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Stand Tall: The Effects of Poor Posture

“Sit up straight!” 

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Soon after college graduation, as an adult working a full-time job that plopped me in front of a computer from nine to six, I quickly felt the pain of hunching over. Each day I felt my spine curl and my shoulders roll forward until I felt like I was living my very own Los Angeles rendition of The Hunchback. I started to think that maybe my mother and all those other posture police were on to something after all. Is something serious actually happening to my body as I sit at work with poor posture—other than making me look bad?

What’s Really Going On?
The state of our stance really does have an effect on our well-being. The simple act of hunching over for a prolonged amount of time can result in a slew of pain (as many of us have already realized), like nagging lower backaches, tightness between the shoulders, frequent headaches, jaw pain, and even anxiety. I definitely wasn’t planning on becoming the girl with the achy back until I was at least nearing retirement, but the slouch’s downward spiral can quickly push us toward the physical problems we used to only hear our grandparents complaining about. The body compensates for bad posture by slouching forward even further as muscles weaken and become used to the not-so-pretty stance.

When we spend prolonged periods hunched over (and few can escape the wrath of computers nowadays), the muscles around the vertebrae become strained, stressing the spine and its nearby neighbors, the neck and shoulders. Over time, the spine’s curvature can actually be changed, evolving from its natural S shape (viewed from the side) to more of a C. This unnatural curve will wreak serious havoc on our joints, discs, and muscles, and even constrict nerves, blood vessels, and digestion.

Speaking of our insides, some studies have traced a relationship between poor posture and low self-confidence. Besides being computer-induced, I notice myself hunching a little more when I feel embarrassed or uncomfortable. (Ah, the memories of being called on in high school calculus.) This habit breeds a cycle of its own—we feel worse about ourselves when we’re hunched over, and we hunch over because we aren’t feeling so hot. Researchers at the National Association of Anxiety Disorders have linked bad posture to feelings of anxiousness by studying breathing patterns associated with slouching. The hunch has also been linked to acid reflux, since we’re more likely to gurgle up stomach juices with our esophagus curled over.

More Than Looks
Growing up, I didn’t care a bit about standing up straight. Who cares how I look at the dinner table? I’ll just stand up straight when I hit the mall after school. Well, experts say it’s not so simple. According to NASA, long-term effects of bad posture abound. (One point for you, mom,) “Imagine yourself slouching,” says Rita Brown, a Los Angeles-based chiropractor. “Your head and shoulders are hanging forward. This can lead to long-term pain in a whole range of areas: the head, the shoulders, the back. And once you’re used to slouching, it’s a difficult habit to break.”

I figured this was as good of a time as any to bring up another posture myth I’d heard as a kid: Can regular slouching cause scoliosis? Thankfully, for my spine, at least this one’s not true. According to Brown, there’s no known link between poor posture and scoliosis. However, anyone who already has the condition can aggravate it with bad posture. Sitting up straight has benefits even here.

Computers—What Can You Do?
Sitting in front of a computer screen really isn’t much of an option for many of us. But besides all the benefits of being so technologically savvy, the cubicle lifestyle encourages extreme slouching. Short of a career change, are there any other options? The problem has become so widespread that an area of study has cropped up to counter it: ergonomics. If you’re a computer-slumper like me, your workstation may have a poor ergonomic set-up. Poor ergonomics means pain.

Alexandra James has felt the affects of poor ergonomics firsthand. After graduating college, she began work at a movie production company, where she spends most weekdays in front of a computer and on the phone. A few months in, she noticed a pain in between her shoulder blades: “I thought it was just normal soreness, but it worsened pretty quickly and wouldn’t go away,” she remembers. After visiting a physical therapist, she implemented a few small changes that have virtually eliminated her tenderness. “Basically, she showed me how to sit the right way,” she says. Now James’s chair is pulled in close to the desk she works at, her feet rest flat on a stool beneath her desk, and she has an insert for her chair that she slides behind her lower back to maintain her spine’s natural curve.

Brown suggests using a headset if you spend a lot of time on the phone to help keep the neck in line. And, of course, nothing keeps the muscles as happy as an hourly jaunt around the block (or at least the office).

Healing the Wrongs
Since I’m more than a few months in to my bad posture, I figured I had a long way to go to heal the ills that I’d accumulated. Brown says this is definitely not true. “Slouching will feel less and less natural if you do strengthening exercises. These will counter the negative effects you’ve built up and re-teach your body how to sit.” Weight-training exercises that focus on our back, shoulders, and neck can make muscles more willing to hold the body up straight; regular stretching, like yoga, can keep muscles relaxed. Core exercises that focus on the deep abdominals and muscles around the spine can build up a slouch-free foundation, too—which is exactly what Pilates does. Now I have more motivation to make it to those weekly Pilates classes.

From looking good to long-term pain, now I can no longer hunch forward in ignorance. Guess my future children may just hear that dreaded “sit up straight” after all. At least I’ll have some good reasons to back it up.

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