The other day, I caught a glimpse of myself in an office window and noticed that I wore my body awkwardly, like an ill-fitting suit. My back was stiff. My head poked forward. My shoulders rounded inward slightly, which might have looked natural if I were moving in to hug someone, but I wasn't.
My rumpled reflection was a wake-up call. After years of slumping over a keyboard, I had developed the posture of a wilted parsley stalk. It was time to do something about it. But as I discovered, straightening up is not as straightforward as it might seem.
Improving one's posture is not merely about looking better, although it's hard to deny the allure of appearing more poised, confident and self-possessed. Some studies have linked poor posture with a greater risk of sports and overuse injuries. There's debate over the extent to which it leads to neck and back pain, but even experts who are skeptical that posture is a primary cause of pain agree it can be, at least, a contributing factor.
So it's no wonder that posture correction is big business. Wearable activity trackers and apps, such as Lumo Lift and Upright, serve as virtual posture coaches, giving users instant feedback whenever they sense them slouching. Posture-correction garments, such as the Up Shirt, are designed to pull the wearers' shoulders back when they start to hunch forward, while Alignmed workout gear claims to stimulate specific muscle groups to keep wearers in proper form. Ergonomic seats such as the BackJoy SitSmart promise to position one's body in correct posture.
But what exactly is ideal posture? Are you supposed to tuck your tail bone in, as a yoga teacher once told me? Or is it better to release your pelvis? Do you roll your shoulders back? Or let them drop away from your ears?
"You ask medical doctors, they don't know what good posture means. You ask fitness club people, they probably each have a different idea about good posture. Ballet people, they think good posture is ballet [posture]," says Toshie Okabe, a Toronto posture teacher and former professional ballet dancer. "We don't really have a good standard for good posture."
In fact, the closest I could find to a commonly agreed upon definition of good posture was described by Prof. Leon Straker of the school of physiotherapy and exercise science at Curtin University in Perth, Australia.
"Traditionally we have thought of 'good' spinal posture as being upright and avoiding the increased mechanical loading that comes with bent and twisted postures," he wrote in an e-mail. That is, good posture is whatever way we hold our bodies that creates the least amount of strain.
Since everybody's different, it's difficult to be more precise. The ideal, most strain-free posture for one person isn't necessarily ideal for someone else.
"Although posture is basic in nature and more or less innately learned from childhood, the literature still often contradicts itself and, in reality, the same principles of posture do not always apply to general populations in all situations, so blanket advice can be a challenge," explained Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Rowe, the physiotherapy national practice leader at the Canadian Forces Health Services Group Headquarters.
But there's another reason why it's so hard to get straight answers about how to achieve good posture. Posture is not just a health issue, it's also a cultural one. Historically, guidance on posture was based on social expectations, not medical research. Early codified standards for posture can be traced back to the etiquette manuals of the late 18th century, when posture was considered a demonstration of one's character, co-authors David Yosifon and Peter N. Stearns wrote in a 1998 paper, The Rise and Fall of American Posture, published in the American Historical Review.
Thus, some of our long-held beliefs about attaining good posture – pointers such as chest out, chin up – have been based on how to avoid looking like a slob, rather than any biomechanical reasons.
Still, some experts suggest we can learn to improve our posture by looking to the past – specifically our own past.
"Good posture is when you were like maybe [age] three or four. You stood up, you did not have any back pain, neck pain. You were able to move freely," Okabe said. Rather than building six-pack abs and cement-strength core muscles, she told me, the aim is to return to "your best possible comfortable, best functioning posture, which goes back to when you were much younger."
In her modest downtown studio, Okabe watched me move toward a chair and sit down. My hips and lower back were stiff – that much was obvious. And the way I carried myself put excessive strain on my shoulders and upper arms, she told me, as she gently squeezed my triceps. I hadn't even noticed.
Okabe, who teaches a movement-training method called the Mitzvah Technique, explained that poor posture occurs in a chain reaction: When you habitually strain one part of your body, you begin to contort other parts to compensate.
In my case, Okabe observed I was the classic case of someone who has a desk job. All that sitting, with my spine curved forward to peer at my computer screen, caused me to tense in the upper arms and shoulders. In response, I had become lopsided, kind of like the way a tube of toothpaste buckles when you squeeze too hard. In the mirrored wall, she pointed out that my left shoulder was slightly higher than my right. To realign myself, I was straining my lower back and hips.
The bad news was that my posture could get worse over time, as I adopted new bad habits to try to make up for earlier ones, she said. But the good news was, in my case and for many people, that posture problems aren't inborn. They're learned. And if they're learned, that means it's possible to unlearn them.
An expert's opinion
Since no one specifically tracks statistics on slouchers, it's hard to say how many people have poor posture. But many of the experts I spoke with believe it has become a growing problem, thanks in large part to our sedentary, screen-focused lifestyles.
We spend so much time hunched at our desks or bending our necks down to read our smartphones that these positions become ingrained in our regular movement patterns.
If you're like me, one of the biggest hurdles to improving your stance is that after years of slouching and straining, you lose sight of what it feels like to stand and sit at ease. Here are some of the tips I learned from the experts.
Sit back and relax
Looking to fix her own back issues, Esther Gokhale, a Palo Alto, Calif., acupuncturist whom The New York Times dubbed the "posture guru of Silicon Valley," travelled the world, observing groups that have yet to adopt a modern, digital lifestyle, such as in remote villages in Burkina Faso, India, Brazil and Portugal, where back pain is not common.
One of the features she noticed about these groups was what she calls their "J-shaped spine." In other words, unlike our conventionally recognized "S-shaped spines," with opposing curves in the upper (thoracic) and lower (lumbar) back, people with what she refers to as a "primal posture" have a straight upper back and a more pronounced curve in the lower spine.
With this posture, she noticed, potters, basket-makers and weavers could sit for long periods without strain.
"I think if you sit with good form in well-designed furniture for moderate durations, … then I think sitting is a healthy position," she said by phone.
One of the techniques for sitting, which Gokhale demonstrates in a TEDx talk and describes in her book 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back, is called "stretchsitting." You sit down into a firm chair with a low backrest, planting your buttocks at the back of the seat. Then, you place your feet about hip-distance apart and relax your legs.
Lengthen your spine, using your arms to push the top part of your trunk away from the lower part and then hitch your mid-back to the backrest of your chair. Finally, relax, letting the backrest prop you up.
Why make your back do the work of holding you upright when your chair can do it for you?
Feel what it's like to relax
To demonstrate how I could lessen the load on my spine, Stuart McGill, a professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, asked me to stand up, keeping one hand at my side. He then instructed me to place the other hand on the two ribbons of muscle, the erector spinae muscles, at my lower back. When I stood tall, the muscles felt relaxed. But when I bent forward just a little, they stiffened. The same happened when he instructed me to stand tall and slouch my shoulders or jut my chin forward.
"Now pull your chin back and align your head over your hips, and you'll notice that the muscles relaxed again," he said. They did. This exercise gave me a handy gauge for correcting my posture.
McGill sent me a copy of his book, Back Mechanic: The Secrets to a Healthy Spine Your Doctor Isn't Telling You, promising I'd find answers to my specific back problems. In the book, I discovered that simply lying on my stomach helped eliminate spinal flexion from my many hours of sitting. It felt amazing just to relax into the floor.
I was surprised to learn from McGill's book that some stretches and exercises that are commonly prescribed to improve posture actually put more load on the joints and unnecessarily compress the spine. These no-nos include touching your toes, lying on your back and bringing one or both knees to the chest, and the "superman," an exercise where you lie on your stomach and lift your head and chest and feet off the floor.
Perhaps an obvious but important lesson: If it doesn't feel good, don't do it.
Toshie Okabe, the Toronto posture teacher, warned me I shouldn't expect to fix my posture overnight. It takes time to unlearn bad habits, just as it took years to develop them.
But one simple thing she advised, which I could start doing immediately, was to get up every half-hour when working at my desk.
"We're not designed to sit still," Okabe said, explaining that even standing up briefly before sitting down again gives your muscles a break so they don't stay tensed in one position.
Leon Straker, the physiotherapy professor in Australia, echoed this advice.
Instead of trying to pursue the notion of an ideal posture, he said: "Perhaps most importantly I would recommend 'the next' posture – that is to not hold any one posture for a prolonged period and ensure people have variety in their postures and move regularly."