Though I hate to admit it, I have terrible posture. My husband is convinced that my regular headaches come from my hunched-over, Neanderthal-style stance, while my massage therapist entreats me to un-round my shoulders for relief of back and neck pain. They very well may be on to something. Good posture comes with far more benefits than the dubious talent of walking around with a book balanced on your head. In fact, it can promote a number of improvements to your health and well-being, from pain relief to deeper breathing to increased confidence (yes, for real).

What Does “Good” Posture Even Look Like?

A woman balances a stack of books on her head

Even I know that “proper posture” doesn’t just mean standing (or sitting) ramrod-straight. So to find out what a healthy bodily alignment really looks like, I chatted with doctor of physical therapy and strength & conditioning coach Dr. Rena Eleázar of Match Fit Performance in NYC.

Eleázar describes the ideal sitting posture as open, not compressed: feet flat on the ground and knees at a 90-degree angle, with your shoulders relaxed but not shrugging forward, pulling your shoulder blades together just slightly. Head position is important too, to put in check the neck-craning texting posture we so easily succumb to. “Ideally, your ears should be in a straight line down with your shoulders and hips,” she says. For standing, Eleázar’s recommendations are similar: Again, it’s best to think of lengthening the spine, stacking your ears in line with your shoulders, hips, and ankles. Keeping feet hip-distance apart with evenly distributed weight, knees not locked, and a small curvature in the lower spine makes for a healthy, comfortable stance.

Eleázar also emphasizes that “good” posture doesn’t mean staying immobile. For her clients, she suggests changing positions frequently, “whether it’s sitting to standing, or sitting in the front of the chair versus the back of the chair, or taking a little break and walking.” By consistently paying attention to posture, you can expect to feel better in a number of ways: Keep scrolling for a look at how proper alignment can pay off for your health.

The Top Benefits of Good Posture

A woman sits on a flexible ball to work at her desk

1. Better Breathing: “Take a deep breath” is nearly always good advice. Breathing long and deep has been shown to reduce stress and improve blood flow. But with a slumped posture, compression of the lungs makes these benefits harder to attain. One study found that by adopting better posture subjects reached “significantly superior” measures of lung capacity and “expiratory flow” (the breath they exhaled) than those in “slumped and normal sitting” positions.

2. Help With Headaches: Though numerous causes underlie headaches, from hormonal fluctuations to neurological issues, improved posture is one possible means of combating head and neck pain. When we spend prolonged periods of time at a computer screen or hunched over our phone, explains Eleázar, the muscles of the neck “can get fatigued, feel tight, and send what’s called referral pain into your head. These are tension headaches.” Keeping a less head-forward posture (or even making a minor adjustment to your work station to promote better posture, like raising your screen) can alleviate this tendency and ultimately bring headache relief. 

3. A Farewell to Back Pain: Since posture has everything to do with the alignment of the spine, it only makes sense that an improper stance can cause back pain. “A huge culprit of back and neck pain is staying in one posture for too long, repeatedly,” notes Eleázar. “If you’re constantly sitting in a slouched position, the muscles along your spine have to work extra hard to hold you in that position.” Not surprisingly, research backs this concept (pun intended). A 2015 study that treated musculoskeletal pain with a postural intervention found it led to markedly decreased levels of discomfort in subjects’ shoulders, middle back, and lower back.

4. Joint Pain Improvement: When we think of fixing our posture, we often envision bones and muscles zipping into shape — but there’s another piece of the musculoskeletal puzzle we sometimes forget: our joints. ”Your whole body, especially your spine, is made up of a lot of joints!” reminds Eleázar. Perhaps because of an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, joint pain appears to be on the rise in the US. According to the American Chiropractic Association, proper posture can help this common problem, “decreasing the abnormal wearing of joint surfaces that could result in degenerative arthritis and joint pain.”

5. A Confident Outlook: Standing up straight for more confidence sounds like a tall tale — but science has confirmed that your posture can influence your self-assurance. A 2009 study at Ohio State University found that when people sat up straight they were more likely to believe positive thoughts about whether they were qualified for a job. Next time you’re slated for public speaking or a job interview, be sure to hold your head high!

How do you stay mindful of your posture? Tweet us @BritandCo!

(Photos via Getty)