You’ve probably heard the command “stand up straight” more than a few times in your life. But hearing that you should improve your posture and knowing how to do it are two completely different things. So, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to explain how exactly to have good posture and why it even matters in the first place.
Posture is essentially how you hold your body, and it can be really important for your comfort and health.
The goal of having good posture is to minimize strain on your spine and its supporting muscles, tendons, and ligaments, Tyler R. Koski, M.D., co-director of the Northwestern Medicine Spine Center, tells SELF. There are actually two types of posture, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Dynamic posture is how you hold yourself when you’re moving your body, like when walking or running. Static posture is how you hold yourself when you’re not moving, like when you’re standing, sitting, or sleeping.
Slumping or slouching regularly—or engaging in other forms of bad posture—can lead to a slew of issues over time. Resulting degradation of your spine can make you more prone to injury like a herniated disc (when one of the cushion-y discs between your spinal bones ruptures). You may also experience neck, shoulder, and back pain, decreased flexibility, less joint mobility, poor balance, bad digestion, and even difficulty breathing, the U.S. National Library of Medicine says.
Plenty of things can lead to bad posture, from old habits to health conditions affecting your spine.
A lot of people just started slouching ages ago and never corrected it. “Poor posture is often a bad habit that someone gets into,” Mike Murray, M.D., an associate of orthopaedic surgery at Penn Medicine, tells SELF.
However, other factors can also add to poor posture, like having your work desk set up in a way that leads to slouching throughout the day or regularly being hunched over your phone when you’re texting, Dr. Murray says.
In certain cases, people have health conditions that contribute to bad posture. Scoliosis causes the spine to curve sideways in a way that can make a person’s shoulders, waist, and hips uneven, so it’s hard to have proper posture, according to the Mayo Clinic. Ankylosing spondylitis, an inflammatory disease that can prompt some of the interlocking bones in the spine to fuse, can force a person to hunch over, the Mayo Clinic says.
So, how do you actually have good posture? Here’s what to keep in mind when you’re standing.
To nail this one, you need to understand that your spine has three natural curves: one at your neck (your cervical spine), another in your mid-back (your thoracic spine), and another in your lower back (your lumbar spine), according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Good posture should support those curves. The idea isn’t to stretch yourself out, taffy-style, but to stand in an upright way that puts the least stress on those curves as possible.
So, when you’re standing, your head should be positioned above your shoulders, and the top of your shoulders should be above your hips, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. “In general, if your head is up, your shoulders are going to go back, and you’re going to maintain the most normal neck and [back] alignment for you,” Christopher Wolf, M.D., orthopedic spine surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, tells SELF. Reminding yourself to keep your earlobes in line with your shoulders may help with this.
Proper standing alignment also includes putting most of your weight on the balls of your feet. (Keeping most of your weight on your heels can flex your spine and stress its surrounding muscles, Dr. Murray says.) Beyond that, keep your knees slightly bent to help absorb shock, tuck your stomach in so you’re not arching your back, and keep your feet about shoulder-width apart so you’re distributing your weight evenly.
Having good posture is slightly different when you’re sitting, but it’s a variation on the stay-properly-aligned theme.
When you’re sitting, your back should be straight, your shoulders should be back, and your butt should touch the back of your chair, the Cleveland Clinic says. A lot of people tend to slouch when they sit, and touching your butt to the back of the chair helps prevent this and give your back some support, Dr. Wolf explains.
Crossing your legs might feel as natural as blinking, but if you really want A+ posture, the Cleveland Clinic recommends keeping your feet flat on the floor, with your knees bent at right angles and even with or slightly higher than your hips. Crossing your legs shifts your pelvic alignment, which can also affect the alignment in your lower back, Dr. Wolf says.
Beyond that, take quick walks around your office or just even stretching breaks every 30 minutes or so. “Sitting in one position puts stress and strain in one area,” Dr. Koski says. And make sure you have an ergonomic workspace, too, so that you’re not taxing body parts like your eyes and wrists too much as you work.
Sleeping is, obviously, a slightly different ballgame.
You probably conk out in whatever pose feels comfortable at the time, but your sleep position technically counts as a type of posture, too. If your body doesn’t agree with the way you sleep, you might wind up with pain and stiffness.
If you’re sore anywhere along your spine when you wake up, from your neck to your lower back, it may be time to play around with different sleeping positions. For example, while your mileage may vary, some people with lower back pain actually find back sleeping better, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. That way the mattress can offer direct support (rather than, say, your lower back arching in as you sleep on your stomach). Keep in mind that this may differ depending on any sleep-related conditions you have. For instance, sleeping on your stomach might help with sleep apnea-induced snoring, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine, but that can vary by person.
Let’s say pain isn’t an issue for you now, but you’re interested in having good sleep posture for preventive measures. You might want to try sleeping on your side or back, Dr. Wolf says. (Stomach sleeping extends and rotates your neck, he explains.) No matter how you sleep, “You want to have your hips level with your shoulders, and you also want your neck to be in a neutral position,” Dr. Murray says. Of course, you might still wake up in a totally bizarre sleeping position, but over time, your body may become accustomed to resting in a way that puts as little stress on you as possible.
Finally, a great sleeping position won’t be as effective if your mattress or pillow are doing you dirty. Read more about the possible harms of having a too-soft or too-firm mattress here, and aim to use a pillow that isn’t too fluffy, too hard, and allows your neck to be in line with your spine, Dr. Wolf says.
If you know your posture isn’t great, there are a few things you can do to fix it.
Checking out your posture in a mirror can help, Neel Anand, M.D., professor of orthopaedic surgery and director of spine trauma at Cedars-Sinai Spine Center in Los Angeles, tells SELF. “Glance at yourself in the mirror when you have the chance to get a good visual of your stance, and adjust accordingly,” he says. Once you’re more familiar with how that feels, you can spot-check yourself throughout the day and make corrections when you need them.
If you’ve tried to correct your posture on your own and you feel like you’re not getting anywhere—and you feel like this is causing you pain—physical therapy can be helpful in getting you where you need to be, Dr. Murray says.