The Science of Posture: Sitting up straight will make you happier, more confident and less risk-averse

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good posture, improve postureI’ll confess up front: I have terrible posture. It’s been bad since I was in high school at least, and probably for even longer than that. It’s one of those things I keep in the back of my mind as something I know I should do, but never get around to, like eating more vegetables and sending more postcards.

It’s really interesting to explore commonly-held assumptions for the Buffer blog, because I often find out surprising things. Researching how our posture affects us was no different. If you’re like me and struggle to sit up straight when you know you should, you might like this post.

We’ve talked extensively about body language before. But this time, we wanted to take a different drift. The way we stand, sit and walk, actually has more longer reaching implications on our mood and happiness than we thought. The latest studies reveal it:

Shaking your head will affect your opinion and other surprising new insights on posture

Body language is closely related to posture—the way we move our bodies affects how others see us as well as our own moods and habits. In terms of scientific research, the two overlap quite a bit. This isn’t too surprising, but how our posture and body language affect our thoughts is.

For instance, a study at Ohio State University in 2003 found that our opinions can be subsconsciously influenced by our physical behavior. Here are two fascinating examples:

  • When participants in the study nodded in agreements or shook their heads to signal disagreement, these actions affected their opinions without them realizing.
  • The same study also showed that when participants hugged themselves, they were sometimes able to reduce their physical pain.

Dutch behavioral scientist Erik Peper has done extensive research into this area, as well. He regularly makes participants in his classes stand up and stretch, for similar reasons why exercise has been linked to happiness, like here:

good posture, improve posture, stretching

Here are three fascinating things that happened once our posture changes:

  1. For example, when we sit up straight, we are more likely to remember positive memories or think of something positive in general, according to this experiment
  2. Another insight was that if we skip during breaks, we can significantly increase our energy levels. A slow, slumped walk on the other hand, can do the exact opposite and drain us of our energy. (source)
  3. The study also found that those who were most affected by depression before the study found their energy drained more than others.

So Erik Peper is convinced (and I am, too) that we should keep a careful eye on our posture and body language—lest it bring us down without us realizing.

Posture also changes our hormones: Standing tall literally makes you more powerful

When we talk more broadly of body language, as opposed to good posture, we can actually see the affects it has on relationships right throughout the animal kingdom. In particular, body language is used to express power, through expansive postures (i.e. spreading out your limbs and opening up your body) and large body size (or the simple perception of large body size).

You might know about Amy Cuddy’s famous Ted Talk and her incredible insights on how posture changes our hormone levels. Well, some even more recent studies took this even further:

A study by researchers from Columbia and Harvard Universities showed that body language symbolizing power can actually affect our decision-making, subconsciously. The researchers measured the appetite for risk of participants in either expansive, powerful poses, or contricted poses (occupying minimal space, keeping limbs close to the body). Those in the powerful poses not only felt more powerful and in control, but were 45% more likely to take a risky bet.

good posture, improve posture, posture

Plus, the study used saliva samples to prove that expansive postures actually altered the participants’ hormone levels—decreasing cortisol (C) and increasing testosterone (T):

This neuroendocrine profile of High T and Low C has been consistently linked to such outcomes as disease resistance and leadership abilities.

So clearly, our posture has more to do with our minds we might have thought. And in fact, it seems like our bodies come first—when we alter our posture and body language, it subconsciously influences our thinking and decision-making.

Why there is no “one best” posture and how to improve yours

So if you want to take advantage of these proven benefits to live a healthier and happier life, where should you start? We know that there is a large amount of different areas that can be painful when we have bad posture. Here’s just a short list of them:

good posture, improve posture, pain areas

Unfortunately there’s not a whole lot of research into how exactly to adopt good posture—a lot of what we know tends to come from being told to “sit up straight” as children. A study in 1999, however, found that sitting at an angle of 110-130 degrees is optimal for spine comfort, and another in 2007 showed that leaning back at 135 degrees is ideal for preventing back strain.

Not only is a position like this difficult to measure and maintain (do you know precisely what angle you’re sitting at right now?), not everyone agrees.

The team at LUMOback have created a posture sensor that you can wear around your waist during the day to help you develop better posture. The device watches for slouching and shifting to the side, and vibrates to remind you to sit up straight.

The team, which includes a doctor and a data scientist (as well as a medical advisor), doesn’t advise the leaning-back position for your workday. Instead, they maintain firstly that “the best posture is always the next posture,” or in other words, always keep moving:

We know that many of us have jobs that do require us to spend time working at desks, so knowing how to sit and stand with good posture is certainly important and beneficial to one’s health and well-being. That said, the human body was built to move, not spend 8 hours at a computer.

While many of the apps and devices designed to track our daily activity focus on workouts and regular exercise routines, LUMOback is more focused on small, regular bursts of movement:

Walking around helps your body to reset itself into healthy posture, so make a point to get up from your desk at least twice an hour.

When it actually comes to posture, the LUMOback team recommends a neutral pelvic postion—i.e. sitting up straight. They promote this posture particularly for times when we’re sedentary for long periods, like sitting at our desks all day:

When you maintain a neutral pelvic position with a straight and upright back, the vertebrae in your back are nicely aligned. This takes a lot of pressure off of your spine and back muscles, which can reduce back pain.

Here’s an image from the study that promotes leaning back at 135º:

good posture, improve posture

As the LUMOback team points out, while this is beneficial for your lower back (if you manage to keep it straight), your upper back and neck will suffer if you try to maintain this position while working.

In an office setting, you’re likely to have to crane your neck to see your computer screen and strain your upper back and shoulders to reach a keyboard. Thus, any potential lower back benefits of a reclined position are outweighed by the negative impacts on your upper back and neck.

For now, I’m going to give sitting up straight a go. If nothing else, at least I know it will probably put me in a good mood!

P.S. If you liked this post, you might also like Why procrastination doesn’t need a cure: A guide to structured distraction and How To Make Positivity a Habit: 4 Simple Steps to a Happier Everyday Life.

Image credits: LUMOback, American Osteopathic Association, SFGate, hothotyoga

  • http://basus.me/ Shrutarshi Basu

    Something that you haven’t touched on in this post (but which might be equally beneficial) is simply not sitting in the same posture for long periods of time. When I’m going to be doing programming work for long periods of time (like an entire afternoon), I make sure that I take regular breaks from sitting. About every half hour or so, I get up and get some water and use that opportunity to do some stretching. I’ve also been making a conscious effort to be in different positions, even when I’m sitting. Sometimes I’ll be sitting upright, and a little away from the backrest, so I’m using all my muscles to support myself, at other times I’ll be leaning back in a comfortable position. Finally I try to intersperse long periods of sitting with some walking and stair climbing. For example, I’ll break up a long afternoon of coding with errands like submitting receipts and checking the mail. These are things that I can schedule and are short enough to not completely clear my mental RAM, but long enough to get the blood pumping. Personally, I try to remember that our bodies evolved for constant movement and activity and I try to incorporate as much as that as possible even if it’s not “exercise” or strenuous.

    • Belle

      Good point. The LUMOback team definitely advocate for standing up and moving around regularly during a long work day.

  • http://www.stephaniesammons.com/ Stephanie Sammons

    This is really great info. I’ve been thinking about writing on this topic and doing further research due to my own experiences in trying to overcome various aches and pains from being at a desk a lot. Two things I highly recommend: a stand up desk and yoga. These two things have had a serious positive impact on my energy and pain over the last several months. I look forward to trying some of the things mentioned in the article as well!

    • Belle

      Awesome, thanks for sharing your experience, Stephanie!

  • http://blog.dayfire.com/ Eric White

    Posture always gets overlooked but is such a key part to mood and energy throughout the day. Alternating between sitting and standing is a good practice not only for posture, but just for overall health. Sitting all day es no bueno.

    • Belle

      Agreed! Thanks for reading, Eric.

  • Michael

    The best posture you can reach is the starting position Tai-Chi-Chuan.
    And whenever you stop somewhere you can sink into this position.

    • Posture Guy

      Please, no. Every art has a slightly different default posture. This quickly descends into “my art is better than your art”.

  • Josh

    This is an awesome article.

    I know some folks that have improved their posture by strength training, using Russian Kettelbell Swings with progressively heavier and heavier weights.

    I’d love to see something about improving posture by practicing heavy lifts, like squats and dead lifts. They don’t make you bulky – just strong.

  • http://selfstairway.com/about/ Vincent Nguyen

    I went from hunching for years to sitting up straight. I feel like my lower back suffers at times and often my shoulders too. I think for the latter it’s a matter of how high the tables forces my forearms up.

    I’m going to start experimenting with a slight lean back thanks to you. :)

    • Belle

      Hey Vincent,

      I definitely think the height of your desk or table can make you strain more. I guess putting in the effort to find the optimal setup for working is worth it!

  • http://www.mycustardpie.com/ MyCustardPie

    This article was written for me! So interesting that it affects your mood too.

  • BeccaT

    I started using a standing desk 2 years ago. The VariDesk can sit on top of any desk and be adjust to any height with just a couple of levers. There’s even a VariDesk app to remind you to change your position. I saw a HUGE difference in my energy level throughout the workday!

  • http://ifdattic.com/ Andrew M.

    I remember at first when I started fixing my posture by standing straight I fell like a giant :D

    I’m doing a lot of experiments with myself lately, one of them is using a standing desk (mostly because I don’t have a desk to sit behind). At first the idea of programming while standing sounded silly to me, but after a week even thinking about working while sitting behind a desk makes me sick. Of course there are days when your legs or lower back is killing you, but the freedom and productivity you gain makes you feel great.

  • Liz Peck

    The Alexander Technique, which teaches you to undo habitual muscle tension and rediscover your natural easy posture, has been proven to help with back pain.

    http://www.theguardian.com/society/2008/aug/20/health.healthandwellbeing

    You can view a TedTalk about it here

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=prN9kbDtedc

    And here is a resource to find a teacher

    http://www.amsatonline.org

    • Belle

      Thanks for sharing, Liz! I’ve done some of this in acting classes and definitely advocate trying it out.

  • http://twitter.com/theirmind theirmind

    Hmm, “posture” is really important.

  • E. Ted Prince

    Nice post Belle. In our leadership work we show our leaders how to transmit a precise type of leadership impact to meet different business outcomes by using various specific postures and facial expressions that prime your behaviors to achieve the particular business outcome, as well as signal to others how your behaviors will change outcomes. http://www.perthleadership.org

  • Dan Cayer

    I really enjoyed reading this. It’s exciting to hear researchers highlight and draw attention to experiences I see in my work as an Alexander Technique teacher. I have found that – personally and with students – as people come into their full stature, confidence and presence naturally flourish. There’s just something about a slump or tightly held posture that tends to cradle our anxiety and worry. In fact, one of the dictionary definitions of posture is, “a mental or spiritual attitude.” The idea has been held in many cultures that how you stand expresses something about yourself.

    However, I hesitate to advocate people to just “sit up straight.” Many of the people that I work with vow to sit up straight and have better posture. Yet this gets manifested in their bodies as an overly rigid and stiff position and one which is neither comfortable nor sustainable. Everyone knows they should have better posture. Yet the ways in which we often try to do it are exhausting and cannot be maintained for more than several minutes at a time. Learning how to have good posture is a skill that we must often relearn in adulthood. My 16 month old daughter has beautiful posture (and she sure seems happy!).

    I just wrote a blog about this very subject(http://dancayerfluidmovement.com/blog/2013/11/5/your-trashy-postural-habits-and-how-they-are-the-key-to-uprightness); I think good posture develops when we let go of the interferences in our body that are pulling us down. Sitting up straight is a loaded term which often makes people think of their parents admonishing them at the dinner table to not slump. Even in the illustration of the “correct” posture there is curvature in the spine that is naturally occurring and should be welcomed. The tricky part for most people is finding a balance between slouching and some military-like uprightness.

  • http://fiverr.com/fiveseomall/ FiveSeoMall

    You are great article writer Belle(Y)

  • Jason

    +1 for Taiji standing posture

  • Dessy Pavlova

    What a great article! I had a couple of operations to correct a spinal curvature (scoliosis). After the first one I had to wear a cast on my torso that only allowed me to sit in a 135 degree angle — now I know why! I have a metal rod attached to my spine that gives me perfect posture, but the Spark People website has some really good exercises for strengthening your core, improving your posture and alleviating pain (http://www.sparkpeople.com/resource/fitness_articles.asp?id=1407). Stand up straight, it’s good for you! :)

  • ziwei

    good advice but there are some wrong word spellings,please edit carefully

    • igloobuilder

      Cool, she can work on her spelling and you can work on your grammar. How does that sound?

  • Marina Prospero

    The best posture is dynamic posture. The body should always be in movement, here is a tool the Posture Transformer that will help anyone achieve strong posture for life.
    http://www.perfectore.com

  • Allen Bonilla

    “Trying” to have good posture is backwards – like “trying” to walk without a limp. If you have poor posture it can be corrected and then you don’t have to “remember” or “try”.

    I do this all the time in office.

    Really good article though! i wish everyone could understand the importance of good posture not just for the health of your body but also for what it does for your mind.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?list=UUT2JnkaxrNF0ajH4iBDpMUQ&v=65l1seAxTA0

  • Gale Roanoake

    Thank you so much for this helpful article! I created a link to this post in my recent blog post about women and power: http://www.visioningwomen.com/2014/02/want-to-be-more-powerful-just-do-this.html. Keep up the good work; I love your blog!

  • Gitte Toft

    Hi, I cant possible be healthy to sit leaned back as the picture shown. I do really recommend an open hip angle, but i a upright position, were it is possible to move and use muscle at the same time see https://vimeo.com/81477495

  • Diana Moll

    Hmmm the neck in the 135 degree supposed best sitting posture looks like a bad idea. Check out Gokhale Method for posture improvement, really works like a the body owner’s manual we never got, until now. http://gokhalemethod.com/

  • Wacky

    Having a good posture is one of the best way to reduce body and muscular pains. It’s better if we exercise good posture and take care of our body well. Here’s an article on the importance of taking care of our body – http://www.meridianintegrativewellness.com/important-take-care-of-your-body. Better check it out! :)