Sit up straight! This common request may have been how you first heard about posture, the way you hold your body. Posture isn’t just about how you look. How you position yourself can help or hurt your health over your lifetime.
“Posture is not only about how well you sit, but how well you move and go about your daily life,” says Dr. George Salem, an NIH-funded researcher at the University of Southern California who studies how movement affects health and quality of life.
How you hold yourself when you’re not moving—such as when you’re sitting, standing, or sleeping—is called static posture. Dynamic posture is how you position your body while you’re moving, like walking or bending over to pick something up. “It’s important to consider both static and dynamic components of posture,” Salem says.
Posture can be affected by many things: your age, the situations you find yourself in, and your daily choices. For instance, children may have to adjust to carry heavy backpacks to school. Pregnant women move differently to accommodate growing babies.
Your posture involves your musculoskeletal system. This includes your bones, muscles, joints, and other tissues that connect the parts of your body together. It’s what provides form, support, stability, and movement to your body.
How you hold yourself can either align or misalign your musculoskeletal system. Throughout life, this system must adapt to the type of work you do, the hobbies you enjoy, how you use electronic devices, injuries, and even the kind of shoes you wear.
You may think that sitting with slumped shoulders or bending at your back instead of your knees sometimes won’t hurt you. But small changes in how you hold yourself and move can add up over a lifetime.
Years of slouching wears away at your spine to make it more fragile and prone to injury. Holding your body and moving in unhealthy ways often leads to neck, shoulder, and back pain. In any 3-month period, about 1 in 4 adults in the U.S. has at least 1 day of back pain.
Poor posture can also decrease your flexibility, how well your joints move, and your balance. It can impact your ability to do things for yourself and increase your risk for falls. Slumped posture can even make it more difficult to digest the food you eat and breathe comfortably.
Some research suggests a link between posture and mental health as well. “Someone with depression may appear more closed in, curved, and tend to look down,” says NIH physical therapist Dr. Cris Zampieri. “When people feel anxious, they may raise their shoulders.” Scientists are now explor-ing the connections between posture and how we think and process infor-mation in the brain.
Our bodies change as we age. These natural changes make it especially important for older adults to maintain good posture, strength, flexibility, and balance. “Older adults tend to adopt a progressively hunched posture,” says Salem. “When shoulders continue to round forward over time, it creates excessive loading on the shoulder joint. This can create injury and limit the independence of older adults.”