By Check Mark Icon│insider.com│5 min
Here’s why good posture is important for your health and five exercises to help you improve it.
Why is good posture important?
“In good posture, the bones are lined up on top of each other like children’s blocks, carrying the weight of the body,” says Karen Erickson, DC, a chiropractor in New York City and fellow of the American College of Chiropractic. “Good posture allows the bones to support weight, allowing the muscles to work the least. Poor posture causes the muscles to overwork.”
Poor posture can flatten out or accentuate the natural curves in our spines, causing chronic pain and serious health issues. In fact, this is becoming increasingly common due to the amount of time people spend sitting at a desk or looking down at their smartphones.
According to Erickson, poor posture can result in:
- Neck and back pain
- Excessive wear and tear on the joints and discs
- Decreased flexibility
- Breathing problems
- Gastrointestinal problems
Excessive wear and tear on the joints and discs in the spine due can also cause the spine to deteriorate. This can compress the spinal cord or nerves, which may result in numbness, tingling, or burning in the hands and feet, says Joseph Gjolaj, MD, an orthopedic surgeon and associate professor of Clinical Orthopaedics at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
Common posture mistakes
Bad posture is common, and there are few activities that can increase your risk of developing poor posture. This includes:
Sitting. Spending a lot of time sitting causes the natural forward curve in the thoracic spine to become accentuated. “That closes down our rib cage and our lungs, and it’s hard to take a deep breath,” Gjolaj says.
A small 2018 study of healthy men found that poor posture — with the head tilted forward, sticking out beyond the shoulders, or the head tilted to one side — reduced their respiratory function.
Texting. Looking down at a smartphone or other device can cause “text neck,” a repetitive strain injury that generates pain in the neck and shoulders.
An adult’s head weighs about 10 to 12 pounds. But when the head tilts forward, as people tend to do when looking at smartphones, the spine bears dramatically more weight than that, according to a 2014 study.
Being overweight. People who are overweight may be more likely to have spinal and joint pain. “Excessive weight in the spine will cause the spine to break down, and that causes the spine to fall into a bad posture as it deteriorates,” Gjolaj says.
5 exercises to improve posture
“Many of these exercises aim to counteract the effects of bad posture so our body finds that equilibrium again,” Gjolaj says. “The longer we maintain a poor posture, the more the muscles learn that posture, and then it’s hard to break it.”
You should do each of these exercises at least once a day, for 10 repetitions each, Gjolaj says. Then, as you get used to them, you can increase reps. According to Gjolaj, you might see some minor improvements in a few days, but because these exercises build muscle back up, it will probably take a few weeks to see more noticeable improvements.
1. Backward bend
- While standing, place your hands behind your back, at the top of your buttocks.
- Keep your feet shoulder-width apart, with your toes turned slightly out.
- Bend your head, shoulders, and back backward.
- Slowly return to standing.
- Lie on your stomach, with your hands on the ground under your shoulders.
- Push up, attempting to straighten your elbows, so that your spine arches back gently.
- Keep your hips and legs on the ground.
- Use your arms (rather than your back muscles) to hold yourself up.
- Lower back down.
3. Doorway chest stretch
- Stand in a doorway with your forearms on the doorway and your back straight.
- Step through the doorway until you feel a stretch in your chest area.
- Hold for 10-15 seconds.
4. Standing chest stretch
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Interlock your fingers behind your back, with your palms facing up.
- Draw your shoulders back and down, keeping your arms straight, without arching your back.
- You should feel the stretch across your chest and shoulders.
5. Neck presses
This trio of exercises uses resistance to strengthen your neck. Hold each of them for 10 seconds.
1. Press your palm against your forehead and use your neck muscles to push against it.
2. Press your palm against your temple and push against your palm. Repeat on each side.
3. Cup both hands behind your head and press back into your hands.
This exercise is important because, as you slouch over a desk or look down to text, you lose the muscle balance in the front and back of the neck, Gjolaj says.
More tips for good posture
It may also be helpful to try and spend less time sitting. “The most life-changing advice I can give anyone is simply: Don’t sit. For the first time in history, people sit for more hours than they sleep,” Erickson says.
To minimize the time you spend sitting, you can:
- Use a standing desk
- Have walking meetings at work
- Walk while visiting with friends
- Stand or pace while talking on the phone
“If you have to sit, make sure the chair has good support,” Erickson says. Your heels should be under your knees, not tucked under the chair, and your knees and hips should be bent at a 90-degree angle. “Put your screen at eye level and the keyboard at elbow level. Ideally, let your elbows drop to your side,” she says. And when you do text or look at your phone or device, hold it at eye level, so your head doesn’t tilt down.
Spending a lot of time sitting or looking down at your phone can harm your posture, but you can be more mindful of your posture and take some steps to correct it.
These exercises are basic, but they are a good starting point to see if you can improve your posture on your own, Gjolaj says. If that doesn’t work, seek advice from a qualified medical professional, “because these conditions left untreated can become severe,” he says. “Don’t just sit on it and expect that it’s going to go away. It’s not that kind of problem.”
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