I was recently looking at photos from my best friend's bachelorette party in New Orleans and came across a picture of my best friend and her sister posing at our crawfish boil (yum). But it wasn't their gorgeous faces or the insane amount of food in the photo that caught my eye—it was myself in the background.
When the photo was taken, I must have been checking my email or responding to a text. My neck and shoulders were hunched forward, and my face was hovering inches over my phone. My back looked oddly rounded, and even though I'm terrible at estimating how tall people are, even I could tell that the way I was standing made me look several inches shorter than my real height of 5'6".
Honestly, my posture was painful to look at—and it's painful to experience too. A few hours into every workday, I find myself dealing with pain in my back, neck, and shoulders—and when I try to straighten up, it's like my muscles don't want to cooperate.
"Good posture is one of the most important controllable factors in optimizing spine health and preventing possible conditions from forming," says Robert Koser, D.C., of the Laser Spine Institute. "Besides improving your overall self-image and confidence, proper posture also helps develop stronger core muscles and prevents muscle fatigue."
Seeing that photo was a wake-up call. I don't want to look slouchy forever—or experience the pain that goes along with said slouching—so I talked with the experts to figure out how to straighten up and get my posture in line (pun intended!) once and for all:
Bad posture: Pretty much everyone's got it.
I may have been horrified when I saw that photo of myself, but I'm hardly the only one struggling with posture issues. Because we spend the majority of our day sitting and staring at our computer or phone (the average American spends a whopping 10 hours per day staring at a screen), bad posture is pretty much a universal experience.
"Sedentary behaviors such as prolonged sitting without standing breaks or constantly looking down at a cell phone screen can be very detrimental," Koser says.
"Short term, you'll develop muscle tightness, which can lead to a restricted range of motion in your joints," says Ellen Bunn, PT, DPT. "Then, you may become susceptible to a variety of musculoskeletal conditions. For example, if your shoulders start to round forward, when you go to reach overhead, you may develop shoulder impingement. If your back is not supported with a strong core, when you move, you may injure your back. And your neck may get tight, resulting in musculoskeletal strain or even injuries to the intervertebral discs."
"The way you hold your neck determines how much pressure is placed on your spine, and for every inch you lean your head forward, 10 pounds of added pressure is placed on your spine," Koser says. "Over time, poor posture may cause chronic shortening of certain muscle groups and may even contribute to certain aches and pains down the road—poor posture may even cause the early onset of osteoarthritis or degenerative disc disease."
So, the bad news is, most of us have bad posture—and that can have seriously negative effects on our health. But the good news? With a bit of conscious effort, you can change this (and look and feel better as a result).
So how do you fix back pain through posture?
Here are some tips for getting your posture "back" in line (sorry, had to); straightening your spine; and kicking your back, neck, or shoulder pain to the curb:
"The first step is possibly the hardest but also the most important—and that's becoming very aware of your posture," Bunn says. "Having a way to remind yourself of good posture frequently throughout the day is perhaps the best way to get started… you could set some reminders on your computer or wear a Fitbit that vibrates when you've been sedentary too long. These external reminders are great ways to bring our awareness back to our posture."
If you really struggle with posture awareness, you could also invest in a posture wearable like Lumo Lift, which vibrates every time you slouch and reminds you to sit or stand up straight.
Work on your core.
If you needed another excuse to get your plank on, here you go—working on your core muscles can help you improve your posture.
"Strong abdominal and back muscles, also referred to as core muscles, act as a built-in brace for your spine. Exercises such as squats, crunches, and chest lifts may help bolster core strength," Koser says. "Low-impact exercises such as yoga, Pilates, and tai chi can help you practice holding muscles in particular positions, which can develop better core endurance."
Get the right setup.
In an ideal world, none of us would have to sit at desks all day. But the fact is, a lot of us do (myself included!). So if we want to improve our posture, we've got to work with what we've got and maximize our office spaces to be as posture-friendly as possible.
"An ergonomic assessment will enable you to determine if your work setup is good for your body," Bunn says. "If you're sitting at a chair or desk that is too high or too low for you, attaining good posture may be difficult no matter what you do."
You also need to be aware of where you set up your computer. "For most individuals, adjusting your computer monitor 20-30 inches out in front of you and just below eye level while sitting up straight and having your knees close to a 90-degree angle is an ideal setup," Koser says.
Once you've got the right chair, desk, and computer setup, add a little cushioning to keep your posture on point. "If you are sitting for many hours during the day, try using supportive spinal cushions to maintain good posture," Koser says.
Stretch it out.
One of the best ways to alleviate the pain from bad posture and get yourself straightened up and back on track? Stretching.
"The most important things to stretch are your hips, back, and neck. When we sit for prolonged periods of time, our hips often become very tight, and we lose hip extension range of motion," Bunn says. "Additionally, we can start to get tight in the front of the chest, and we lose strength in our back extensors and core. A flexibility program of stretching hip flexors and chest openers in combination with a good back/core strengthening program is the best way to maintain good posture."
So which specific stretches can help?
"Upward-facing dog is a great stretch because it's a position in which both your back and hips are in extension," Bunn says. "When seated, your hip flexor muscles tend to get very tight. Bow pose is also really effective because, in addition to getting back and hip extension, you are also getting a shoulder stretch and engaging your neck extensors. Finally, performing a 'chin tuck' in which you draw your head back can help prevent forward head posture."
For more posture-improving stretches, check out the Physera app—search for "Posture with Yoga."
Get professional help.
If you make strides to improve your posture and aren't seeing results, it may be time to talk to your doctor.
"If weeks or months of conservative treatment—including chiropractic care, physical therapy, postural exercises, and medications or injections—don't provide the relief you need for a good quality of life, it may be time to consult with a medical professional about more interventional care options," Koser says.
I've been incorporating these tips for a few weeks, and I've gotta say—I can see and feel a huge difference. This weekend, I'm leaving for my bachelorette party—and this time around when I look at the photos, my slouchiness is going to be the last thing I notice.Deanna deBara is a freelance writer and accidental marathon runner living in Portland, OR. Keep up with her running adventures on Twitter @deannadebara.