Your mother nagged you to sit—and stand up—straight for a reason: Excellent posture has long been associated with dozens of superlative qualities, from elegance and confidence to competence. Is it any wonder why virtuous people are described as “upright” and “standing tall?”
Image aside, and far more importantly, good posture is critical to your overall health. Posture, which refers to how you align your body when you’re sitting, standing and lying down, keeps your joints and bones in ideal alignment, reduces wear and tear on your supportive structures and diminishes neck and back pain.
What’s more, posture directly affects your digestion, in that slouching can compress your abdominal organs and interfere with the ease with which food passes through your body. Meanwhile, good posture enhances blood flow, plays a role in maintaining the health of your blood vessels and gives your ribcage and diaphragm more space to expand when you breathe. And get this: Research shows that posture has an immediate impact on the state of your mood.
And yet, our modern world is filled with activities that encourage poor posture. Texting and scrolling through social media on your smartphone leads to tech neck. Driving for long periods of time, perhaps on your daily commute, frequently results in slouching behind the wheel. (Also, many car seats don’t sufficiently support the natural curve in one’s lower back, which can put extra strain on the spine and result in an achy back, neck, and shoulders.)
If you have a desk job of any kind—whether that’s working from home or in an office—your often-seated position can leave your spine stiff and sore while also zapping your energy and decreasing your circulation. That’s not all, either: Poor posture can take a serious overall toll that may result in reduced flexibility and compromised muscles.
While posture is built over time through a series of habits, it’s never too late to start improving yours. Here are seven things to begin incorporating into your life in the name of spinal—and general—health.
7 Tips to Improve Posture
1. Get to know your spine
Shoulders back and a head held high aren’t the only hallmarks of great posture. Why? Because all spines are not created equal. Your backbone has three main curves: one in your cervical spine (at your neck), one in your thoracic spine (mid-back), and another in your lumbar spine (lower back). Your good posture is determined by supporting these natural curves. Meaning, it’s not just a matter of standing (or sitting up) stick-straight, but of doing so in a way that places the least amount of stress on these curves. To this end, the U.S. National Library of Medicine suggests keeping your head positioned above your shoulders, and the tops of your shoulders above your hips.
2. Make like a yogi when standing
Tadasana—or mountain pose (Samasthiti in Sanskrit)—is frequently referred to as the number one pose in yoga asana (or physical postures). Why? Because it facilitates optimal alignment of your spine—and will inspire you to seek out good posture throughout your day and practice.
To get into position: Stand with feet hip-distance apart. Tighten your thigh muscles and lift your kneecaps. Press your shoulder blades down your back, in the direction of your tailbone, and picture a line of energy rising from the base of your spine through the crown of your head. (Bonus points: You’ll convey a sense of leadership while you’re at it.)
3. Sit smartly
Slouching in front of your computer can feel comfy at times—too comfy, in fact—but it advocates the antithesis of good posture.
“We live in a world now where slouching is highly promoted because we’re sitting in chairs and our body is in a collapsed position,” Erik Peper, a professor in the Department of Health Education at San Francisco University, told Time. “If you have any history of exhaustion or negative thoughts, I would say that this body position amplifies them.”
To prompt a better frame of mind and boost productivity, perform your computer work in a way that enables sound alignment: Sit back all the way in your chair. Use a lumbar cushion or a rolled-up towel and place it behind your thoracic spine to support the natural curve of your back. Additionally, “Bend your knees at a right angle and keep them at the same height, or a bit higher, than your hips,” WebMD recommends. Finalize this position by placing your feet flat on the floor.
4. Change your point of view
…when using your phone and computer, that is. Most of us have a tendency to look down at our phones, which strains the cervical spine and leads to that aforementioned tech neck. The solution is simple: Bring your phone up and move your eyes, not your head. At your desk, ensure that your computer screen is at eye level so that you’re not bending your neck up and down, which can contribute to that wear and tear to your neck and shoulders.
5. Break frequently
Having a marathon day at work? Don’t forget to pause—and do so often.
Use a timer and take mini-breaks every 15 minutes to stand up, roll out your shoulders and do a quick stretch. Every hour, go for a quick stroll, even if it’s just from your home office to your kitchen for a glass of water, or walking the length of your space if you’re in an office. While walking, be mindful of the position of your spine, pull your shoulders back and down, and hold your head high. Before resuming work, check that your chin is parallel to the floor and your ears are nearly aligned with your shoulders.
6. Exercise daily
Those short strolls peppered throughout your work day are a terrific way to keep your spine in line but your body needs lots of movement, period: Exercise brings oxygen and nutrients to your muscles and helps discharge some of the substances that cause soreness. What’s more, exercise can help you build strength in parts of the body that help with posture and increase mobility. In addition to core, pubic, and lower back-strengthening exercises (such as plank, side plank, and bridge), consider yoga, swimming, and power walking. Just be sure that your neck is elongated if you choose the latter.
Want an instant reminder to perfect your posture? Concentrate on your breathing. Full, deep breaths are virtually impossible when you’re hunched over your desk or dinner, while an appropriately-aligned spine can “reinforce proper body mechanics that put less stress on your body as you move,” Healthline reports. To reap the benefits of these full, deep breaths, try abdominal (or belly) breathing. Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose and fill your lungs with air as your belly expands. You’ll not only feel remarkably better (hello, relieved muscle tension), you’ll also be standing taller. And from there, everything will look better.