Stand up straight. Don’t slouch. Stand tall. It turns out your mom’s favorite pieces of advice were right.
Slouching, or having bad posture, can have negative short- and long-term impacts on your spine.
While most of us know we should improve our posture, it’s all too easy to slip into bad habits, like sitting for long periods of time or hunching over your laptop.
Luckily, UW Medicine sports medicine doctors have some simple solutions to straighten you out.
Why is posture so important?
“Good posture when standing and especially sitting is very important,” says Dr. Omar Bhatti, a UW Medicine sports medicine doctor. “It can help maintain overall spine health and promote a strong core.”
When you hunch over, you are straining your ligaments, muscles and joints in your neck, shoulders and back.
You are also putting pressure on intervertebral discs in your spine, which sit between your vertebrae and help support you and absorb shock.
Bhatti likens these discs to jelly donuts: they have a firm outer casing and a gel interior.
Bad posture can cause these discs to wear down, he notes, and some of the jelly can seep out of the donut. This can put pressure on your nerve root and cause chronic back pain and sciatica, a numbness or pain in your lower back that can extend down your leg.
On the flip side, good posture can protect you from injury, reduce headaches caused by neck strain and help you breathe deeper.
“When you’re sitting or slouching, it compresses your rib cage and lungs,” Bhatti explains. “If you think about someone running and trying to catch their breath, their hands are on their head to expand their chest and increase the diameter of their rib cage. Standing up straight helps them take a deeper breath.”
What does good posture look like?
You know when you’re curled in a C-shape scrolling on your phone? Well, not that.
“Your ear should be in line with your shoulder, which is in line with your hip,” says Dr. Mindy Loveless, a UW Medicine sports medicine doctor. “Tuck your chin back a little bit to bring your head in better alignment with your neck and shoulders.”
If you’re not sure if you’re doing it right, Loveless recommends pulling your shoulder blades together and down, which will help you achieve the correct position.
Once you’ve gotten yourself situated, do your best to relax. The goal is to improve your posture without feeling stiff or forced.
Is it bad to crack your neck or spine?
While habitually cracking your back or neck is not advised, any pops that happen while you are stretching or moving are generally safe so long as they aren’t painful, Bhatti says.
There are some cases where sudden, high-velocity movements — think having your back popped by a chiropractor — can cause injury, but Bhatti notes these cases are rare, and they aren’t the kind of pops you can do to yourself.
If you are looking to curb the urge to crack your back though, work on strengthening your core and stretching, which will prevent that tight, tense feeling that makes you want to pop your joints in the first place.
How can you improve your posture while working?
One of the biggest culprits of bad posture is working on a computer, which compounds sitting for hours with bending over a screen.
In an ideal setting, ergonomic options like a standing desk would help you meet your posture goals. But for many people these options aren’t available, which means it’s time to MacGyver it.
“The key is to sit less and to sit with better posture,” says Bhatti.
You want your head to be looking straight forward at your computer screen, with your elbows, hips and knees bent at a 90-degree angle.
To achieve this, you might need to put some books underneath your monitor or laptop so that you don’t have to look down at your screen. If you have one available, use an external keyboard on the table while your laptop or monitor is propped on books so that you keep that healthy angle in your elbows.
You also want to watch your posture while you’re on your phone. Try to remind yourself to hold your phone up so that you are looking directly at the screen with your neck straight, Loveless notes.
If you don’t have an external monitor or keyboard — or if all else fails — remember to take breaks to stretch and move around. You can set a timer on your phone to remind yourself to check your alignment, do some stretches and move your body.
Do posture apps actually work?
There currently isn’t enough data on posture apps to definitively say how effective they are, Bhatti says.
However, there are some features he finds helpful. Some of these apps send reminders to stretch, while others connect to sensors that can alert you if you start to slouch.
If you like these reminders, the apps may be a good option for you. That said, you can also save some cash and simply set a timer on your phone.
Ultimately, the key is to be more mindful about your body positioning so that you can retrain yourself to have better posture.
What exercises and stretches help with spine health?
You don’t need to live at the gym (or even have any equipment) to improve your spine health.
Wall sits, planks and core strengthening exercises, like sit-ups and crunches, can help build the muscles that support your spine. Aim to do a couple days of strengthening and stretching per week, plus a bit of cardio too, says Bhatti.
For stretches, Loveless recommends doing some twists, back bends and hip flexors. You can also roll your shoulders, lay on the ground and bring your knees to your chest, or arch your back while you’re on your hands and knees in a cat-cow yoga position.
“What works best is going to depend on the person because one person may love yoga while another hates it. The big thing is finding what exercises you enjoy and then doing it,” Bhatti says.
With a little bit of effort, you can improve your spine health and posture — and make mom proud too.