Posture refers to the position of your body in space. It is largely the product of spinal reflexes and some additional tweaking by your brain; and it all occurs without your conscious attention. If you start to tip over, for example, or lose the stability you need for a task, postural reflexes kick in and engage muscles to pull you into a more or less upright and/or functional position again. And, yes, you can exert conscious control over your posture, but you will generally revert to your unconscious, reflex pattern when your mind wanders.
Posture is also more than ‘just’ a collection of righting and stabilising reflexes. The way you live, the shape of your body, your emotions are also associated with your posture. It is a physical manifestation of your ‘comfort zone’. We habitually hold ourselves and move in ways that serve social and emotional needs. Posture can be submissive or dominant, brave or fearful, happy or sad, apathetic or uptight.
Perfect posture, as such, is almost indefinable, because we all have very differently built bodies. Todd Hargrove in Playing with Movement writes “Irregularity is to be expected in any biological form. Body parts are not interchangeable legos or Ikea furniture pieces made by factory molds. Wonkiness and asymmetry are part of the plan.”
Posture depends on a lot of different factors (load, tolerance, capacity and time spent there). It is actually a lot more complicated than we previously thought. And while posture has been a focus of rehab, medicine and physiotherapy for a long time, a lot of our theories and beliefs around posture are not backed up with research.
So, perhaps we should no longer be labelling posture as “good” or “bad”.
Recent evidence by Schmidt (2018)¹ found that standing posture is highly individual and highly variable, regardless of age, gender, body height, weight or low back pain.
This info-graphic courtesy of @TheStrengthTherapist sums it up well.
Yes, posture does matter but no one posture is better than another.
What most people think of when we think of “bad” posture (ie slouching) could also just be called being posture ‘lazy’.
We probably also do make some postural ‘mistakes’ and develop bad habits. Mostly because we are careless, busy or have another priority. Or because we just don’t realise that we’re doing something deemed un-ideal.
A better term may be ‘poor’ posture. Any habitual, self-imposed positioning that causes physical stress is a poor posture. A postural challenge is anything that makes it harder to maintain a comfortable posture, such as “work.” You won’t feel good being slumped over at a desk for prolonged periods. But sitting bolt upright won’t feel any better.
A postural stress is a challenge to your posture that’s imposed on you. Different to something you’re doing to yourself out of laziness. It’s situational, as opposed to being the result of a bad habit. Some examples of postural stresses include:
Many postural stresses are can be avoided if you recognise the problem, but most people don’t.
Some people who get pain from trivial postural stress do not necessarily have a posture problem, more a vulnerability to pain. The greater the vulnerability, the more it’s about the vulnerability and not the posture — awkward postures are just another thing that triggers pain. This vulnerability can increase with age, when we start to notice that postural challenges we once coped with easily are starting to get harder to cope with.
It is important to remember that pain is complex and individual and influenced by so much more than arbitrary positions of joints. Our body and particularly our spine is strong and stable and capable of amazing things. A specific posture doesn’t necessarily correlate to pain.² Simple observation: there are a lot of people with nice posture who are in a lot of pain and also many with lousy posture and no pain.
We should rephrase ‘improving your posture’ to ‘increasing your postural fitness’. The avoidance of postural challenges can over time lead to poor postural fitness. If you avoid postural challenges enough, eventually you’ll have trouble coping with them when you have to.
And it is worth asking yourself what you want to be posturally fit for. Generally the goals for postural fitness are almost indistinguishable from just wanting to improve your general fitness.
So how can you improve your postural fitness?
Your best bet is probably just increasing your activity. Especially tasks that require coordination, and especially anything you enjoy. Here are some other suggestions:
Most people lead overly sedentary lives; often 6–8 hours per day of inactivity (an hour more per day in 2018 than 2008³). Their limited physical activity is also overly consistent or lacks variety. That is, even people active at work are often active in only one way. They need variety in their movement. Adding more movement — not any particular position, but more positions — is definitely a safe bet and a good start on the way to better posture.
A better posture is also probably “dynamic”. Emphasising change and movement. Motion is lotion. Move frequently and maintain flexibility. Keep active, frequently change your posture, and experiment with new ways of moving through the world. Above all have confidence in your body’s ability to adapt.
¹Schmidt et al (2018) Journal of Biomechanics. Vol 70. How do we stand? Variations during repeated standing phases of asymptomatic subjects and low back pain patients.
²Damasceno GM, Ferreira AS, Nogueira LA, et al. Text neck and neck pain in 18-21-year-old young adults. Eur Spine J. 2018 Jan.
³”Does Posture Correction Matter” Paul Ingraham sept 2019
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