“If someone poured a glass of ice water down your back, you’d instantly assume good posture,” says physical therapist Ben Crawford. Think of that happening often enough, and you’ll make better body lines a habit.
If you spend most of your time hunched over a desk and slouching through other activities, here’s a good bet: Clothes don’t fit you well, you’re often a little breathless, you know you don’t make a super-strong first impression and you’ve yet to find a sport you’re particularly good at. The simple powerful solution? Stand up straight.
Good posture changes how you breathe, how your clothes fit, the physical impact you make on others and how well you move in daily activities and sports, says Kevin D. Plancher, MD, associate clinical professor in orthopedics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. You appear taller and more confident too. Just think of how ballet dancers and professional runners walk.
Easy to say but hard to remember to do for more than a minute or two; slumping seems to come naturally. “Changing habits is key,” says physical therapist Ben Crawford of the Texas Back Institute, a spine clinic at the Presbyterian Hospital of Plano. “So be creative. For instance, each time you take a sip of water, correct your posture. After a few weeks, it will be a habit.” The simple exercises ahead can help make sad-sack body lines a thing of the past too.You’ll also get the benefit of improved breathing—the result of lifting and opening your chest instead of letting it cave in. Better breathing means more oxygen flowing through your muscles, says Crawford. This lets your muscles work more efficiently, much like a car operates more smoothly when it is well-tuned. And good posture fights back pain, adds Aaron G. Filler, MD, PhD and author of Do You Really Need Back Surgery? “When patients come in with neck and shoulder pain, often they don’t need a massage or an MRI; they need to improve their posture,” agrees Plancher.
“There’s an optimal position for the body, a true vertical alignment, with your body neither hunched forward nor leaning back, so that the spine’s natural structure supports you without a great deal of work from the back muscles,” says Filler. “But if you always hold your body in a way that strains the muscles—for example, stooping over so that the back muscles have to work to support you—you can end up in chronic pain.”
Step one means strengthening three areas of the back and shoulders—specifically, says Plancher, the muscles in the upper shoulders and behind your neck; the muscles between your shoulder blades, which help lift your chest up; and the muscles that support your shoulders.
It’s also important to work the “core,” says physiologist Beth Ribblett, fitness director of the Ochsner Clinic Foundation’s Elmwood Fitness Center in New Orleans. The core includes your stomach, lower back and pelvis. Most people concentrate on their abdomen and ignore the back. Big mistake. This can shorten the stomach muscles, which pulls your chest down and brings your shoulders and head forward, leaving you with rounded shoulders—a hallmark of poor posture—instead of having both chest and back opened up, Ribblett says.
But you can fix all this in very simple, gentle ways, as you’ll see in these exercises. Crawford recommends doing these strengtheners and stretches twice per day at first. After several weeks, switch to once a day. Then after several more weeks, reduce to every other day.
Simple back & shoulder strengthener
Lie on your stomach with your head down. Support your forehead with a rolled towel to prevent rotating your neck. You can place a pillow under your shins for comfort too. Repeat each of the following exercises 5–10 times. Work up to doing 2 sets of 10.
1A.Start with your arms overhead, palms down, about shoulder width apart.
1B.Raise your arms up high enough to feel a stretch in the back of your shoulders. When you start to do these exercises, hold this position for 3 seconds. Increase to 5 or more seconds as you build strength. Lower your arms, and repeat.
2A.Extend your arms straight out to the sides at shoulder level, palms down.
2B.Raise your arms up high enough to feel a stretch between your shoulder blades and spine. Hold for 3 seconds. Increase to 5 or more seconds as you build strength. Lower your arms, and repeat.
3A.Place your arms at your sides, palms up.
3B.Raise your arms up high enough to feel a stretch right below your shoulder blade. Hold for 3 seconds. Increase to 5 or more seconds as you build strength. Lower your arms, and repeat.
Tilt & rock stomach strengthener
A. The Tilt: Lie on your back with knees bent so that your feet are flat on the floor, about hip width apart. Place your arms in any relaxed and comfortable position. Some people put their hands on their stomachs to feel their muscles working. Keeping your buttocks on the ground throughout, flatten your back against the floor by tilting your hips up toward your ribs (think of pulling your stomach down toward the ground). Hold for 5 seconds, then release. Repeat 5–10 times.
B. The Rock: Perform the Tilt. Then, instead of releasing your hips back
to your resting position, reverse the tilt, allowing your back to arch. Return to the Tilt in a smooth motion, like a swing moving back and forth slowly. Repeat the sequence 5–10 times.
Chest Lift & Shoulder Aligner
A.In a seated or standing position, keep your jaw, head and neck relaxed in
a neutral position, not jutting your
chin forward or tucking it in. Keep
your shoulders down and relaxed.
B.Lift your breastbone up toward the ceiling. At the same time, pull your shoulder blades together and downward. Hold for 10 seconds, then release. Repeat 5–10 times. Practice in different positions throughout the day, such as when you’re sitting, standing or lying down.