Mom, dad, grandma, and every teacher you ever had told you countless times to sit up straight. But no matter how hard you tried, you always ended up slouched back down, right?
Why is something so seemingly simple, so consistently difficult to do? For one, it’s just not inherently comfortable. In fact, a study conducted by Scottish and Canadian researchers released in 2006 found that sitting at 90 degrees actually put the most strain on the back of three positions they tested. This position caused discs to move out of place even more than slouching or leaning forward.
They determined that the ideal position for back health was to lean back at 135 degree angle. That’s great for gamers to hear, but who is going to work, eat, or learn like that?
Plus, sitting properly isn’t just about your back. Proper positioning helps you breathe better – that sounds pretty important doesn’t it? The better you breathe, the better you’ll perform and focus, whether we’re talking about pounding the pavement or working in the office.
Dr. Jason Jared D.C. says sitting up straight, especially for those working long days at the desk, isn’t just a problem of laziness (Do you find yourself looking like the worker in the image at right?). There are a lot of caveats to consider. For instance, you have to take into account your desk setup. Do you have your computer and keyboard situated properly? What kind of chair do you have?
But most importantly, you have to take your personal musculoskeletal makeup into account.
“That’s the key,” says Dr. Jared. “The ‘mom said sit up straight’ comment is misleading. For many of us, even if we want to sit up straight, each of our perceptions of ‘straight’ will be different. Ask five people to sit in a chair with proper posture, and they’ll all look different.”
Most people, Dr. Jared says, don’t have the proprioceptive ability to know if they are sitting up straight, and beyond that, most of us can’t sit up “straight” because it’s not natural. When people tell you to sit “straight,” they don’t mean straight at all (if they know what they’re talking about).
That’s because your back is made up of three curves – one in the lower back, one in the upper back and one in the neck. Your back is s-shaped to evenly distribute the load of the body. If you try to sit up too straight, that load will be forced straight down on your lower back. You’re not going to feel comfortable and may feel significant pain when you do this over long periods.
In reality, most of us sit with our pelvis pushed forward, tucked underneath us. (Imagine yourself with a tail. Now imagine you’re sitting on your tail with it tucked underneath you. That’s how most of us sit.) This creates one big curve, or hunch, in your back, putting all the pressure on your lower back.
What you want to do is push your pelvis back, sticking your butt out. (Again, imagine you have a tail, only this time your tail is sticking out behind you, pulling your pelvis backward.) This creates a curve in your lower back, pushing you back into an S-shaped position. This is why a lumbar support in your car or chair is so great. It forces you to keep the S-curve position.
For a great technique to find a better position, watch this TedTalks video>>
How Sitting Can Cause Back Problems
When you try to simply “sit up straight,” you go ram-rod straight, which again pushes your pelvis forward and takes the S-curve away again. You’re activating muscles that don’t need to be strong in order to sit in that position. You’re going to make stabilizing muscles into strength muscles, creating an imbalance that will fatigue your muscles and lead to pain elsewhere.
Dr. Jared says your doctor or physical therapist should not simply be telling you to improve your posture or to sit up straight, but determining what the proper and best posture for you should be, given your musculoskeletal makeup.
“We find out what a person is going to be able to do without pain,” he says. “We assess your biomechanics. Where are you stiff, where are you not, so that your body will adapt, rather than go into compensation patterns.”
However you sit, one thing’s absolutely clear – it’s not good to spend the entire day sitting down. Each year more than 15 percent of American adults are treated for back pain such as spinal stenosis, herniated discs, or lumbar pain. Clearly, the science of sitting is vital to American health. The Mayo Clinic reports that those who sit for four hours a day or more have a 50 percent increased risk of death from any cause, and a 125 percent increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease.
To help you combat that (without quitting your job) here are a few ways to sneak some movement into your office routine.
1. Take meetings standing up, or walk-&-talks (made famous by Aaron Sorkin in his television series “ TheWest Wing”).
2. Take your phone calls outside, either in a hallway or on the sidewalk. It will get you moving, and get you some fresh air – a great wake-up in the afternoon lull.
3. Stretch at your desk (here’s a great rundown of stretches you can do from your desk)
4. Make sure your desk is set up correctly, with the center of your computer screen slightly above eye level, and ideally with the keyboard in a tray under your desktop so you drop your shoulders.
5. Breathe into your abdomen as opposed to breathing into your shoulders.