200 million Americans experience lower back pain. One-third of American adults say it’s affected their ability to perform daily tasks, and over half spend their work day sitting. One common cause of lower back pain—especially in those of us who work at a computer—is the way we sit. Contrary to what you may have been taught, good posture is a little more involved than sitting up straight with your chest puffed out. If you’re doing it right, just sitting down requires the active engagement of the muscles in your core.
You have hundreds of muscles in your body and each one contributes to a different function. There are the obvious ones like playing basketball, walking in the park, strumming a guitar. And then there are the things we never even think about. Just reading this article requires your eyes to be moving, your chest to expand and contract as you breathe, and your head to be upright on your shoulders. When our body is properly aligned, our muscles work without us feeling a thing. And that’s why sitting wrong can be so painful.
If you work at a computer and experience headaches, tight shoulders and lower back pain, you probably aren’t sitting right at your desk. Your posture is probably also affecting your breathing, your digestion, your mood, and likely a number of other problems that you won’t learn about for years. That’s because several muscle groups in your abdomen work with muscle groups in your back to keep you upright while sitting. And maybe because it doesn’t require any work on our part, we’ve taken to sitting with backs curves and shoulders slouched forward, heads angled down at our screens. It feels more comfortable in the moment, but it tends to cause more pain down the road. Good posture helps prevent pain and feels a little bit like a good workout.
3 simple tricks for getting good posture, even at your computer.
Don’t sit straight, sit tall. Imagine that at the top of your head is a string that attaches you to the ceiling. Now imagine that string pulling you up up up so that you’re nearly suspended from the ceiling. Try it. Can you feel your abs contract? Now put your hand behind your back and feel down your spine and feel the curve in your lower back. That curve is there by design but when we slouch, it is eliminated. Instead of adopting a straight back, lengthen your spine. It maintains your natural curvature and evenly distributes pressure along the column to reduce your risk of compression and herniated discs.
Move shoulder blades together. Picture your shoulder blades as the silver wings of a binder clip and move them together, towards your spine. As they move closer, your shoulders and chest open up. (If your shoulders are still up by your ears when you pinch, your elbows will have to move quite a bit. Relax your shoulders and try again.) Just puffing out your chest puts some strain on your spine, but when your spine is straight, your shoulders are low and you can feel all your muscles working. Part of good alignment is having shoulders straight, which puts your arms at your sides and shoulder blades closer together. Now, don’t you feel better?
Scoop your buns. This may be the weirdest tip you ever hear about good posture, but probably the most effective, too. See, none of the above will be sustainable without this key fix: get your buns out of the way. As you’re sitting right now, it’s probably quite difficult to maintain a long spine and level shoulders. That’s because we typically sit on our tailbone, which puts undue pressure on the wrong bones and muscles. In short, it puts you all out of alignment. It’s quite easy to sit upright, though, when you’re on your “sit bones”. How do you do that? While sitting, lean to your left side—weight on left leg—and run your right hand up the back of your right thigh. Find the point where your thigh becomes your butt, and scoop the fat to your back. Really. Do it on both sides. When you feel yourself sitting on bones instead of that cushy fat, and you feel your spine straighten effortlessly, you’ll know you’ve done it right.
Good posture takes some getting used to, so start small. Fix yourself each time you notice a pain in your back or strain in your shoulders. The more your practice, the more natural it will become and the better you’ll feel.