From childhood we are told to “sit up straight” and “stop slouching.” But if slouching is such a bad thing, why does it feel so good?
Slouching is your body’s way of taking strain off of its muscles and distributing its weight evenly over its joints. Humans evolved to run around the African savannah, not to sit at a computer desk, and our bodies are poorly suited for sitting for eight hours per day. Although slouching provides temporary comfort, it is a self-perpetuating habit. When you slouch, you slowly elongate the ligaments in your chest and back. These ligaments are what normally keep a person’s back straight, and when they are stretched, the muscles in the back have to work harder to maintain good posture. This is why it feels like so much work to sit up straight, and seems so relatively comfortable to slouch.
The good news is, these ligaments are not permanently lengthened. With a bit of perseverance, you can strengthen your back muscles and give your poor tendons a chance to shorten. It will be a bit of an effort at first, but as the tendons shrink, sitting up straight will become easier.
There is some debate about what “proper” posture actually looks like. It has long been thought that a straight, vertical spine is the ideal posture, but recent research has shown that this might not be the case. A Scottish/Canadian research team found that the back experiences the least strain when the spine is at a 135-degree angle to the legs (see graphic below).
This laid-back angle takes pressure off the vertebrae in the lower back, keeps the spine straight, and more closely resembles the standing position that the body evolved to be in. Don’t confuse the 135-degree leaning position with slouching, however. Slouching involves curvature of the spine and inward collapse of the shoulders, while leaning just involves an angling of the back.
Here are some frightening stats about sitting from a British survey:
• 32% of the population spends more than 10 hours a day sitting.
• Half of all office workers don’t even leave their desks for lunch.
• Two thirds of people resume sitting when they get home.
With all of this sitting we are doing, we should make sure that we are doing it properly. Here are some tips on how to maintain good posture:
• Shift your position often. The more time a person spends in one position, the more likely she is to assume poor posture. Seize any opportunity to get out of your chair; even short breaks can make a big difference.
• Stay fit and do stretches. Maintaining good posture isn’t easy, but good physical health can help a lot.
• Get a comfortable chair that reclines and has good lumbar support.
• Don’t give up on good posture. Just because you have been slouching for 2 decades, that doesn’t mean that your back can’t relearn how to sit properly. Good posture might hurt a bit at first, but the discomfort just comes from the muscles that are working in ways they aren’t used to.