By Dr. Mercola
Take a moment to think about your posture right now. Are you slouching in your chair with your shoulders rounded and your head leaning forward? This is one of the most common poor postures that people assume while sitting, and aside from giving you tight neck and shoulder muscles and tension headaches, this posture may bring down your mood.
Now, take a moment to straighten up. Elongate your spine and put your shoulders back. If your head is forward, move it back so your ears are in line with your shoulders. Feels good, doesn't it? It's not a coincidence, as this simple act of correcting your posture can trigger multiple physical and emotional benefits.
Boost Your Mood by Fixing Your Posture
If you tend to slouch when you sit, sitting up straight may be akin to an "instant mood lift,"1 according to research published in Health Psychology.2 It's long been suggested that your body's muscular states are related to your emotions.
This has primarily been explored via facial expressions, and positive facial expressions, such as smiling, are associated with more positive mood.3 Body posture, however, is also thought to be important to both the initiation and modulation of emotions, which is what the featured study investigated.
It involved 74 participants who held either a slumped or upright seated posture while reading and engaging in other tasks and self-assessments. Those sitting in an upright posture enjoyed multiple benefits compared to those who were slouching, including:
- Higher self-esteem
- More arousal
- Better mood
- Lower fear
- Stronger pulse responses
A linguistic analysis further showed that when participants slouched, they used more negative emotion words, sadness words, and fewer positive emotion words during speech. The researchers concluded that sitting upright may be a simple way to boost your mood and resilience:
"Adopting an upright seated posture in the face of stress can maintain self-esteem, reduce negative mood, and increase positive mood compared to a slumped posture. Furthermore, sitting upright increases rate of speech and reduces self-focus. Sitting upright may be a simple behavioral strategy to help build resilience to stress."
Even with Proper Posture, Too Much Sitting Is Devastating to Your Health
Proper posture when you sit is important, but an even more pressing issue is the length of time you sit in a day. If you're like the average American, you sit for nearly eight hours a day, although some estimates suggest it's closer to 13-15 hours daily.
If you think about it, this is an extraordinary amount of time to be inactive. Even if you exercise for 30 minutes or so (and most don't), you're still sedentary for the vast majority of your day, and therein lies the problem.
Increasing research shows that a daily exercise session is not enough to counteract the effects of prolonged sitting, and sitting for extended periods is an independent risk factor for poor posture, poor health, and premature death.
One analysis of 18 studies found that those who sat for the longest periods of time were twice as likely to have diabetes or heart disease, compared to those who sat the least.4 According to lead researcher Thomas Yates, MD:5
"Even for people who are otherwise active, sitting for long stretches seems to be an independent risk factor for conditions like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and kidney disease."
An earlier study, published in 2009, also highlighted evidence linking sitting with biomarkers of poor metabolic health, showing how total sitting time correlates with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and other prevalent chronic health problems—even if you exercise regularly.6 The infographic below, from JustStand.org,7 highlights some of the major issues:
Your Body Thrives When You're Standing
I recently interviewed Dr. James Levine, author of the book Get Up!: Why Your Chair Is Killing You and What You Can Do About It. Dr. Levine is co-director of the Mayo Clinic and the Arizona State University Obesity Initiative, and he's also the inventor of the treadmill desk.
According to Dr. Levine, there are at least 24 different chronic diseases and conditions associated with excess sitting, over 10,000 studies support that, and there is one simple solution to eliminating this risk: stand up!
When you have been sitting for a long period of time and then get up, at a molecular level, within 90 seconds of getting off your bottom, the muscular and cellular systems that process blood sugar, triglycerides, and cholesterol—which are mediated by insulin—are activated.
As soon as you stand up, a series of molecular mechanisms at the cell level set off a cascade of activities that impact the cellular functioning of your muscles. The way your body handles blood sugar is beneficially impacted, for example. Therefore, the disease prevention for diabetes comes into play. All of these molecular effects are activated simply by bearing weight, i.e. by carrying your bodyweight upon your legs.
"The nature of the human body was to be active and moving all day. The body was never designed to be crammed into a chair where all of these cellular mechanisms get switched off. Obviously we're supposed to rest from time to time. But that rest is supposed to break up the activity. It's not supposed to be the way of life," Dr. Levine says.
[T]his very unnatural [sitting] posture is not only bad for your back, your wrists, your arms, and your metabolism, but it actually switches off the fundamental fueling systems that integrate what's going on in the bloodstream with what goes on in the muscles and in the tissues.
As a consequence of that, blood sugar levels are inappropriately high in people who sit. The blood pressure is inappropriately high, the cholesterol handling is inappropriately high, and those toxins, those growth factors that will potentially lead to cancer, particularly breast cancer, are elevated in those people who sit too much. The solution? Get up!
If You've Been Sitting for an Hour, You've Been Sitting for Too Long
Studies looking at life in natural agriculture environments show that people in agrarian villages sit for about three hours a day, as opposed to the average American office worker who can sit for 13 to 15 hours a day. So, when trying to determine what the "minimum dose of standing" or the "maximum dose of sitting" might be, it's important to realize that most people are not dealing with a minor tweak… most people need to figure out how to get out of their chair for several hours or more each day. Dr. Levine notes:
"The bottom-line is that if you've been sitting for an hour, you've been sitting for too long. We should all be up at least 10 minutes out of every hour."
I've previously recommended standing up and doing some exercises at your desk every 10-15 minutes to counteract the ill effects of sitting, but after discussing the issue with Dr. Levine and reading his book, I'm convinced this isn't even enough. I now believe the answer is to stand up as much as possible. Standing for 10 minutes for every hour of sitting is really the bare bones minimum; it's still far from ideal. It would seem far wiser to strive to sit as little as possible, certainly less than three hours a day.
Many may complain that this is simply not possible with your work environment. Well then, you need to get your employer on board. Some of the most innovative and progressive companies around have deployed systems that allow their employees to stand up and move around. Yes there is some initial expense, but in every case that was evaluated the profitability of the company improved due to increased productivity. This doesn't even factor in health cost savings.
My New Appreciation of the Damage Sitting Does
I've been passionate about exercising for nearly 50 years now and have been very fit for most of my life. But I'm still constantly modifying my exercise program based on new information. Several years ago, Phil Campbell helped me understand the importance of high-intensity exercise and its value in increasing human growth hormone (HGH). Then Dr. McGuff helped me understand that using Super Slow weight training may be a superior form of high-intensity training than even high-intensity cardio.
Now I have an important new modification: to sit as little as possible. I personally strive to sit less than an hour a day. Last month, I went on a coast-to-coast 6,000-mile tour, from Virginia to Maryland, Washington DC, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. During that time, I decided to try an experiment—to avoid sitting as much as I could... In my hotel room, I put the mini fridge on the desk to get a modified standing desk. In one room, I merely used the waste paper basket on top of the desk to create a makeshift standing desk. I was able to reduce my normal 12 to 14 hours of daily sitting to under one hour.
And I noticed one amazing thing: the back pain I've struggled with for many years simply disappeared. It would normally start after I'd walk or stand for more than 30 minutes, but since I reduced my sitting the pain disappeared.
I had previously tried four different chiropractors, posture exercises, Foundation Training, ab work, inversion tables, standing up every 15 minutes to stretch, and strength training. But nothing would touch it, other than to radically reduce my sitting. During my coast-to-coast trip, I had to sit on a plane for five hours, and I noticed when I did that, the pain returned for a day. Clearly, my body was speaking to me very strongly, telling me that I needed to radically reduce my sitting. I am still surprised I missed this important health principle for so long.
Try to Take 10,000 Steps a Day (or More!)
Another recent epiphany I had is that most of us need to walk much more than we do. Thankfully, there are now fitness trackers that allow us to objectively record how much we walk and there will be a literal explosion of the use of these devices in the next few years. The Apple Watch being launched next year is a good example. Most of us need about 10,000 steps a day, which is a bit more than five miles (8-9 km). The key realization I had, though, is that this walking is in addition to, not in place of, your normal exercise program. It's even better if you can walk barefoot so you can get grounded, and better yet if you can walk on the beach by the ocean.
So, my new strategy is to walk at least 10,000 steps a day and for the last month or so I have been able to average about 13,000 steps a day, including while travelling. In my case, this meant I had to walk up and down airport terminals, but you do what you have to do. I believe the combination of high-intensity training, non-exercise activities like walking 10,000 steps a day, along with avoiding sitting whenever possible is the key to being really fit and enjoying a pain-free and joyful life.
If you don't have a fitness tracker that records your steps, I would encourage you to get one. Another advantage of some of the fitness trackers is that they can record how much you are really sleeping, which can help motivate you to get to bed earlier so you can get eight hours of sleep. I use the Jawbone UP24, which is one of the best ones out now, but far better ones will be available in the near future. For example, the MisFit8 is a new fitness tracker that tracks your steps and your sleep and is only $50 (it looks like a watch but does not tell time).
Regarding fitness trackers, some might be concerned about the EMF issue. This is one of the reasons I have not worn a watch for over 30 years. One is the battery and the other is metal on the skin. Most fitness trackers, though, are made of plastic so there is no metal touching your skin and they have a very tiny battery, so tiny that one quick USB charge lasts for about a week. The reason being is that they don't transmit constantly and use very small amounts of power when they do. So like anything in life it is about trade-offs. Is the additional EMF exposure ideal? No, but when you factor that against the benefit of getting you to move and sleep more, it would seem for most the minimal exposure is worth it.
The Gokhale Method: How to Relearn Your Proper Posture
Download Interview Transcript
Getting back to your posture, it's very important to adopt the proper form while you're sitting, standing, or walking. The Gokhale Method, created by "posture guru" Esther Gokhale, teaches you how to sit, lay, stand, and walk with proper posture. Esther refers to proper posture as primal posture, because it's the posture of infants and native hunter-gatherers. One of the most troublesome postures of modern society is keeping your head thrust too far forward. Ideally, your ears should be above your shoulders, and to get there you want to pull your head and neck back—typically about 45 degrees, depending how far forward your head is.
"One technique I like better than just telling people to push back is to pull back, because then you're not tensing up some muscle to try to fight some other type of muscle. It's like having the break and the accelerator on at the same time. You don't want to sustain this tension," Esther explains. "Instead, grasp a clump of hair, then very gently pull back and up, and then just relax your neck. Let your chin relax down rather than pushing it down and pushing it back."
Another crucial area is your spine. You want to lengthen or elongate your spine, and maintain your buttocks out behind you rather than tucked in. Most conventional advice tells you to tuck in your pelvis to maintain an S-shaped spine, but a far more natural spine curvature is what Esther refers to as a J-spine. Here, your back is straight and your buttocks protrude slightly.
Maintaining this J-curve is really crucial for good posture. The body part of the "J" corresponds to your behind, slanting out behind you. If you examine how toddlers stand, they stand with a straight back, the lumbar area remaining relatively flat, with their bottoms out behind them. This posture is maintained into adulthood by many tribal peoples.
Good posture is the foundation of physical health, musculoskeletal health, and even psychological health. The reason for this is because it allows your body to operate as it was designed to, providing an ideal architecture for your lungs to move freely and for your digestive organs to function without blockages, for example. Relearning proper posture can feel odd at first, especially if you're severely out of alignment. But if you stick with it, the results can be life changing.
"When we place people [in proper posture], they say, 'Whoa, this feels so weird. I feel like I'm falling flat on my face. I feel like I'm a Neanderthal.' It takes us showing them their reflection in the mirror to be astonished. They may feel weird, but they don't look weird. It isn't weird, but it's so far away from what they've been doing," Esther says.
For more information, please view the video above. Esther's book, 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back, also contains over 1,000 illustrations and photographs and is an excellent manual to helping you relearn your primal posture.