By Dr. Mercola
It's easy to forget about your posture when you're engrossed in work at your computer or sitting behind the wheel in your vehicle. Yet, slowly but surely, if you don't take steps to strengthen and lengthen your spine, your shoulders will begin to hunch forward into a more rounded position, and you'll find it difficult to stand as tall as you once did.
Meanwhile, poor posture is often a precursor to pain. An estimated 80 percent of the US population will experience back pain at some point in their life, and learning proper posture is crucial if you want to avoid this fate.
So what is "good posture"? It's actually quite different from what is normally taught, such as "sit up straight," "stand up straight," and "tuck your pelvis." By understanding the functional biomechanics of your body and working with gravity instead of against it, you can learn to optimize your body's structural health and the way you move about.
3 Simple Steps to Better Posture
The tips that follow, reported by TIME, use yoga postures to help stretch out your shoulders, open up your hip flexors, and lift your chest. If you're already suffering from the effects of poor posture, yoga can be invaluable because it helps to alleviate pain and stiffness.
Yoga is also a lower impact exercise and is a form of exercise that most people can successfully complete. After you read through TIME's tips below,1 check out Greatist's infographic2 that follows for 10 more yoga postures that are beneficial for your posture (and, better still, can be performed virtually anywhere).
- "Stand at the front of your [yoga] mat with hands on hips. Step back with left foot into a long lunge. Drop outer left heel so toes face forward at a 75-degree angle. Lunge deeper into front knee, lift arms, press palms and look up to hands for Warrior 1. Hold for 5 to 8 breaths.
- From Warrior 1, straighten right leg as you turn chest to the ceiling. Place right hand on right ankle or shin while you lift left arm directly above you, coming into Triangle pose. Inner right thigh should stay engaged. Hold for 5 breaths.
- Reach left arm above head toward the front of your mat, palm facing down. Bring right arm under right ear, reaching forward with palm up. Hold for 3 breaths. Lift to stand, and with hands on hips step to the front of your mat. Repeat sequence on other side."
Posture Enemy #1: Too Much Sitting
If you want to improve your posture, it's imperative to engage in intermittent movement throughout your day. Sitting for extended periods of time 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.3 According to lead researcher Thomas Yates, MD:4
"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.5 On the other hand, people who spend more time doing low-intensity, everyday activities instead of sitting benefit greatly. One study involved participants who were signed up at the age of 60 and were tracked for more than 12 years, and the findings were quite telling:6
- Those who reported overall higher levels of daily intermittent movement suffered fewer heart-related problems
- For every 100 of the sedentary people who experienced a heart attack or stroke, only 73 of the highly active group had such an event
- For every 100 of the least active who died, only 70 of the most active died
- Those who had high daily activity levels and engaged in a regular exercise program had the lowest risk profiles overall
How to Work with Gravity to Improve Your Posture
You may be aware that in an anti-gravity situation such as space, your body deteriorates far more rapidly. This is why teams of experts are devoted to protecting NASA astronauts from suffering such ill effects. Dr. Joan Vernikos, former director of NASA's Life Sciences Division and author of Sitting Kills, Moving Heals, who I interviewed last year, is among them. What she found, however, during her research is that it's not only astronauts who need to be protected from anti-gravity situations. Here on Earth, sitting for extended periods of time simulates a low-gravity environment, posing extreme risks to your health over time. According to Dr. Vernikos:
"The key to lifelong health is more than just traditional gym exercise, three to five times a week. The answer is to rediscover a lifestyle of constant, natural low-intensity non-exercise movement that uses the gravity vector throughout the day."
Activities such as housecleaning, rolling dough, gardening, hanging clothes to dry, bending over to pick up a stray sock, reaching for an item on a high shelf... all of these fall within the spectrum of movements you would ideally engage in—more or less continuously—during daily life, from morning until night. Dr. Vernikos refers to these types of activities as "G habits." The reason why they're so critical for your health is that when you move, you increase the force of gravity on your body. Again, anti-gravity environments speed up cellular deterioration, so the key is to disengage from the gravity vector—this low anti-gravity situation—as much as possible.
35 Times a Day: The 'Magic' Number of Intermittent Movements?
Based on double-blind research conducted by Dr. Vernikos, the minimum number of times needed to interrupt sitting in order to counteract its cardiovascular health risks is in the neighborhood of 35 times per day. Interestingly, and importantly, her research also shows that sitting down and standing up repeatedly for 35 minutes does NOT have the same effect as standing up once 35 times over the course of the entire day.
In order to be effective, the activity needs to be spread out. This helps explain why vigorously exercising a few times a week still isn't enough to counteract the ill effects of daily prolonged sitting. When you do this type of intermittent movement, your posture also benefits greatly because you avoid sitting hunched over for extended periods of time. As I've become increasingly aware of the importance of intermittent movement, I've incorporated a variety of strategies to counteract the ill effects of sitting, including incorporating some posture-strengthening strategies in combination with Dr. Vernikos' recommendation to frequently stand up:
- First, to make sure I interrupt my sitting enough times each day, I use an online timer set to go off every 15 minutes.
- Another alternative that I am currently experimenting with is to use a stand-up desk and simply walk more. You can wear a fitness tracker and seek to walk 10,000 steps a day, which is over 5 miles. While one can clearly walk five miles all at once, ideally, it is best to spread the 10,000 steps evenly throughout the day as much as your schedule will allow.
- Also, while Dr. Vernikos says that simply standing up and sitting back down may be enough to do the trick, provided it's done frequently enough, if you are already in good shape you may want to do more. I decided to take it a step further. I add different body movements when I stand up during my 30-60 second break and do something like four jump squatsor one-legged squats. I've compiled a list of 30 intermittent movement videos for ideas about what you can do when you stand up to maximize your benefits.
- I also regularly do Foundation exercises developed by Dr. Eric Goodman. In addition to increasing the gravitational forces on your body, these exercises also address weakness and imbalance in your posterior chain of muscles. Last year I interviewed Dr. Goodman about his techniques, so to learn more, I suggest listening to that interview.
Be alert for my upcoming interview with Dr. James Levine who is the head of the rehab program at Mayo Clinic. We had a fascinating discussion in which he shared his perspective, as well as, discussed his book, Get Up! Why Your Chair Is Killing You & What You Can Do About It, really opened my eyes to how profound and important intervention this is. One key is to encourage more companies to implement these strategies. Interestingly, the ones that did actually significantly increased their employees' health and their company profits.