Posture can worsen with age and cause back, neck, and shoulder pain. Adopting corrective lifestyle habits can help you stand up straighter.
Most people are familiar with the telltale look of aging — the slouching posture that makes men look small and feeble. Age can wear down the discs in your spine, which causes them to compress. "This is one reason why men lose height as they get older," says Dr. David Binder of the Orthopaedic Spine Center at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.
Still, most changes in posture are a result of bad habits, such as sitting hunched over and not standing correctly. "Over time, these habits can create muscle weakness and imbalances that trigger spasms and place stress on your neck, low back, and shoulders," says Dr. Binder.
Poor posture also can interfere with an active life. You can lose strength and flexibility, which makes you susceptible to injury. "You also may compensate for your limitations and imbalances by adjusting your posture when you sit and stand, which can only worsen your natural alignment," says Dr. Binder.
What is good posture?
Good posture is a combination of mechanics and muscle. "Healthy posture depends on the right movements and alignments of your hips, spine, neck, and jaw, as well as surrounding muscles that offer support," says Dr. Binder.
Everyone's ideal posture is different, as it depends on your height and body composition. The best way to identify the right posture for you is to see a physical therapist. "He or she can measure the angles of your neck and back when you sit, stand, and walk, and then teach you the correct posture and alignment you need to attain." Here are some other tips to follow:
Move around. Holding any position for a long time can lead to pain. If you have to sit or stand for long periods, try setting a timer on your phone, or a fitness tracker if you wear one, to remind you to get up at least every 20 minutes and move around. "This helps to reduce muscle fatigue and muscle strain that lead to slouching," says Dr. Binder.
Place your TV closer. If your television screen is too far away, you may subconsciously lean in or hunch over, so make sure it is at an appropriate distance. The screen size often dictates the best distance.
A general rule is to sit five or six feet from a 40- to 47-inch TV displaying good-quality HD, and at least six or eight feet from a 50-inch or larger TV. (An online calculator can help you find the right distance: www.health.harvard.edu/htc.)
Get your vision checked. Poor eyesight can make you thrust your head forward in order to read. See an optometrist every year, or as directed by your physician.
Adopt posture-improving exercise. A physical therapist can design an all-around muscle strengthening and stretching program that you can do at home, based on your needs.
Other forms of exercise also can help. For instance, yoga and tai chi emphasize range of motion and offer postures and movements that work to expand the chest and emphasize proper alignment.
A simple exercise called a wall slide also can help loosen tightness in the back and shoulders that can cause slumping. Here's how to do it.
- Stand against a wall so your tailbone, shoulder blades, and head are all pressed against the surface.
- Place your hands on the wall at shoulder level with your elbows bent at 45 degrees and your palms facing forward.
- Slowly extend your arms up the wall. Raise your hands as far as is comfortable while keeping your tailbone, shoulder blades, and head stationary and in constant contact with the wall.
- Slowly return to the starting position. You should take about five to 10 seconds to reach up, and another five to 10 seconds to lower your arms.
- Repeat eight to 12 times, or three to five times if you suffer from shoulder problems.
Better posture, better mood
A preliminary study suggests an upright posture may improve symptoms of depression. The study, in the March 2017 Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, involved 61 people with mild to moderate depression. The group as a whole was more likely to sit with stooped shoulders and a rounded back compared with people who did not have depression. Half the people were allowed to sit in their usual slouched position, and the other half sat upright, with physiotherapy tape placed on their shoulders and back to help them maintain good posture. Both groups underwent tests designed to raise stress levels and then filled out questionnaires to measure their mood symptoms. The researchers found that those who sat in the upright posture had lower levels of fatigue and anxiety.
Image: © Jupiterimages/Thinkstock
As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.