Can Bad Posture Take a Toll On Your Sleep?
Stand up straight now so you don't toss and turn later.
If you've had trouble sleeping lately, here's a surprisingly useful tip: Roll your shoulders back and sit up straight—yes, just like your parents taught you.
Posture might not be the first cause that comes to mind when figuring out why you're not sleeping well. Truth is, though, your parents weren't constantly telling you to stand up straight just to get on your nerves. The way you carry yourself can affect your entire body, including the way you digest food, how your nervous system operates, and yes, your sleep quality.
Maintaining good posture—during both daytime and nighttime—all comes down to the position of your head as it relates to the rest of your body, says Rahul Shah, M.D., a board-certified orthopedic spine and neck surgeon. (Related: Why You Should Care About Thoracic Spine Mobility)
In order to have what is considered "good" posture, your head should be centered over your pelvis as you're going about your daily (or nightly) activities, "similar to a scoop of ice cream sitting on a cone," explains Dr. Shah. That way, your muscles don't have to do as much work to support your head, he says. The more work your muscles have to do to maintain your head's position, the worse your posture will likely be, notes Dr. Shah.
Of course, everyone struggles with poor posture, and trouble sleeping on occasion. But if you're constantly woken by pain, are experiencing pain that radiates in the arms or legs, or noticing a persistent pain that lasts more than a few weeks, it's best to consult your doctor or a specialist (such as a physical therapist) ASAP, suggests Dr. Shah. Even if you're just waking up tired, or have a difficult time falling or staying asleep and can't figure out the reason, it's worth checking in with your primary care doctor, who can help you figure out a solution, says R. Alexandra Duma, D.C., a Team USA sports chiropractor at FICS, a high-tech fitness recovery and wellness studio in New York City.
But for now, here's what you need to know about the connection between posture and sleep.
How Different Sleeping Positions Can Affect Your Sleep Quality
What's your preferred sleeping position? Are you a devoted side sleeper, back sleeper, stomach sleeper? It's a personal preference and a hard habit to break, especially if you've snoozed this way for as long as you can remember. But different sleeping positions can take different tolls on your body—and, as a result, your sleep quality, says Duma.
For example, sleeping on your stomach can put extra stress on your spine, flattening its natural curvature and potentially leading to back and neck pain, as your head will be turned to one side, explains Duma. (Related: The Most Common Causes of Back Pain—Plus, How to Ease Your Aches ASAP)
While sleeping on your back is generally recommended over snoozing on your stomach, back-sleepers can still potentially run into some issues. Sleeping on your back can increase your risk of developing sleep apnea, a sleep disorder that causes your breathing to stop and start, explains Duma. Plus, if you're a snorer, lying in this position definitely isn't ideal, she adds.
"[When you sleep on your back,] your throat and belly are being pulled down by gravity, making it harder for you to breathe," Andrew Westwood, M.D., assistant professor of neurology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, previously told Shape. "If you [lie on your side or] get pushed by your bed partner, that snoring goes away."
Duma recommends sleeping on your side with a pillow in between your knees for optimal sleep quality. A side-sleeping position will help keep your spine in alignment, meaning you'll have fewer aches and pains come morning, explains Duma.
As for the "best" side to sleep on? Some research suggests that sleeping on just one side (whether right or left) may be associated with muscle imbalance and pain—meaning alternating sides might be your best bet.
Overall, though, experts suggest keeping to the left if you opt for side-sleeping. "Sleeping on your right pushes on blood vessels, preventing maximum circulation," Michael Breus, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of The Sleep Doctor's Diet Plan: Lose Weight Through Better Sleep, previously told Shape. Meaning, you'll likely end up tossing and turning through the night to accommodate the lack of circulation, explained Breus.
Sleeping on your left side, however, promotes cardiovascular return, allowing your heart to easily pump blood throughout your body because there's less pressure on that area, added Christopher Winter, M.D., owner of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine.
Can daytime posture affect your sleep?
Truth is, there isn't enough research on the link between daytime posture and sleep quality to definitively say whether or not the two are related, says Dr. Shah.
Still, because poor posture (during the day or at night) forces the body's muscles to work overtime, your body will likely expel a significant amount of energy while your head is out of alignment with the rest of the body, explains Dr. Shah. As a result, bad posture could leave you with more fatigue, "shorter strides, slower gait, and increased energy expenditure when walking," he says.
Posture also influences respiration, (read: the way you breathe), which definitely plays a key role in sleep quality. For instance, habitually leaning forward in a rounded position throughout the day can impact your lungs and breathing, as everything is crunched together, says Duma.
"When breathing is impaired, so is the oxygen capacity delivered to your brain," affecting not just your daytime energy levels but also your sleep quality later on, explains Duma. "Shallow breathing can be a contributor to anxiety and can affect the capacity to fall asleep and stay asleep," she says. (Related: 5 Ways to Reduce Stress After a Long Day and Promote Better Sleep at Night)
Easy Ways to Improve Your Posture for Better Sleep
It's no secret that hunching over keyboards and slouching over smartphones isn't ideal for your posture. If you notice the majority of your day is spent sitting and crouching in all sorts of crunched-up positions, one of the best ways to improve your posture—and, in turn, your sleep quality—is to simply move more during the day, says Dr. Shah. "The spine is a vascular organ—it craves blood flow, and the more activity one does, the more the blood flows to the spine," he explains.
Hitting the treadmill, riding a bike, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, and even just going for more walks can all count toward more posture-friendly (and sleep-promoting) movement throughout the day. If you really want to put in the effort, activities that bring your heart rate within 60-80 percent of your target heart rate—even for as little as 20 minutes per day—can have a huge impact on optimizing blood flow to the spine (and, in turn, promoting good posture), notes Dr. Shah. "Doing such activities will prime the muscles in the spine so that they are able to find their optimal state and support the spine in its optimal alignment," he explains. (Here's how to find—and train in—your personal heart-rate zones.)
In addition to aerobic exercise, gentle daily stretches can also help improve your posture long-term, says Dr. Shah. As you age, you tend to hunch over, so regular stretching (especially the hip flexors) can encourage proper alignment, he explains. (Related: The Strength Training Workout for Perfect Posture)
Keep screens at eye level.
If you're constantly hunched over your computer chair, bring your screen to eye level so you're not as tempted to slouch, suggests Duma. "Make sure your elbows and wrists are supported," she adds.
Of course, old habits die hard, so if you find yourself still slouching in your chair, try trading a sitting desk for a standing desk.
Set a posture-check reminder.
There are a few ways you can go about this. One strategy: Simply set alarms on your phone to periodically check your posture throughout the day.
But Duma also suggests looking into posture-friendly gadgets to get the job done, such as the Upright Go Posture Trainer and Corrector for Back (Buy It, $100, amazon.com). The device adheres to your back in between your shoulder blades, offering posture feedback in real-time via the Upright Go app. Using multisensor technology, the trainer vibrates when you slouch and curates data on your posture throughout the day to help you see when you're most likely to slump. (More posture-friendly sleep products here: The Best Mattresses for Back Pain, According to Chiropractors)