When you're at your desk sending last-minute emails, or deeply focused on editing that board presentation, your posture is probably the last thing on your mind. There are many times I've caught myself completely slouched over my computer — but only after my back has started to ache. Though most of us probably don't actively think about our posture throughout the day, we probably should: Posture can affect your health in some seriously surprising ways.
Natalie Lovitz, PT, DPT, and Clinical Director of Professional Physical Therapy in New York, NY, tells Bustle that good posture can greatly improve your energy level, and says that "by limiting pain, alignment faults, and sequelae of other injuries caused by poor posture, people are more likely to live an active lifestyle and do so for longer." Moreover, Dr. Kevin Carneiro, Assistant Professor of Neurosurgery and Physical Medicine Rehabilitation, and Medical Director of UNC Hospitals Spine Center, adds that "good posture allows for easier respiration as you are putting your diaphragm in the optimal position for breathing," which in turn can reduce pain.
While good posture can have major health benefits like better energy and respiratory health, poor posture can actually contribute to some pretty serious health issues — beyond neck or back pain. From fatigue to digestive issues, here are nine ways that experts say your poor posture may be affecting your health — and how to fix it.
Many different things can trigger a headache, but did you know your posture can play a role? "There are many kinds of headaches, but cervicogenic headaches originate in the neck, and can be fixed when working on posture. These headaches start in the base of your neck and radiate up," Lovitz says. 'They are typically caused by forward head posture (i.e. head in front of your shoulders and trunk), which places increased stress on the joints and muscles in your upper neck."
If you often work at a computer, one way Lovitz suggests to help fix your posture is by making sure your monitor is set up correctly. "Monitors should be eighteen inches in front of you at eye level. This goes for standing desks as well. Though being poised is a better option, standing desks often leave monitors too low. Use a book or a ream of paper if your monitor stand doesn’t allow for additional height," she says.
Dr. Santhosh Thomas, DO, MBA, who works at the Cleveland Clinic's Center for Spine Health, says good posture can help with self-confidence, but studies have found that poor posture can negatively influence the way we feel about ourselves. If you want to work on your posture, Dr. Thomas suggests to, "relax your muscles, stand straight, let your arms hang naturally, and work on core strengthening."
Fatigue & Sleep Issues
According to Christina Ciccione, PT, DPT, and Clinical Director of Professional Physical Therapy in Baldwin, NY, poor posture can make you feel more fatigued than usual. "The body must work harder and expend more energy to keep the body upright in the proper posture position, while fighting poor posture habits. This requires increased energy and leaves one feeling tired," she explains. Moreover, Lovitz explains that "postural deficits can lead to pain and alignment changes that make it difficult to find a comfortable sleeping position. This kind of pain can often wake people at night."
Ciccione says one way to combat poor posture (and the fatigue or sleep issues caused by it) is to regularly do scapula retractions (aka, scapula squeezes) if you're stuck at your desk for long periods at a time. "A scapular retraction is the act of bringing one’s shoulder blades back and together. This motion improves posture by decreasing our tendency to assume a slouched posture," she says.
Hip, Knee, Or Ankle Pain
It's common knowledge that poor posture can contribute to pain in your upper body, like neck or back pain, but it can also cause discomfort in your lower body. "It’s hard to believe you can injure your lower extremities while sitting. However, the joints in your lower extremities are very much connected to your spine and posture — literally and figuratively. Altered posture and muscle imbalances caused by poor posture can place strain on your hips, knees and even feet," says Lovitz.
One way to adjust your seat to support good posture is to switch out your standard desk chair for a balance ball chair, which makes your core muscles work throughout the day, strengthening your back, and reduce the pressure on your bottom from sitting all day. If you're not ready to commit to a full balance ball chair, balance cushions or wedges, like these options from Gaiam, can give you the benefits of a full balance ball without having to swap out your seat.
Digestive health problems can be caused by a wide range of factors, but poor posture can contribute to stomach issues like acid reflux or heartburn. "Poor posture can hinder digestion," explains Ciccione. "When one assumes a slouched posture, the organs are compressed in the abdomen, which makes it harder for the body to digest food, and decreases one’s metabolism."
Lovitz adds that if you are experiencing health problems related to poor posture, one skill you can try is the "20/20/20 rule." She explains, "Stand every 20 minutes, for 20 seconds, and look 20 feet ahead. When sitting for longer than 20 minutes, research shows that your tissue will actually start to conform and change with your posture. Set an alarm, leave a note, or do whatever works for you."
Thoracic Outlet Syndrome
So, you may not have heard of this syndrome before, but it's no less uncomfortable. "Forward head posture and slouched shoulders can restrict nerves and [blood] vessels in the lower neck, and upper chest that supply your arms. Symptoms are often diffuse and mild tingling, and/or numbness. This is known as thoracic outlet syndrome, and is often improved with better posture," says Lovitz. According to the Cleveland Clinic, thoracic outlet syndrome not only causes numbness and tingling, but can also cause pain and bad circulation. Moreover, if the disorder goes untreated, it can cause more serious problems, including swelling and blood clots.
Yes, poor posture can cause both physical and mental stress. Ciccione explains that, "Poor posture affects your body’s natural alignment, which puts physical stress on the body and causes soreness and pain. This can also translate into mental stress, decreasing one’s motivation, and overall mood." Moreover, TIME reported that a 2014 study found bad posture negatively impacts your mood, and can contribute to depression and fear.
So, for the sake of your overall wellness, Dr. Carneiro says, "Don’t stay in a static position for more than 20 minutes at a time — we know that movement is beneficial in improving posture."
The organization Arthritis Research U.K. explains that, in the long run, poor posture can be extremely detrimental to your joint health, and can be a contributing factor in developing arthritis. Furthermore, Lovitz explains, "Posture is often modifiable, i.e. we can change it. However as we age, poor posture can lead to joint degeneration, arthritis and limited mobility, which turns into 'fixed' poor posture. Making small changes now can prevent long term posture changes in the future."
Being aware of your posture, and trying to correct your posture if it's poor, is super important — especially if you seem to be experiencing any of these health issues on the regular. By doing simple stretches and exercises, and making a few modifications to your office space, you could greatly improve your posture, and in turn, your health.