We all know that bad posture doesn’t look good, but many people don’t realise it can lead to various problems, including neck strain, low back pain, muscle and joint stiffness, injury and poor abdominal tone. Bad posture is mainly due to bad spinal alignment. The spine has natural curves, but these curves can become exaggerated, for example rounded shoulders or arched lower back. We all start off with correct posture – unfortunately bad postural habits can even start before we’ve finished growing. Factors such as inactive lifestyles, hours spent sitting (especially at desks or driving), pregnancy, wearing high heels, carrying a heavy bag on one shoulder and being overweight can all contribute to developing bad posture. Muscle imbalances develop and the natural curves in the spine become distorted.
If you don’t take steps to correct posture problems, then they just become worse over time. The muscle imbalances become more pronounced, which means that muscles and joints are more prone to pain and injury. If you have bad posture, the sooner you start to correct it, the easier it will be. All the tips listed below are easy to follow and will make a real difference.
10 tips to improve your posture
#1 Cut down on wearing high heels
It’s hard to have correct posture in high heels. This is because they affect spine alignment, as the body tries to compensate for being thrown off-balance by the heels. Heel wearers often bend forward slightly and arch their lower backs. This leads to posture problems that don’t go away when they take their shoes off, including a belly “pooch”. See this post from the Spine Health Institute for a helpful infographic which illustrates this and gives advice for heel wearers.
#2 Stretch the hip flexors
The hip flexors are the muscles which join the front of the thigh bone to the pelvis. Tight hip flexors are very common and pull the pelvis into a forward tilt and the low back into an exaggerated arch. They’re easy to stretch out though – try to stretch them at least once a day.
Get into the position shown, back knee on the floor, front knee bent and directly over the heel.
Ease the back leg out behind until you feel a stretch on the muscles at the top of the back thigh
#3 Be more active
Becoming more active will really help you to achieve correct posture. Activity strengthens the muscles, improves flexibility and challenges balance. All of these things help to improve posture. When you have posture problems, it’s best not to do very strenuous or vigorous exercise, because doing this with bad posture will put excessive strain on joints, ligaments and tendons. Low impact, low to medium intensity exercises are best to start with. Examples of suitable exercises are:
- Low impact aerobics
- Bodyweight strength exercises – like squats, lunges, leg lifts for example
- Dancing or dance-based exercise
- Pilates is especially suitable for posture correction – see #8 below
#4 Be a healthy weight
Being over or underweight can make maintaining correct posture more difficult. Carrying excess weight puts more strain on joints, makes muscles work harder to maintain posture and makes smooth, controlled movement more difficult. Being underweight, on the other hand, means reduced muscle mass. This can mean there isn’t enough strength in the spinal and pelvic muscles to maintain correct posture or effect good movement control.
#5 Do chest stretches
Often, when posture is poor, the back muscles are weak and stretched and the chest muscles are short and tight. Chest stretches will help to open up the chest and bring the shoulder blades back and down. Try to stretch your chest muscles several times a day – all you need to do is take your hands behind your back, making sure you keep your shoulders relaxed down.
#6 Do hamstring stretches
The hamstrings are a group of muscles at the back of the thigh. Tightness is a common problem in these muscles, especially in people who sit all day. It can lead to back pain, poor posture and injury to the hamstrings themselves. Unfortunately, bad posture, back pain and hamstring tightness often ends up being a vicious circle, which will continue to get worse unless you take action.
#7 Reduce the negative effects of desk work
Although sitting at a desk all day seems like a low risk, safe activity, in fact desk workers have a high rate of back, shoulder and neck pain. This is as a result of inactivity and poor posture. If you can’t avoid sitting all day, then take these steps to help you maintain correct posture:
- Take frequent breaks from your desk, just to walk around and stretch your muscles.
- Every time you sit back down, focus on your posture, make sure your back is straight, you are holding your shoulders down and your abdominal muscles are engaged to support your lower back
- Resist the temptation to cross one leg over the other.
- Every 20 minutes or so, take a moment to hold your hands behind your back and allow your chest muscles to stretch.
- Adjust you computer screen to be at eye level
#8 Do Pilates
The Pilates method is based on several key principles, including:
- Relaxation, breathing and concentration: the mind-body connection is important in Pilates. Relaxation and breathing help to focus concentration on the precise muscle control required to carry out the exercises properly.
- Centring and alignment: The Pilates method focuses on body alignment and core strength. Joseph Pilates was a strong believer that all movement should be supported by a strong “centre” – the body’s core stabilising muscles. The method mainly trains these muscles, but also strengthens the muscles in the back which stabilise the shoulder blades and hold them in place.
- Control, precision and fluid movement: Pilates exercises should always be done with excellent technique, paying close attention to exactly how your muscles are working, but at the same time the movements should be fluid and graceful.
#9 Use a stability ball
The stability ball (also known as a Swiss ball) is an excellent piece of equipment for improving posture and strengthening the core muscles. There is a wide range of exercises you can use it for. Some of them require good core strength and balance, however many are suitable for beginners. Even just sitting on the ball will help to improve posture. Because the ball is inherently unstable, your postural muscles have to work all the time to stop you from falling off. Sitting on the ball at your desk or to watch TV will help to improve the alignment of your spine. For best results, though, do some core training with the ball. When you buy a ball, it should come with a user guide with instructions for exercises. This article on the Spine Health Institute website is a useful a guide to choosing the correct exercise ball.
#10 Do ab hollowing
Abdominal hollowing is just sucking the abdominal muscles in – pulling the belly button towards the spine. This strengthens the deep abdominal muscles, which stabilise the pelvis and spine You can do it in any position – standing, sitting, lying, kneeling. However, doing it in the all-4s kneeling position is good because this makes the ab muscles work directly against gravity.