When we think of the benefits of good posture, we almost always only consider the musculoskeletal: fewer aches and pains due to less stress on the joints and muscles of the body. Yet in recent years, researchers are finding myriad other benefits to maintaining good posture while sitting, standing, and walking. Good posture, it turns out, is not only good for your body, but your brain and your productivity as well.
That was enough to make me want to see if I—someone who generally has bad posture—would notice any differences after making a conscious effort to maintain good posture for one week. But just what is good posture?
Erik Peper, PhD, a professor at the Department of Health Education at San Francisco State University who has studied human posture for years, explains:
It is when you make yourself tall by bringing up the chin level and sensing that the back of the head gets tall; while at the same time the shoulders widen and relax and there is a slight lumbar arch in the back. Posture represents being totally present. Ideal posture means that in their body movement and stance they feel totally safe and confident.
So for a week I made a conscious and concerted effort to walk, stand, and sit tall with my chin back and not hunch or round my shoulders or lower back. (Hint: Pretend an invisible string runs up through your body and out the top of your head, and then act as if someone is constantly pulling that string up.) And boy, was that hard for the first few days. Trying to maintain good posture will quickly reveal just how bad your posture normally is. But it will also reveal just how much bad posture affects your everyday productivity. Here are three striking productivity benefits I noticed during my weeklong experiment.
I’m a journalist, which means I spend a lot of the time sitting in a chair typing on a laptop. I’m a sloucher, too, which means when I’m in that chair, I’m usually hunched over, with rounded shoulders and a curved spine. Finally, I’m also a procrastinator, meaning that when I’m slouched in that chair, I’ll put off typing that first sentence as long as I can. Little did I know how being a sloucher seems to directly correlate to being a procrastinator.
The week I made a conscious effort to sit up straight in my chair, I soon realized I didn’t procrastinate as much as I normally do before beginning work, by a startling amount—90% from 10 minutes to around one. I constantly felt more focused while sitting and working, too. This observation shocked me more than anything else. One person it didn’t surprise was Peper.
“This is what our research supports,” he says.
When erect, you have more energy and positive thoughts. When slouching you have less energy and more negative, self-defeating thoughts. In our research we have shown that when people change their thoughts—and it is much easier if this is combined with posture changes—the students reported procrastinating significantly less and were more productive.
Of course, maintaining good posture isn’t something you only do at a desk. It’s something you should do while walking and standing as well. And the benefits go well beyond being less of a procrastinator, as I found out. During the week, my work seemed like a less-daunting challenge, and an activity I looked forward to completing instead. This is because my overall mood seemed to improve toward most things in my life.
“Over the last 60 years, we have seen an increase in depression, which is partially caused by posture,” explains Peper, who notes that in our modern world we have an abundance of “sitting disease” thanks to desk work and passive pastimes including watching television and playing games while hunched over our small smartphone screens.
When you operate with bad posture you reduce the space between the diaphragm and the pelvic floor, compromising breathing, which can lead to everything from low-level, chronic hyperventilation to gastrointestinal discomfort, thanks to the collapsed position you’ve put your body in.
“When you collapse, you signal to the body you are in a defense reaction, and your cortisol goes up and testosterone goes down,” says Peper. He continues:
In our research we have demonstrated that in the collapsed position, you have much easier access to hopeless, helpless, powerless, defeated thoughts and memories, and it takes more brain activation to think of positive empowering thoughts than it does in the erect position.
On the other hand, when you are more erect—whether you’re sitting, standing, or walking—”you have more energy and more access to positive thoughts,” says Peper.
Interestingly, even our language gives hints just how good proper upright posture is to our overall mental well-being, Peper notes. “Think of all the colloquial phrases that are derived from naturalistic observations: ‘things are looking up,’ ‘upper versus downer,'” he points out, just to name a few.
Who doesn’t want more power and influence in their daily life? Little did I know that improving my posture would lead to both. For the week, everywhere I went I tried to maintain good posture, and I soon noticed that strangers were treating me differently because of it. Multiple times while waiting in line at the grocery store’s meat department (with other customers waiting as well), the butchers always asked me first if I had been helped before they would ask the other customers. This happened again at Starbucks and also at a bar. Needless to say, this was a huge power kick. But could my posture have really conveyed that I deserved more immediate attention than others?
You bet, says Peper. “Posture is how we communicate to others: dominance versus submission. When standing tall you unknowingly occupy more space, you radiate outward, and thus are more easily recognized.”
On the other hand, when a person is collapsed in bad posture, they signify that they are muscularly weaker and in a defensive position, which, thanks to classical human conditioning over thousands of generations, makes people see you—whether they consciously realize it or not—as less important from your better-postured peers.
In short, standing tall in both the coffeehouse and the boardroom will signify to others that they should give priority to taking care of your needs first.
Of course, standing tall is easier said than done. Keeping proper posture for a week was no easy task. There were plenty of times when it was more exhausting than going for a jog because my body was so unconditioned to maintaining good posture. And maintaining good posture isn’t something you can do in 10 minutes a day, it’s an all-day effort.
So how can you improve your posture? Peper says it’s important to become aware of times you are collapsing or slouching and each time you slouch you should take a breath, move, and become erect. Of course, he concedes, the challenge is that most people are unaware of their slouching. That’s why he recommends a posture feedback wearable device that vibrates every time you slouch and signals to you to correct your posture.
“The best wearable device is the UpRight that works with your cell phone,” he says. “In our research, participants are totally surprised when they slouch and they have identified a number of triggers such as crossing their legs (a common defense reaction for women), tightening up emotionally (a defense reaction), looking at their cell phone, or working at the computer.”
If a wearable is too geeky for you, Peper recommends making simple changes to your environment by using a monitor and external keyboard while working on a laptop so that you don’t slouch while at a desk. He also says that when sitting on a chair or couch, something as simple as placing a pillow in the small of your back to support your spine’s slight arch is often enough to help condition you to sit and relax with better posture.
In the end, Peper says, these small improvements can lead to big benefits—the likes of which I experienced. “What most people do not realize is that posture communicates our capabilities and worth to others and also affects our own psychophysiology,” he says. “Our mothers told us as children: Sit up, stand straight. However, most people probably only took irritation from this. Yet our mothers were right. We need to educate people about and encourage them to maintain good, upright posture, as it’s an important component for physical health, mental health, and productivity.”