My father, a physical therapist, father used to have me walk around with both arms behind my back – my left hand holding my right elbow – because he was tired of telling me to stand up straight. He learned during PT school way back in the early 50s, that bad posture caused pain and physical therapists have been sharing that story ever since. Postural exercises are a staple in most physical therapy programs, and PTs routinely look at posture when examining a patient. Our professors taught us that if we fixed bad posture, we’d alleviate pain. But we’ve been wrong all along – as shown in multiple studies, bad posture does not cause pain and good posture doesn’t alleviate it. (1)
#1. Posture dictates function.
RANGE OF MOTION Try this: Raise your right arm up as high as it will go without pain and notice how high you can reach. Now slouch – really exaggerate rounding your back. Lift your arm again. How high can you go? Not nearly as high as before, right? Next, see how far you can turn your head to the right or left and repeat from the slumped posture. You probably can’t go as far.
So if sitting up with good posture changes how well you move, maintaining good posture is worth the effort. And though posture may be hard to change as we get older, establishing good postural habits may minimize the degree to which we get stuck in rounded postures as we age.
STRENGTH A new gadget in rehab is the posture shirt, designed to improve posture. Preliminary, small sample studies demonstrate that having good posture (by wearing the shirt) increases shoulder strength in healthy male subjects. The company, ALIGNMED, says, Improve you Posture, Improve Your Life. We should be able to repeat the same increases in strength by assuming good posture without relying on a shirt!
2: Posture can influence how you feel. We know this. After all, a synonym for posture is attitude. In an update of the well know study of a “pencil-induced smile”, researchers quantified heart rates and stress levels during and after a mental challenge and pain task. Participants who were mimicking a genuine smile were less stressed and showed faster physiological recovery from pain than those mimicking a fake smile or no smile. (2)
And, just like putting on a smile, (contrived or not), makes you feel better, being tall, making yourself big, and yes, standing up straight, decreases levels of cortisol (the stress hormone). Assume the CEO pose, or a wonder woman pose and in minutes cortisol goes down, and testosterone up. Good posture can decrease stress in two minutes, as shown by hormone changes. (3)
Those same hormones change with pain. Acute pain makes serum cortisol spike and is actually a biochemical indicator for uncontrolled pain. Some studies show that testosterone plummets wih acute pain. So maybe, in a roundabout way, not rounding your back really can influence pain, or at least can start to make positive changes that could eventually result in decreased pain.
Even though bad posture is not the cause of pain, good posture helps you move better and feel better. Dad will be happy to know that I eventually appreciated his prompting about my posture!
(1)Posture and the Shoulder by Adam Rufa.
(2) Kraft T & Pressman S (2012 in press). Grin and bear it: The influence of manipulated positive facial expression on the stress response. Psychological Science.
(3) ARTICLE | PSYCHOLOGICAL SCIENCE | OCTOBER 2010; Power Posing: Brief Nonverbal Displays Affect Neuroendocrine Levels and Risk Tolerance by Dana R. Carney, Amy J.C. Cuddy and Andy J. Yap