Stack 'Em Up Part One: The Benefits of Good Posture
Updated: Jun 21, 2022
by Anna DiMarco, Senior Physiotherapist
1) Physical Efficiency and Longevity of Our Moving Parts
As a physiotherapist, I have had a professional interest in the importance of good posture for my entire professional career. We "rehab types" have long recognized the physical importance of proper spinal alignment for movement efficiency and for mechanical unloading of our physical structures. Proper posture requires less muscle energy to sustain us and to propel us and also offers us a kinder way to transmit forces through our bones, joints and cartilage. As you can well imagine, a vehicle that has good tire inflation and good front end alignment will move with greater fluidity and will produce less wear and tear on your vehicle. The same can be said about your physical posture. Good posture is essential for mechanical fluidity, improved muscle function and efficiency and less breakdown of our skeletal structures. Essentially, when we are maintaining good static and dynamic posture, we are investing in preventative maintenance of our moving parts.
2) Improved Breathing Patterns....Better Oxygenation
As well, good posture has been scientifically linked to improved breathing patterns as our diaphragm is more likely to be activated when the body is in a position to allow for proper inflation of the lungs. Imagine trying to inflate a balloon with your breath while simultaneously squeezing into the balloon by your holding technique. When we slouch forward, we are compressing the ribcage, the lungs and the diaphragm and therefore making it less likely that our inhale will generate a true belly breathe (see previous post...Life is Breath). When we rely on our secondary, smaller muscles in the upper chest to assist with our breathing, we set up a cycle of increased workload and decreased efficiency and our body is not receiving as much oxygen nor eliminating as much carbon dioxide as it requires for optimal function.
3) Improved Digestion, Metabolism, Absorption and Elimination
We are now recognizing the benefits of good posture on digestion and elimination. If we have assumed a slouched, forward head posture, we have placed our jaw in a somewhat disadvantaged position for effective chewing and initial break down of our food. This poorly masticated food then hits our digestive organs, which are also compressed and compromised by our poor posture. When the digestive system is operating in a sluggish and sub optimal manner, we are potentially absorbing fewer nutrients and eliminating less toxic waste.
4) The Beauty of It All
There is no question that good posture is more aesthetically pleasing not only to the trained physiotherapist or dance instructor, but also to the casual observer. Good posture takes inches off our waistline and years off our biological age. In the clinic, if I am having trouble convincing a client about the physical importance of restoring a healthy body posture, I resort to their vanity and take them to the closest mirror. I ask them to observe themselves from a front and side view without instructing a correction to their posture. I then instruct a correction to their posture and have them look at their mirror images once again. Without fail, the female clients are most impressed with the instant weight loss and age defying grace granted by the simple correction. The male clients are most delighted with the sudden definition in their shoulders, chest and abdominal regions, noting an instant "buffing up" without hitting the gym. Try this for yourself. Check yourself out in the mirror, preferably shirtless. First assume a somewhat slouched posture and assess yourself from the front and the side views. Next, correct your posture using the tips in "Stack 'Em Up, Part 2: What Does Good Posture Look Like?" Which posture was more appealing to your senses?
Good posture and its "beauty" extend far beyond the mere physical improvement of our appearance. Research has consistently demonstrated that people who carry themselves forward with good posture tend to be thought of as confident, graceful, energetic, interested and competent. People who slouch are thought of as lacking confidence, lazy, bored, disinterested, incompetent and depressed. We are consciously and unconsciously assessing the way people hold themselves and ultimately we make assumptions and judgements about their internal states. Certainly the negative judgements we make about those with poor posture may then influence our willingness to engage or the degree to which we will engage with these people socially and professionally as first impressions are powerful. In one research project whereby subjects were asked to make assessments on a presenter's personality traits based on first impressions formulated with no auditory clues, 90% of the listeners' first impressions remained unchanged even after hearing the content of the presenter's message. Further research suggests that we may be quite accurate with our first impressions assessments. In a University of Texas study, participants viewed photos of people they had never met before. One half of the photo subjects were asked to pose with a neutral facial and body expression and the other half were allowed to pose naturally, with no direction given. The study participants viewed all of the photos and were asked to judge the photographed subjects on ten personality traits. The participants were able to guess personality traits of the "natural pose" subjects with 90% accuracy. Indeed, body posture is a very strong and effective non verbal method of communicating. We must be mindful of what we are communicating!!!
5) Slouchy Posture....Slouchy Mind
It appears that not only do we make assumptions about other people's mood, ability, confidence and energy by simply assessing their posture, but our minds also make assumptions about OUR OWN internal states based on the postures we physically inhabit. So the silent conversations and dialogues that occur between our minds and our bodies are really much more of a two way exchange than we may have recognized in the past. Just as our bodies are listening to our minds (when we are down and out, it is very difficult to hold ourselves upright in good posture), our minds are perpetually listening to our bodies as well (it is apparently more difficult to generate positive thoughts when the body is in a slouched posture).
The body, in its postural stance/ position, surreptitiously relays information to our brain, supposedly reflecting the mood we find our self in. The brain receives this input and adjusts our neurochemical/hormonal state to match what the body is suggesting our mood state is. Does this mean that a happy person who slouches all day long at his desk will generate a negative emotional state within their minds, even if there is no circumstance to support the negative mood?? It appears to be the case.
For me, the most intriguing aspect of the research around mind-body connection has been the finding that in some instances, our mind and bodies cannot distinguish between real postures and expressions and artificial or imposed ones. For example, it has been found that our minds cannot fully distinguish between a forced smile and a genuine one. Researcher Fritz Strack first investigated this hypothesis in 1988. He had participants hold a pencil in their mouths while watching cartoons and funnies. One group of participants was instructed to hold the pencils with their teeth, which would place the facial muscles into a smile-like position, and the other group was instructed to hold the pencil with their lips, which would result in a neutral to frown-like expression. The group that was "smiling" consistently rated the cartoons and funnies as being more humorous than the "non-smiling" group of subjects. This facial feedback hypothesis has been an area of interest for the social scientists for several decades, and now they have ventured into the arena of the postural feedback hypothesis. In other words, how does the posture we assume affect our own mood, motivation, perception and physical energy levels? This could have tremendous impact on a society that has been spending an increasing amount of time slouched over laptops, tablets and Smart Phones, and slouched on couches watching a never-ending stream of (poor quality) reality based television.
What we do know about posture and the postural feedback phenomenon is quite fascinating really. Researchers have found that when subjects adopt high power poses, they experience an increase in testosterone levels and a decrease in cortisol levels as measured in their saliva. In one particular experiment (Cuddy et al, 2012) the posture was assumed for a mere two minutes and still resulted in changes to the subjects' neuro-chemistry. (If you are a TED talk junkie, you may want to watch her fascinating presentation at this link)A high power pose is one that is upright, expanded and taking up a lot of space.... think male CEO sitting at his desk, leaning back in his chair with his hands interlaced behind his back, legs spread wide or possibly even on the desk. Conversely, when subjects were placed in poor posture with a slouch, a contraction of the body and taking up less space, their testosterone levels dropped and their cortisol levels increased. Increased testosterone is linked to increased confidence and self esteem, increased risk-taking behaviour, increased dominance and competitiveness and increased aggression. Increased cortisol levels, referred to as "Public Health Enemy Number One" by some medical experts, has been shown to be responsible for a myriad of health issues including, but not limited to, interference with memory and learning, decreased immune function, increased weight gain, increased blood pressure and increased cholesterol levels, increased heart disease, increased risk of depression and decreased life expectancy.
So, as we sit at our desks or on our couches, postures slouched for hours on end, what are we doing to our testosterone and cortisol levels? If changes in our chemistry occur in only a matter of minutes, what is the long term effect on our physical and emotional well-being of such detrimental sustained postures??? The lesson in Cuddy's research extends well beyond her original mandate of researching the impact of pre-interview/presentation power posing and success outcomes. Clearly, there are many health and behavioural benefits to good posture, and a larger number of potential detriments to prolonged poor posture.
Scientist Erik Peper has been investigating how body posture affects subjective strength and energy level as well as the effects of posture on a subject's likelihood of generating positive and negative thoughts. In much of his research, Peper took baseline data via questionnaires on all subjects in order to rate their energy levels, thought generating tendencies and physical strength perceptions before assignment to the slouching or upright group. He then had the subjects assigned to both groups at different times and re-tested their questionnaire responses and compared the responses to the baseline responses. Peper's research demonstrated that subjects consistently reported greater strength, increased energy and easier access to positive thoughts when they were assigned to upright, expansive postures (not power posing, but rather, what we would consider "good“ posture) compared to their baseline responses. The opposite effect occurred when the subjects were re-evaluated after their assignment to the slouchy groups.
The lesson in Peper's research? If we want to feel more physical strength and energy and have easier access to positive thoughts and memories, we should assume healthy upright postures and be very mindful of the way we hold ourselves in all situations and physical endeavors. Apparently, when we lazily slouch around the office, the home, during play and during critical professional meetings, we may be producing a very negative "sluggish and slouchy" environment for our minds to operate from.
Clearly it is worth our time to invest some energy in modifying our postural habits even if we are not experiencing any physical discomforts or apparent negative repercussions from our daily habit of slouching. It is clear that slouching can be a somewhat silent saboteur of our general health and well-being. For tips on achieving improved posture, please read part two of "Stack 'Em Up". If you are having difficulty assessing and correcting your posture, or if you require guidance for postural strengthening exercises, contact a licensed physiotherapist in your neighbourhood.
Stay Strong, Stack 'Em Up Well, Live Well, Anna