Back pain problems are often blamed on our modern lifestyles, so do remote, indigenous cultures hold the secret to a straighter spine and perfect posture?

By Charlotte Hilton Andersen
June 09, 2015
Corbis Images

Stop hunching over your phone and sit up straight! Yes, right now. Turns out, your mom's advice was solid. Not only does good posture make you look more confident, it may also save you decades of back pain. According to a new theory, a perfect primal posture can eliminate existing back problems and prevent the spinal disk degeneration that can cause future issues.

That's great news considering back pain is a serious issue-it causes more ill health than any other factor, including heart disease, according to a 2014 study by researchers at the University of Washington. And while the causes of back pain vary widely, many experts blame our modern lifestyle: constant sitting, bending over screens, slouching while standing, and carrying heavy purses. Solutions to the inevitable cramps, aches, and worse (shooting nerve pain, anyone?) range from mild lifestyle changes to invasive surgeries to drugs.

One researcher, though, thinks the answer to our aches can be found in a history book. Esther Gokhale, an acupuncturist-turned-international researcher, decided to start studying back pain after undergoing two frustrating failed back surgeries. She was intrigued by research that found there were a few societies where an achy back was nearly non-existent. (Other things you can learn from those healthier than most? How to Live to 100, Starting Today.)

Gokhale set off on a years-long exploration, visiting indigenous cultures in some of the most isolated places in the world in Brazil, Portugal, and India (including a few villages so remote that she was their first contact with Western civilization!). Her goal was see what people in these places were doing that we, as Americans-who report the most back pain-weren't. (Talk about taking your health into your own hands!)

So what did she find? These people are simply standing differently. Gokhale found that unlike the S-shaped spines described in medical textbooks today, which mirror our common shape, the people she observed had J-shaped spines. When they stood, they had almost no bend in their spines until the buttocks, where the spine started to slightly curve back upward. This J-shape may actually be a more natural curve, as it is also seen in centuries-old sculptures from ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, and India, as well as in photographs and medical journals from the 1800s and early 1900s. Holding the upper back straight while allowing the rear to tilt up also happens to be the way children stand naturally.

To achieve this perfect primal posture, you can forget walking around with a book on your head. Instead, making just a few minor tweaks can relieve your pain and save you from future agony, Gokhale told NPR. You probably already have the first under control: Excess fat around your waist can pull your spine forward and out of alignment, so maintaining a healthy weight is crucial. Focus on keeping your upper back straight and preventing your shoulders from rolling forward into a hunch while sitting or standing. (Learn the best moves for goot posture from The Runway-Ready Workout.)

But the real key to straightening your spine, according to Gokhale and a growing number of researchers, is to build up your core and back muscles. There are a handful of targeted exercises to hold you up and reduce pressure on your spine, which Gokhale explain in her book 8 Steps to a Pain Free Back, or you can start with our Ultimate Back and Abs Workout. And while Gokhale's primal posture theory may not be the answer to all back issues-injuries to the bones and nerves, for example, may require more extensive treatment-this is one idea we can really get behind. Exercise in general has been shown to help relieve back pain, and a lot of aches are actually caused by muscle imbalances-not to mention that working your core will help sculpt flatter, sexier abs. Less pain and more reasons to wear a cute bikini? Bring on the planks!