Are you craning your head forward or slumped in your chair as you read this? If so, you may be doing your body harm. Sitting in a slumped position doesn’t just look sloppy. It reduces your lung capacity and can lead to high blood pressure, digestive issues, and muscular imbalances. And it’s not just your body that suffers. Slouching is linked to low self-esteem and depression.
But before you straighten up, it’s important to understand what good posture is and isn’t. When most people try to fix poor posture, they unintentionally create more muscular tension, which can lead to dysfunction and pain. Keep reading to understand why sitting at your desk encourages bad posture, and discover the best way to sit at work to improve your health and well-being.
Your body on office work
Americans sit for an average of 13 hours per day, according to one study. You may have experienced aches and pains from sitting too much, and you may even have heard that sitting is worse for you than smoking. But sitting doesn’t have to be painful or terrible for your health. Humans have been sitting for thousands of years, and people in every culture do a lot of sitting. Recently, researchers discovered that the Hadza, a tribe of modern-day hunter-gatherers in Tanzania, sit for about 10 hours a day.
But not all cultures experience pain or poor health from sitting. And working in a seated position isn’t necessarily a risk factor for lower back pain, according to a review of medical studies. The problem isn’t sitting, but how we’re sitting.
When you sit in front of a computer, it’s natural to unconsciously move closer to the screen. In the process, many people tuck their tailbones, round their spines forward, hunch their shoulders, and tilt their heads upward. This posture compresses the neck, squeezes the lungs and other organs, and inhibits breathing. But because office workers are immersed in what they’re doing, they may not change positions or get up and move around frequently.
The result? Musculoskeletal disorders are common in computer workers. According to a recent study, 45 percent of computer workers suffer from headaches, low back pain, neck pain, shoulder pain, or wrist and hand pain. The body adapts to the way you sit and move, so office workers often develop muscular imbalances from sitting in awkward postures.
For instance, if you round your shoulders forward day after day, the upper-back muscles that keep the shoulder blades pulled down weaken and the pectoral muscles on the front of the shoulders shorten. Many office workers gradually develop postural kyphosis, sometimes called text neck, where the shoulders are perpetually rounded and the head juts forward. It’s also common to develop tight hip muscles on one side of the body from perpetually crossing one leg over the other.
When you have a muscular imbalance, some muscles must work harder to overcompensate for the weak ones, which can lead to pain or injury. Fortunately, posture-related muscular imbalances can usually be reversed with awareness, time, and effort. But it’s easier to prevent them in the first place by improving your posture. The catch? “Good posture” may not actually be good for you.
When good posture isn’t good
You’ve probably been told to “sit up straight, pull your shoulders back, and suck in your belly.” But this posture isn’t good for your body even if it looks better than slouching. Why? Arching your back by thrusting your ribs upward to hold your shoulder blades together causes tightness in the upper back. And sucking in your stomach doesn’t actually strengthen the abdominal muscles. Instead, it creates a vacuum in the abdominal cavity that inhibits circulation, slows digestion, and weakens the core muscles, according to biomechanist Katy Bowman, author of Move Your DNA.
Plus, it’s exhausting to hold the body upright with muscular tension. You can probably only hold yourself erect for a few minutes until you inevitably fatigue and slouch again. So, what should you do instead? Don’t think about straightening up, which creates stress and tension in the body. Instead, think about proactively positioning yourself in your office chair in the first place.
How to sit well
According to Jenn Sherer, a movement expert who teaches a postural program called “spinefulness,” the key to sitting up straight is positioning your pelvis correctly in your chair.
Office workers usually tuck their pelvis when they sit down, which curls the back into the shape of the letter C. Instead, Sherer advises people to untuck their tailbones by hinging forward from the hips before sitting down.
Here’s how to do it:
- Stand in front of your chair with your feet hip-width apart.
- Hinge forward from the hips (not the waist) until you feel your hamstrings (the muscles on the back of the thighs) stretch. Your bottom will be sticking out behind you.
- Tip backward into your chair, maintaining the hinge in your hips as you do.
- Relax your back and chest.
Voila, you’re sitting up straight with a relaxed upper body. If you notice yourself slumping later, don’t arch your back and suck in your belly. Instead, stand up and repeat the above process.
There aren’t many scientific studies on which posture is best, so Sherer draws on anthropological data. She adapted her method from teachings by Noelle Perez Christiaens, a French yoga teacher who has traveled around the world to study how people in diverse cultures sit, stand, and walk into old age without pain.
Wearable devices are an increasingly popular way to improve posture. They can’t teach you the fundamentals of sitting well, but they may be helpful training tools as long as they don’t encourage you to arch your back or suck in your stomach. Look for a device such as Lumo Lift that allows you to set your own target posture and alerts you when you deviate from it.
Sit and be fit
Now that you know how to sit up straight in a relaxed way, you may be tempted to keep that pose for several hours. Don’t do it! Getting up and moving around frequently throughout the day is the best way to maintain health and mobility and prevent musculoskeletal pain.
In one study, computer workers who took breaks every 20 minutes reported the least discomfort from sitting all day, compared to workers who took breaks every 40 minutes or who took no breaks at all. In another study, people who took at least one break in the morning had fewer headaches and less back pain and eye strain than those who didn’t. While on a break, walk around and gently stretch muscles that tighten when you’re sitting, such as the neck, chest, shoulders, hip flexors, and hamstrings.
If you sit all day at work, make an effort to increase your activity levels when you’re not at work. Walking, climbing, yoga, qigong, Tai chi, dance, swimming, and other full-body activities help keep the muscles, joints, and connective tissue strong, flexible, and mobile.
You already know it makes a difference when you sit up straight. Slouch for a few minutes during your next staff meeting and then sit upright, and you’ll immediately feel the difference in your mood and confidence. It’s not your imagination. The way you move changes the way you feel. A recent analysis of 55 studies suggests people who sit and stand in powerful postures feel more powerful.
Changing how you sit requires mindfulness, and you may need to be patient with yourself. Research suggests it takes an average of 66 days to change a habit. But it’s worth it. As your posture improves, you may also notice improvements in your health, confidence, and general well-being.