem like a daunting task, experts say real change can come about fairly quickly. Novak says you can begin the process in less than a minute, with an "instant" realignment technique for joints and bones.
How's it done? "From either a standing or sitting position, simply lift your sternum, (the breast bone in the center of your chest) up just an inch or two. It will dramatically change what is going in with your posture instantly," says Novak, who details several other similar techniques in her new DVD.
What's going on, she says, is that you're lifting your rib cage up off of your midsection and stopping the curve in the back that takes place when you slump forward. More important, she says "it helps you get your head back over your shoulders where it belongs, plus it takes the stress off of the back and neck muscles."
Novak says doing that one other move each time you find yourself slumping forward will net you some real change in your day-to-day posture in as little as 3 weeks' time.
"If you also add in a motion where you squeeze your shoulder blades together towards your spine, and tuck them down as if you were trying to put them in your back pocket, you'll begin to strengthen the back muscles that will give additional support to your posture, so you may even see results sooner," says Novak.
If you want to boost your posture even more, Bottsech says, try exercises that build core and upper back strength, so your midsection can be well supported.
"When your core and your upper back are strong, it not only makes it easier to stand up tall and straight, but it also helps overcome some of the health-related problems created by the muscle imbalances of poor posture, including lower back pain and neck pain," says Bottsech.
To help get you started, Bottsech offers these three simple core strength and posture exercises. Be sure to check with your doctor first if you have any back, neck, or spine issues. And if any exercise causes pain or is extremely difficult, stop and consult a physician or a personal trainer before continuing.
Pelvic Tilt: Lie on your back with knees bent and feet on the floor. Place a folded towel under your lower back. Engage your abdominals by drawing your navel toward your spine as you press your lower back into the towel. Hold 5 seconds. Repeat 10-15 times.
Arm Sweeps: Sit on the floor with knees bent, heels touching the floor and toes lifted. Extend arms to each side and rotate your body, lifting the right arm toward the ceiling as the left arm touches the floor behind you. Reverse and lift left arm toward the ceiling while right arm twists to touch the ground behind you. Repeat 10-15 times.
Cross-Over Crunch: Lie on the floor with knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Place one hand behind your head for support. Engaging your abdominal muscles, slowly lift head, neck and shoulders, and bring left elbow to right knee. Lower slowly and repeat on opposite side. Repeat 10-15 times.