Head High, Shoulders Back: Why Good Posture Matters Even Today

“Stand up straight” is a common piece of advice, frequently told to us by our grandmothers and Jordan Peterson. And, like usual, there’s good sense in what they’re telling us to do.

By Paula Gallagher5 min read
Head High, Shoulders Back: Why Good Posture Matters Even Today

Proper posture has many benefits, physical and mental, immediate and long-term. Here are just a few ways that straightening up your spine can elevate not only your head but also your life.

Is There Power in the Power Pose? 

We communicate our mental and emotional state through our posture all the time, often without even realizing it. If you’re feeling stressed and burdened, you’re most likely slumping, looking down, and shuffling your feet. If you’re feeling happy and confident, you’re most likely walking with your shoulders back and your face up, smiling and making eye contact. Our bodies express our internal state. But can we change our internal state by first changing our bodies? We can, according to social psychologist Amy Cuddy from Harvard Business School.

In 2012, Dr. Amy Cuddy gave a widely popular TED Talk on her findings of the effects of “power posing” — standing in a posture of confidence (even if you’re not feeling confident). She claimed that participants who stood in an open, dominant, expansive, and powerful pose consequently felt more powerful and confident — leading them to perform better in mock interviews. She further claimed that power posing raised the participants’ testosterone levels and dropped their cortisol levels — seemingly proving that manipulating our body’s position could impact our internal chemistry.

Cuddy said, “Our bodies can change our minds, and our minds can change our behavior, and our behavior can change our outcomes.”

Expansive postures, like power posing, give the feeling of being powerful and confident. 

This power pose discovery seemed like a life-changing finding, until 2015, when another study attempting to replicate her results wasn’t able to. Amy Cuddy wrote a follow-up academic paper in 2017, analyzing over 55 studies, in which she arrived at the conclusion that expansive postures, like power posing, do give the feeling of being powerful and confident. However, that feeling doesn’t reliably impact behavior and hormone levels weren’t impacted. So essentially, power posing has a placebo effect.

While there are fewer scientifically proven benefits to power posing than initially thought, simply feeling more confident or powerful might be all you need to help you in that job interview or on that first date.

Good Posture Improves Organ Function 

Good posture does more than make us feel confident. The way we carry our spine, shoulders, neck, and head can negatively impact our internal organ function, sometimes resulting in chronic pain.

Your Lungs

Rounded, hunched forward shoulders and forward head position (like when sitting at a desk working on a computer) can limit your breathing, by as much as 30%. Not only is your ribcage (where your lungs are) compressed, but you’re using your neck muscles to breathe (instead of your diaphragm) — which means you’re taking shallow breaths in partially inflated lungs. As a result, you’re inhaling less oxygen and exhaling less carbon dioxide and other toxins. 

Slouching can restrict your breathing by as much as 30%.

Additionally, shallow breathing occurs as part of the stress response, whereas deep breathing indicates safety and relaxation. Stacy Dockins, author of Embodied Posture, writes, “Shallow breathing is highly correlated with the body’s fight or flight response and the increased production of the stress hormone, cortisol. When the body is burdened with excess cortisol, it can cause a cascade of negative effects on other systems of the body, like blood sugar dysregulation, hormone imbalance, and musculoskeletal pain. Longer, slower, deeper breaths are strongly correlated with parasympathetic response, decreasing stress.”

Proper posture promotes full, deep breaths, which tap into the parasympathetic response, telling your mind and your body that it’s safe and allowing it to relax.

Your Digestion

Slouching can impair your digestive system in multiple ways. Firstly, slouching restricts the diaphragm (as we saw above) and the diaphragm actually supports the contractions that move food through the esophagus. It also prevents stomach acid from rising up into the mouth (acid reflux). 

Secondly, the diaphragm is involved in peristalsis, the movement of food through the intestines. (If you’ve ever bottle-fed a baby who directly started pooping, you’ve seen this connection in action.) Peristalsis is directed by the vagus nerve, an important nerve that runs from the brainstem through the diaphragm and down into the gut. Slouching can squish the vagus nerve, which impedes its signal to the digestive system, slowing it down. If food sits for too long in the digestive tract it can cause gas, bloating, and constipation. 

Your Back and Your Neck

Good posture allows the weight of your own body to be most effectively carried by your bones and muscles, preventing headaches and back pain. 

Since the rise of texting, people, especially teenagers, have been suffering from “text neck” — an excruciating pain in the neck and shoulders caused by the amount of time spent on smartphones with the head at an angle. On average, your head weighs about 12 pounds. When you angle it down/forward by just 15 degrees, the effective weight on your neck and spine jumps up to 27 pounds. Increase that angle to 45 degrees (the optimum texting angle) and the effective weight goes even higher to 49 pounds! The longer you spend looking down to type or text, the longer your neck and shoulders are carrying excess weight and strain. 

A head bent to the optimum texting angle changes its effective weight from 12 to 49 pounds.

Poor posture can also cause chronic lower back pain, again by forcing your body to carry its own weight incorrectly. This weakens the tissues in your lower back, making the muscles and spinal discs and joints unable to tolerate the load, causing pain. Slouching or hunching can also reduce blood supply to your back and core, causing stiffness and weakness. Hunching forward, like when sitting at a computer desk, also bends the spine forward, placing a load on your lower back that could cause herniation. 

Improve Your Posture To Enhance Your Cognitive Abilities

Because our minds and bodies are so integrated, a change in one will often cause a change in the other.

How Posture Helps Your Brain through Anatomy 

Think back to a day when you were tired in class, slumping down in your seat and resisting the urge to close your eyes, just for a second. What did you do? You probably make yourself sit up straight and lift your head, using your posture to tell your brain to wake up and pay attention!

This works because there’s an anatomical connection between your posture and your level of alertness. Within your brainstem, there’s something called the reticular activating system that connects your brain to your spinal cord. It’s job is to mediate your overall level of consciousness — everything from sleeping, to waking up, to paying attention in class. The reticular activating system is responsible for deciding what information is let into the conscious mind. In its ascending pathway, it carries sensory information to other parts of the brain. In its descending pathway, it’s the center of your posture control, regulating alertness, among other things. Because of this connection, proper posture can improve alertness, engaged attention, and cognitive performance. 

Another way good posture can help cognitive function is one we’ve already discussed — sitting or standing up straight allows your lungs to inhale and exhale at full capacity. When your brain has sufficient oxygen, it will run its best.

Your Posture’s Psychological Impact on Cognitive Performance

Posture proves the mantra “You’re able to do what you think you’re able to do.” If you’re upright and feeling confident, your chance of success is much higher than if you’re feeling nervous, scared, or self-doubting and letting those feelings manifest in small, closed-off postures. 

This was demonstrated in a study where students were asked to subtract by 7 in their head starting from a random high number for 30 seconds, once sitting up straight and once slouching. The students who considered the math exercise difficult and who were anxious about doing it found it “significantly easier and less intimidating” when sitting up straight. 

By slumping, we tell our subconscious selves that we’re not safe, making it difficult to focus our minds.

The authors of the study attributed the increased confidence and ease to the students’ posture and what that posture tells our brains subconsciously: “Curling toward our middles is a classic defensive posture, as we instinctively protect our internal organs from a perceived threat. By slumping, we're telling our subconscious selves that we are not safe. And the more we feel unsafe, the more difficult it is to focus our minds and concentrate on solving a problem. In other words, our fear of a task in itself makes that task more difficult.”

So if we stand up straight with our shoulders back and our chin held high when facing a difficult task, we can soothe our primal, instinctual fears and give ourselves a mental boost to solve the problem at hand.

What Does Good Posture Look Like?

So now that you’re motivated to forgo slouching forever, you might be wondering, what does good posture even look like?  

Proper posture while standing “involves having a relaxed appearance and a ‘neutral spine.’ A neutral spine retains three natural curves: a small hollow at the base of the neck, a small roundness at the middle back, and a small hollow in the lower back.” Avoid standing up so straight that you lose those natural curves — they’re supposed to be there!

A simpler way to check for good standing posture is to align your ears, shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles in one straight line. Look at yourself sideways in the mirror to check your alignment.

Closing Thoughts

When we’re living with proper posture, we’re allowing our bodies to work the most efficiently and effectively. We’re preventing chronic pain from developing and allowing our brains to work at their best. We’re promoting feelings of confidence. In short, good posture helps us live our best life.

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