Standing Up Straight Might Not Be As Beneficial As We Thought

We’re told to stand up straight from a young age, but experts say there’s more to spinal health than good posture.
Having a strong spine is important, but just how important is standing up straight? Experts weigh in.
Illustration: Christian Montenegro For HuffPost
Having a strong spine is important, but just how important is standing up straight? Experts weigh in.

From a young age we’re told to stand up straight. Many people probably even have memories of walking around the house with a book on their head to help improve their posture (I know I do).

But why is it even important to do this? What exactly does “good posture” mean for you health-wise anyway?

It may be a little aesthetic — we’re taught that models with perfect posture are what we should aim to resemble — and it has some science-backed perks. But, based on the years of posture reminders and even at-school posture checks, there are probably fewer benefits than you thought.

Here, experts weigh in on posture and whether having good posture is truly beneficial for your health or total B.S.

First, what is good posture?

According to Dr. Scott Mallozzi, a spine surgeon at UConn Health, having your head centered above your pelvis and your feet is considered proper posture. Your neck and head shouldn’t be slouching forward or backward ― instead, you should be up straight with your head, pelvis and feet in alignment.

That said, one posture does not fit all, added Dr. Mark Queralt, medical director at the Musculoskeletal Institute at the University of Texas at Austin. Due to conditions like arthritis of the spine, slumping over feels better for some people ― particularly for older individuals.

“To have that person sit straight and arch their back all day long would be painful,” Queralt said. So, what is good posture for one person may not be possible for another.

Plus, when it comes to our bodies, age-related change is part of life, Queralt explained. It’s natural for your spine to evolve and require different postures throughout your life.

“What would you think your spine is going to look like at 60? Would you expect it to look like you’re 30 or would you expect changes?” Queralt asked. Good posture for you may shift, and that’s totally normal.

Is standing up straight good for our health?

The answer to this differs.

Dr. Amit Jain, minimally-invasive spine surgery chief in the department of orthopaedic surgery at Johns Hopkins Medicine, noted that “good posture results in reduced wear and tear of the spine.” According to the National Institutes of Health, slouching can cause your spine to become more fragile and make it more prone to injury.

While good posture doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t develop back issues one day, having good spinal strength could help you better manage if you do have to deal with these conditions in the future, Mallozzi added. Your muscles will have to work harder if your posture results in an uneven distribution of weight or an unfair strain on your body.

For example, people who droop their necks to look at their phones or other handheld devices often suffer from “text neck,” which creates additional strain on the body.

Ciara Cappo, a chiropractor in California, told Healthline that “the human head weighs 10 pounds. For every inch your head is tilted forward, the weight your neck has to carry doubles.” So, that hunched over texting posture is certainly not doing your neck muscles any favors.

But standing up straight may not fix any health problems, either. It also won’t necessarily save you from any existing back issues.

“There is very little, if any, evidence to support posture and either reduction in current pain or prevention of future pain,” Queralt said.

In fact, Queralt pointed to a study that notes that “the practice of generic public health messages to sit up straight to prevent neck pain needs rethinking,” and found that slumped posture in teenagers resulted in less neck pain in young adulthood.

More than focusing on throwing your shoulders back to achieve a straight spine, it's important to prioritize exercises that build on your back strength.
Kmatta via Getty Images
More than focusing on throwing your shoulders back to achieve a straight spine, it's important to prioritize exercises that build on your back strength.

So, should I not care about ‘good posture’?

Instead of constantly reminding yourself to stand up straight, you may want to focus on strengthening specific muscle groups. By working out, you’re allowing these muscles to better support your spine and help your body comfortably stand up straight without forcing it or making you feel uncomfortable.

“There are two muscle groups that work well to help you with posture,” Mallozzi said. The first group is your paraspinal muscles, which are the muscles that surround your spine from your neck to your lower back. If you have a strong group of muscles around your spine, your discs and joints will have to do less work because they’re better supported, he said. The other muscle group that’s important to work is your core, which will further help support your back.

You can work out these muscle groups by doing yoga, pilates or general strength exercises like planks, crunches, bridges and shoulder-blade squeezes.

These exercises “really do help people achieve this musculature that is supportive of good posture,” Mallozzi said.

He added that some factors that impact posture can’t be corrected with exercise. Issues like arthritis or stiffness of the hips won’t just go away, but if you start prioritizing strength exercise early in life, you’ll be more set up for success. “The more you have [of] that good base to start, the more you’ll be able to compensate if you do develop other issues,” Mallozzi said.

Plus, by strengthening your spine, you’re reaping the benefits of exercise, of which there are many. “We know exercise is good for cardiovascular health — it’s good for osteoporosis prevention, and people who exercise tend to have better mental health scores,” Queralt said.

All in all, having good posture isn’t going to be a cure-all, and the pressure you feel to stand up straight is likely unwarranted.

Instead of focusing so much on standing up straight or sitting up straight, it’s more important to incorporate different movements into your day.

“We think the fluidity of not being in the same static movement — sitting all day or standing all day” is important, Queralt said.

It doesn’t really matter if you sit up straight in these positions or slump in these positions, just being in one static position for eight hours a day is not ideal, he added. For example, you’ll get tight from sitting all day in front of your laptop, and you’ll likely be hunched forward with your neck poking forward while doing so.

Jain recommended taking scheduled breaks from sitting at work or adding a standing desk to your at-home work setup.

Ultimately, while sitting or standing up straight may feel right for you, it doesn’t feel right for everyone ― and that’s OK. Good posture has debated benefits, including pain reduction and less strain on surrounding muscles, the pressure people get from family members about their posture is probably a little exaggerated.

Hunching over in high school doesn’t mean you’ll have a hunched back for the rest of your life, but prioritizing good muscle strength through fitness and movement can help relieve some of the pressure that’s put on our spine every day.

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