Tuesday, December 29, 2015
Posture Affects Standing, and Not Just the Physical Kind
Jane Brody on health and aging. New York Times
A distraught wife begged me to write about the importance of good
posture. “My husband sits for many hours a day slouched over his computer,”
she said. “I’ve told him repeatedly this is bad for his body — he should sit up
straight — but he pays no attention to me. He reads you every week. Maybe
he’ll listen to you.”
So here goes: Yes, dear sir, listen to your wife. Slouching is bad. It’s bad
not only for your physical health, but also for your emotional and social well-being.
More about this in a bit.
Without delay, get that computer on a proper surface (laps can encourage
slouching) and get a supportive chair that enables you to sit up straight with
your head aligned directly over your shoulders and hips when your eyes are on
As a short person who is prone to back pain, I have long been aware of the
value of good posture, and seating that minimizes the stress on my spine and
the muscles and ligaments that support it. I know within seconds of sitting in a
car whether it will hurt my back or neck; when renting, I test car after car until
I find one that suits my diminutive frame.
I bought my current vehicle, a Toyota Sienna minivan, largely because I
was immediately comfortable when I got behind the wheel for a test drive. My
entire back was supported, so not a twinge was felt there, unlike what happens
in many other cars. I could also easily see over the steering wheel without
tilting my head back, which is not the case in most other vehicles. And I could
reach the floor pedals without unduly extending my leg and straining my lower
Poor posture can have ill effects that radiate throughout the body, causing
back and neck pain, muscle fatigue, breathing limitations, arthritic joints,
digestive problems and mood disturbances. It can also create a bad impression
when applying for a job, starting a relationship or making new friends.
Poor posture can even leave you vulnerable to street crime. Many years
ago, researchers showed that women who walked sluggishly with eyes on the
ground, as if carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders, were much
more likely to be mugged than those who walked briskly and purposely with
head erect. I can’t prove posture was at fault, but this is indeed what happened
to a Brooklyn neighbor on her way home one night.
We live in a gravitational field, and when our bodies are out of line with
the vertical, certain muscles will have to work harder than others to keep us
upright. This can result in undue fatigue and discomfort that can outlast the
strain that caused them.
In a study of 110 students at San Francisco State University, half of whom
were told to walk in a slumped position and the other half to skip down a hall,
the skippers had a lot more energy throughout the day.
Any repetitive or prolonged position “trains” the body’s muscles and
tendons to shorten or lengthen and places stress on bones and joints that can
reshape them more or less permanently. Just as walking in high heels can
shorten and tighten the Achilles’ tendons and calf muscles, slouching while
sitting hour after hour can result in a persistent slouch, while standing and
walking while slouched can lead to permanently rounded shoulders and upper
Although early humans spent most of their waking hours walking,
running and standing, today in developed countries, 75 percent of work is
performed while sitting. Most people sit going to and from work and while
relaxing after work. The longer people sit (or stand) without a change in
position and movement, the more likely they will be to develop a postural
backache, according to a report in The Journal of Manipulative and
“Text neck,” a term coined by a Florida chiropractor, Dean L. Fishman, is
a repetitive stress injury resulting from hours spent with the head positioned
forward and down while using electronic devices. This leads to tight muscles in
the back of the neck and upper back. And those who lean forward while sitting
may be inclined to clench their jaws and tighten their facial muscles, causing
headache and TMJ — temporomandibular joint syndrome.
Leaning forward or slouching can also reduce lung capacity by as much as
30 percent, reducing the amount of oxygen that reaches body tissues,
including the brain, according to Dr. Rene Cailliet, a pioneer in the field of
musculoskeletal medicine who died in March.
Additionally, slouching or sitting in a scrunched position compresses the
abdominal organs and may reduce peristaltic action that is important to
normal digestion and bowel function.
One of today’s most troublesome activities, especially for children and
adolescents whose bone structure is still developing, is carrying
extraordinarily heavy backpacks to and from school and often throughout the
school day. The weight forces them to bend forward, with potentially the same
consequences as slouching.
It is time to return the rolling backpack to youthful fashion. I have used
one to lug heavy files and books back and forth to work since these packs were
first invented as an outgrowth of the wheeled luggage that came into vogue in
For far too many years, I carried everything, including a heavy briefcase
and groceries, over my right shoulder, which forced me to raise that shoulder
and lean toward my left, clearly an undesirable posture. When carrying heavy
items is unavoidable, it is best to balance them on both sides of the body.
Among other postural habits to avoid are these, listed by Britain’s
National Health Service.
--Standing with a flat back, with the pelvis tucked in and lower back straight
(the normal spine has three curves – in the neck, chest and lower back).
Standing with chest pushed forward and buttocks pushed back (the so-called
Donald Duck posture that exaggerates the lumbar curve).
--Leaning on one leg, which puts undue pressure on one side of the lower back
--Bending the head back and sticking out the chin while looking at a computer
screen or television. Instead, lower the screen or raise the seat.
--Holding the phone on a shoulder. Instead, use a handsfree device like a
headset or Bluetooth.
Improving posture requires a conscious effort and often strengthening
and flexibility exercises to correct muscular imbalances, according to Nick
Sinfield, a British physiotherapist. For example, exercises that strengthen the
core, buttocks muscles and back extensors help correct a slouching posture, he