After years of feeling embarrassed about my slumped-over look, I spent a month putting expert advice on how to correct posture into action—and became more confident along the way. 

By Megan Falk
April 02, 2020
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Megan Falk

When you meet a stranger, the first thing that catches your eye might be their Michelle Obama-level defined biceps or their swoon-worthy smile. But I’ve long thought one of my most prominent physical characteristics—besides my undeniably Scandinavian blonde hair and blue eyes—is my poor posture. 

Slouching is a bad habit I’ve dealt with for the majority of my life. As a teenager, my brother would harass me for my constant slumping (I like to think it was out of love). In ninth grade, my gym teacher reprimanded me for my arched back, grabbing my shoulders and forcibly pushing them back into their “proper” place. Even now as a full-fledged adult with an office job, I’ve caught myself sinking further and further down into my desk chair until my eyes are nearly level with the keyboard. 

All the teasing and unsolicited advice over the years has turned my posture into the greatest source of my self-consciousness, and I’ve tried again and again to correct it. I’ve gone through day-long spurts of holding my shoulders back, only to relapse to my slouching state the next day with a side of mild back pain. Heck, I’ve made it my New Year’s resolution (and failed to actually follow through on it) every year since I was 17. 

I’m not alone in my struggle to maintain proper posture, either. Forty-seven percent of people say they are concerned about their posture and its impact on their health, according to a 2019 national survey. But to Karen Joubert, P.T., D.P.T., owner of Joubert Physical Therapy, that might not be the full picture: "I think everyone has issues [with posture] if you think about it."

Even though slumping over in a desk chair and walking around with rounded shoulders feels more comfortable, and frankly easier, than teaching myself how to improve my posture, it’s not doing my health—or yours—any favors. At the very least, all this slouching can make you feel fatigued when you’re simply sitting, lead to headaches and slight pain, or cause numbness and tingling in the legs and arms, says Joubert. "When you’re sitting there for periods of time, you also start leaning forward and compressing the diaphragm,” she says. “You won’t be getting proper air and oxygen, and that’s why we feel fatigued.”

But it can also lead to serious health implications—slumping over can wear away at the spine, making it more fragile and prone to injury; cause back, neck, and shoulder pain; decrease flexibility; and misalign the entire musculoskeletal system, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM). Why? Think of your head like a 10 lb bowling ball—when you lean forward, the gravitational pull on the head increases, which can cause the weight of the head to put up to 60 pounds of pressure on your shoulders, says Joubert. TL;DR: Even a slight misalignment can place unnecessary strain on your body. 

What Is "Good Posture," Exactly?

Technically speaking, posture is how you hold your body while standing, sitting, or lying down. Good posture involves maintaining, but not increasing, the natural curves of your spine at your neck, mid-back, and low-back, according to the NLM. Though models and celebrities look like they’re walking around with boards strapped to their backs, trying to replicate their posture isn't your best bet. "Posture is unique to everyone," says Joubert. "It’s different from your neighbors and best friends."

And if you do slouch, your genes are probably not to blame, says Lindsay Newitter, an AmSAT-certified teacher (a certification from the American Society for the Alexander Technique, which is a method of changing faulty postural habits) and owner of The Posture Police. Instead, it's due to a structural issue (think: scoliosis) or habits you've developed over time, she explains. These posture-wrecking patterns can start to develop as early as elementary school when you’re a small kid working in a desk made for someone twice your size. Without your feet on the floor, you learn to use your upper body to hold yourself up and lift your shoulders to reach your desk, says Newitter. In your adolescent years, you might develop social anxieties or large breasts that make you self-conscious, which can further worsen your posture. Add in all those hours you spend sitting as an adult, and maintaining poor posture becomes as second nature as brushing your teeth.

So How Do You Find *Your* Best Posture?

Even though your friends and family have good intentions when they tell you to stand up straight, it’s not as simple as that. "A lot of people think, at least from what I encounter, that they hold their body in the wrong position," says Newitter. "To fix it, they try to hold it in the right position. Neither of these are helpful. Good posture is having a full range of motion in joints and being able to easily find a place that’s centered and neutral." In fact, pushing your shoulders back and tucking your pelvis can do more harm than good, resulting in "backward slouching" and unnecessary strain, says Newitter. 

The following tips from Joubert and Newitter, however, will help you find the natural posture that’s best for your body. If you make an effort to improve your positioning and consistently correct any flaws, you can start seeing changes in your posture in as little as a month, says Joubert. 

Trying to break a nearly life-long habit of slouching and then practicing a new position can be overwhelming and frustrating—but it doesn't have to be. To avoid getting discouraged, Joubert recommends you start by focusing on one or two things, like the positioning of your shoulders or weight distribution, then building upon them. (Using these tips can help you achieve your goals too.) Remember, if you’re feeling any pain or discomfort while adjusting your posture, make an appointment with a physical therapist, who can give you guidance and help you prevent injury.

How to Correct Posture While Standing

Step 1: Start standing with feet shoulder-width apart. Distribute weight equally in the balls of both feet. 

Step 2: Gently pull lower abdominal muscles up and in, as if you’re moving the belly button toward the backbone, to achieve a neutral spine. (You can also picture this as slightly tucking the stomach in.) 

Step 3: Gently lower shoulder blades back and down as if you were tucking them into your pants’ pockets. 

Step 4: Adjust body so knees are pointed forward and relaxed or slightly bent. Align knees over feet, hips over knees, and shoulders over hips. 

Step 5: Let arms hang naturally at sides.

Step 6: Look straight forward and keep head level so that earlobes are parallel with shoulders. Avoid pushing head forward, backward, or to the side.

Step 7: Scratch the top of the head to bring your awareness there. Picture an arrow shooting straight up from that point. This visualization will help you lift the chin so that it is parallel to the floor and stand tall. 

How to Correct Posture While Sitting

Step 1: Start sitting with butt touching the back of the chair and feet resting on the ground, with bodyweight equally distributed. If they can’t reach due to the chair height, use a footplate or an ergonomic footrest (Buy It, $20, bedbathandbeyond.com). And if necessary, a cookbook or puzzle box can pass for a makeshift footrest. Knees should be at or below hip-level. 

Step 2: Position heels directly underneath knees. Knees should form a 90-degree angle. 

Step 3: Align shoulders directly over hips. Keep elbows bent at a 90-degree angle.

Step 4: Lower or raise the computer monitor so that it is eye level. 

Remember how sitting in one spot for long periods can cause fatigue? Well, that's why it's important to get up and move every 30 minutes, even if you sit with perfect posture, says Joubert. Go for a walk around your office, march in place, or do shoulder rolls to keep your body loose and invigorated. (Related: The Strength Training Workout for Perfect Posture)

Another key point on how to improve posture to remember: When you look down at your phone, start the movement with a little nod, rather than dropping your head all the way down and allowing that bowling-ball weight to strain your neck, says Newitter. Holding your phone at eye level will also do the trick. (Yes, tech neck is a real thing.)

My 30-Day Experiment to Improve My Posture

Week 1

Per Joubert’s advice, I focused on making just a few changes during my first week, starting with my sitting posture. On the first day, I put a footplate under my desk, raised my chair’s armrests to help keep my elbows bent at a 90-degree angle, and lowered my computer monitor to be at eye level. I’ve spent my entire life sitting on the very edge of the chair and leaning forward to get closer to the computer screen, so keeping my shoulders directly in line with my hips was completely out of my element. But once I settled into my chair with my feet resting comfortably on the plate, I realized I had been uncomfortably perched all these years simply so I was able to reach the floor. 

Within a few hours, I also noticed I hadn’t once felt the burning pain that usually creeps up my right shoulder to my neck as I work. By being mindful of my upper body’s position and having my elbows gently rest on the chair, I had stopped subconsciously holding my shoulder up toward my ear. Who knew easing my discomfort could be as simple as making a few adjustments to my workspace? (BTW, cleaning up your workspace can have health benefits too.)

My second goal for the first week of posture improvement: Get up and move every half hour. Sounds easy, right? Well, when you’re engrossed in your work, 30 minutes fly by, and you catch yourself saying you’ll take a walk around the floor after you “finish this one quick thing.” I ended up setting a timer to go off on 30-minute intervals as a reminder, but even that wasn’t convincing enough. When I forced myself to take a lap or two, I did gentle shoulder rolls and circles to get my blood flowing. 

Week 2

By week two, I was ready to tackle my standing posture head-on and decided to first focus on changing how I held my weight while standing. Turns out, I’ve been naturally putting all my weight into my toes, which caused me to lean slightly forward 24/7. This also explains why I have terrible balance. 

Next, I concentrated my energy on tucking my shoulders into my back pocket, which felt *much* more comfortable than shooting them straight back as I had always assumed was the correct thing to do. But what convinced me most to consistently resituate myself was how I looked after doing so. With my shoulders flat and my body looking less like the Leaning Tower of Pisa and more like a skyscraper, I appeared taller and more confident. Soon enough, I was habitually re-adjusting my weight and shoulders while waiting for the train or working on my feet at a high-top table. 

Though my short breaks from sitting were still inconsistent at best, I started incorporating posture exercises recommended by Joubert into my routine when I did break away from my computer. I worked through drills like “yes and no's,” moving my head side to side, then up and down; shoulder circles and rolls; and most importantly, wall angels. This exercise involves standing with your heels, back, and head up against a wall and slowly lowering and raising your arms as if you were doing snow angels. It seems like a move any young, fit person could master, but as a long-time sloucher, it burned as much as a downward dog the day after a HIIT workout. The moment I stepped away from the wall, though, I could feel how my body was supposed to stand naturally—and it was wonderful. 

Weeks 3 & 4

For the next two weeks, I incorporated wall angels and the other posture exercises into my after-workout stretching routine and was able to spread my angel arms a little bit more every day. Aside from the drills, though, my progress started to hit a wall. At times, maintaining proper posture while sitting felt exhausting, and I struggled to stop myself from getting back in the routine of settling on the edge of my desk chair and leaning my upper body 45-degrees forward. 

And that was okay. I reminded myself that some improvement was better than none, and I continued adjusting my shoulders when I noticed them rounding, as well as working on other aspects of my posture, like standing as if someone was pulling a string from the crown of my head. Thanks to this simple mental image, I noticed I had started naturally holding my head higher, ridding the back of my neck of that subtle ache that always seems to slowly rise throughout the day. (Related: Why You Should Care About Thoracic Spine Mobility)

Megan Falk

The Takeaway 

After a month of trying to transform my subpar posture into that of a normal human being, I can look in the mirror and see a clear-cut difference. My shoulders don’t naturally lurch forward and round while I stand, my body doesn’t tilt like I’m trying to hear a secret being whispered, and my head isn’t constantly tipped downward while I’m walking or sitting. Yes, there’s still plenty of room for growth. Most of the time, I forget to stand tall and hold an arch in my lower back. After particularly busy workdays, my bucket of energy is so empty that the mere thought of sitting up in my kitchen chair while I eat dinner winds me. But after years of battling offhand comments about my posture that shaped my self-esteem, even these small corrections have boosted my confidence. And with these easy tips on how to improve my posture, I know how I look and feel is only going to get better from here. 

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