From our pain levels to our self-confidence, our posture impacts more than we think.
Putting in the effort to improve your posture has huge payoffs.
But what is good posture really?
“Good posture is also known as neutral spine. When we have good posture, the muscles surrounding the spine are balanced and supporting the body equally,” explains Nina Strang, physical therapist and certified strengthening and conditioning specialist at the University of Michigan.
Here’s a quick posture check-in: When sitting, your feet should rest flat on the floor, with even weight on both hips. Your back should be mostly straight (you’ll have natural curves in your lumbar, thoracic, and cervical areas). Your shoulders should be back but relaxed and your ears should line up over your collarbones.
When standing, your legs should have a slight knee bend so you’re not hyperextending or locking your knee joints, says Kara Griffith, exercise physiologist at Colorado Canyons Hospital & Medical Center.
Now that we know what good posture is, here are 12 key benefits along with tips to achieve them.
Sitting or standing in a slouched position for prolonged periods of time stresses your lower back. More specifically, it puts pressure on the posterior structures of the spine, including the intervertebral discs, facet points, ligaments, and muscles, explains Strang.
Do bridges to strengthen your lower back
Bridges strengthen and engage your gluteal and abdominal muscles, so your body relies on them instead of stressing your lower back.
Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, instructs Strang. Tighten your core without changing your back position. “Lift your hips and lower torso off of the ground by contracting your gluteus maximus muscles.” Slowly lower your hips back down.
Posture tip: Move around frequently—every 20 to 30 minutes is recommended. “No one is able to sit with perfect posture all of the time; it takes a lot of strength to do so. When you feel your muscles tiring, or yourself slowly slouching, get up and move around,” encourages Strang.
What to look for: Don’t anticipate a decrease in lower back pain on your first day. “Posture is something that you should expect to work at your whole life,” says Strang.
By stretching your chest, and strengthening your core and upper back muscles, you’ll see gradual but noticeable pain reduction.
“Poor posture can contribute to tension headaches, due to increased muscle tension in the back of the neck. Often if we correct our posture, we can reduce muscle tension and improve our headaches,” says Strang.
Stretch your neck muscles with a head retraction exercise
This exercise strengthens the neck muscles that are often weak and stretched out.
Lie on the floor on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Pull your chin back toward the floor like you’re trying to make a double chin. Hold for 10 to 15 seconds and repeat 10 times.
Posture tip: Check in with your body often. “Awareness is essential to good posture. We get busy working at our computers or eating a good meal, and we compress into poor posture,” says Griffith. Post a note on your computer screen to remind you to get yourself in proper alignment.
When your bones and joints are in correct alignment, it allows the muscles to be used as they’re intended, so you’ll have less fatigue and more energy, explains Griffith. In other words, “the muscles don’t have to work so hard to do what they’re supposed to do.”
Twist your torso to activate your side abs
Strengthen your obliques so the right muscles are activated when you’re sitting or standing.
Start by sitting on the floor with your knees bent. Lift your feet off of the floor about 6 inches. Tighten your core as you rotate your upper body and elbows from side to side.
Posture tip: To keep your energy levels high, remember it’s okay to relax from time to time. “Give your postural muscles a break once in a while. They can get overworked and cause pain as well,” explains Strang.
What to look for: Noticing a spike in your energy levels is variable. It depends on how poor your posture is, how strong you are, and how aware you remain of your posture.
“You should notice improvement within a week, but if you want to make it habit, it may take a month for good posture to become natural,” says Griffith.
A forward head posture puts strain on the upper back, shoulder, and neck areas. With proper alignment, the joints and ligaments are less stressed and less subject to chronic overuse, explains Griffith.
Look in the mirror and perform this neck stretch
Stretch out your neck to relieve pressure and correct tension.
Stand with a straight spine and neck. Slightly tuck your chin backward. You should feel a slight tensioning of your clavicle muscles and a lengthening of the posterior part of your neck. Hold for 3 seconds and complete 15 repetitions.
Posture tip: Set reminders on your calendar to check in with yourself several times throughout the day. Ensure your ears are above your shoulders and that you’re using your front neck muscles — not just your posterior muscles — to hold your head up.
What to look for: You’ll likely notice reduced tension in your shoulders and neck within the first week or two. Applying heat or ice may provide additional relief.
Crooked sitting and standing, such as resting on one leg or side of your body, leads to hip strain. “Your joints wear down naturally over time. If your posture is even, not many problems arise. But if you’re uneven, more pain and issues tend to occur,” states Griffith.
Strengthen your core and lower back with this hip flexor stretch
This exercise strengthens your core and lower back at the same time while stretching your hip flexors.
Start in a lunge position with one knee on the floor and your leg extended backward. The other leg should be at a 90-degree angle in front of you with your foot planted on the floor. Engage your core by pulling in slightly.
Posture tip: When sitting, “utilize a lumbar roll or rolled towel to support your natural lumbar curve,” suggests Strang. That way, you’ll have support for a straighter posture, allowing it to be more sustainable.
What to look for: The longer you work at strengthening your core and straightening your posture, the more natural and less challenging it will be.
“If you’re slouching, you’re compressing your lungs,” explains Griffith. “If you’re sitting and standing taller, your lungs have more space to expand.” In other words, good posture improves your breathing.
Push out the pecs to relieve your lungs
Stand with your feet hip-width distance apart. Interlock your hands behind your back. Hold for 20 seconds to stretch your chest and pectoral muscles.
As an alternative, place your forearms along a door frame at shoulder height. “With one foot in front of the other, begin to shift your weight forward until you feel a stretch in your chest. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds,” recommends Strang.
Posture tip: “In a sitting position, rock your pelvis back and forth to determine how much available motion you have in your spine. Your ideal spinal posture will be in the middle of those ranges,” says Strang.
Another easy trick is to make sure most of the pressure is on your “sit bones” not your tailbone or the back of your thighs.
What to look for: “If we’re sitting slouched, it’s difficult for our diaphragm to fully contract and our lungs to fully expand,” Strang describes. For faster improvement, lengthen your seated position and open your lungs with three deep breaths several times a day.
Griffith explains: “If you’re compressing vital organs, your circulation is poor, and those organs aren’t going to work as well.” Healthy blood flow requires proper alignment and avoiding positions which cramp circulation, like crossing your legs.
Roll out your spine with a thoracic foam roll
Lie on your back on the ground and place a firm foam roller in a horizontal position underneath you at the bottom of your rib cage. Support your neck with your arms.
Slowly extend your spine over the roller. Hold for 5 seconds and take a deep breath. Slowly move up 1 to 2 inches at a time.
Strang suggests performing this exercise daily.
Posture tip: “When sitting, scoot your hips all the way back into the chair. Your feet must be on the ground to improve support. You may use a lumbar roll along your low back to assist with maintaining this posture. Shoulders should be back and your neck muscles relaxed,” offers Strang.
When we have a forward head position, our mandibular joint and jaw muscles experience stress and tension. “This can contribute to pain with eating, talking, yawning, as well as clicking with opening, and headaches,” says Strang.
Loosen your jaw
With your head and neck in a neutral position and your eyes looking forward, turn your head slowly from one side to the other to stretch your neck muscles.
Posture tip: Adjust the ergonomics at work and home to support a better posture. Find a more supportive chair, use a sit-to-stand desk, and purchase a lumbar roll that you can take wherever you go, suggests Strang.
What to look for: Releasing the tension in your neck and upper shoulders should reduce the effects of TMJ pain. Focus on relaxing your jaw throughout the day, especially in high-stress situations like driving during rush hour or focusing on a difficult work project.
As Strang describes, muscular effort is required to maintain good posture. If you’re holding a good posture, your core and upper back muscles will remain active and engaged.
Engage your back muscles with the overhead arm raise
Sit in a chair with your feet flat on the ground with even weight on both hips. Engage your core by slightly tucking in and flattening your lower back. Let your arms fall to your sides comfortably. Raise them both up at the same time over your head and bring them back to the starting position.
Posture tip: “In a standing posture, keep your shoulders back and aligned. Engage your abdominals and keep a tiny knee bend so you’re not hyperextending or locking your knee joints,” explains Griffith.
Over time, your core strength will improve — helping to support the rest of your body.
What to look for: Your core will continue to strengthen every day if you engage it while you sit and stand properly.
Our posture doesn’t just affect us when we’re sitting and standing, but when we’re exercising, too. For example, having an engaged core and neutral spine during a squat will help prevent injury.
Try the tree pose
Stand upright with your feet firmly planted on the ground. Bring your hands to meet in the middle of your chest with palms and fingers touching. Pull your shoulder blades back with your ears resting above your shoulders.
Lift one leg up to your thigh or shin (not your knee), and press the sole of your foot into your leg for stability. Both legs should be engaged, and your core should be tucked slightly as you maintain a neutral spine.
Posture tip: “Most of the environments we live and work in encourage us to do things in front of us, leading to more of a forward posture,” explains Strang. By focusing our attention on proper alignment, we improve our workout results and prevent injury.
What to look for: Focus on your core strength and pay attention to your balance. Over time, you’ll notice this position come with more easily and become a center for calm.
While it’s icing on the cake, good posture can make us more attractive. “People look taller and slimmer when they have good posture,” admits Griffith. Sometimes it can even make our abdominals appear more defined.
Flex with the forearm plank
Lie on the floor with your frontside down. Keep your forearms parallel and your feet hip-width apart.
“Tighten your core and lift your torso off of the ground. Make sure you’re looking down between your elbows, your shoulder blades are pulled back, and your core muscles are tight. Don’t stick your hips in the air,” says Strang.
Hold your plank for up to 30 seconds, but stop sooner if your form starts to decline. Complete 3 sets.
Posture tip: Stand in front of a mirror with your normal posture. Look at yourself from all angles. Then, straighten your posture and notice the difference in how you look.
What to look for: Your appearance is one of the first aspects that will change when you practice good posture. It can be almost immediate. To make good posture a habit, continue to build the amount of time you stay in an aligned position throughout the day.
Not only can good posture boost your energy levels and reduce your pain, it can also increase your self-esteem. One 2009 study says good posture gives you more confidence in your own thoughts.
Practice the shoulder pull back
Sit or stand with a neutral spine. Shift your shoulder blades to the back. Lift both forearms to a 90-degree angle at your sides. Pull your shoulder blades closer together, as if you’re squeezing them, while your arms naturally extend backward. Complete three sets of 12 reps.
Posture tip: Before a meeting, presentation, or job interview, make sure your shoulders are relaxed, your spine is in alignment, and your ears are resting over your shoulders.
What to look for: Feeling more confident in yourself can start from day one. Simply pay attention to your posture as you enter a room, sit down to a meal, or work on a project at your computer.
Up for a challenge? Aim to get all the benefits of good posture by trying our 30-day challenge!
Jenna Jonaitis is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, HealthyWay, and SHAPE, among other publications. She recently traveled with her husband for 18 months — farming in Japan, studying Spanish in Madrid, volunteering in India, and hiking through the Himalayas. She’s always in search of wellness in mind, body, and spirit.