The Science Of Posture: Why Sitting Up Straight Makes You Happier And More Productive

You're slumping in your chair, aren't you? If you want to be better at work, just say no to slouching.

I’ll confess up front: I have terrible posture. It’s been bad since I was in high school at least, and probably for even longer than that. It’s one of those things I keep in the back of my mind as something I know I should do, but never get around to, like eating more vegetables and sending more postcards.

It’s really interesting to explore commonly held assumptions for Buffer blog, because I often find out surprising things. Researching how our posture affects us was no different. If you’re like me and struggle to sit up straight when you know you should, you might like this post.

We’ve talked extensively about body language before. But this time, we wanted to take a different drift. The way we stand, sit, and walk actually has more long-reaching implications on our mood and happiness than we thought. The latest studies reveal it:

Shaking your head will affect your opinion and other surprising new insights on posture.

Body language is closely related to posture--the way we move our bodies affects how others see us as well as our own moods and habits. In terms of scientific research, the two overlap quite a bit. This isn’t too surprising, but how our posture and body language affect our thoughts is.

For instance, a study at Ohio State University in 2003 found that our opinions can be subsconsciously influenced by our physical behavior. Here are two fascinating examples:

  • When participants in the study nodded in agreement or shook their heads to signal disagreement, these actions affected their opinions without them realizing.
  • The same study also showed that when participants hugged themselves, they were sometimes able to reduce their physical pain.

Dutch behavioral scientist Erik Peper has done extensive research into this area as well. He regularly makes participants in his classes stand up and stretch for similar reasons why exercise has been linked to happiness, like here:

Here are three fascinating things that happened once our posture changes:

  1. For example, when we sit up straight, we are more likely to remember positive memories or think of something positive in general, according to this experiment.
  2. Another insight was that if we skip during breaks, we can significantly increase our energy levels. A slow, slumped walk on the other hand, can do the exact opposite and drain us of our energy. (source)
  3. The study also found that those who were most affected by depression before the study found their energy drained more than others.

So Erik Peper is convinced (and I am, too) that we should keep a careful eye on our posture and body language--lest it bring us down without us realizing.

Posture also changes our hormones: Standing tall literally makes you more powerful.

When we talk more broadly of body language, as opposed to good posture, we can actually see the affects it has on relationships right throughout the animal kingdom. In particular, body language is used to express power through expansive postures (i.e., spreading out your limbs and opening up your body) and large body size (or the simple perception of large body size).

You might know about Amy Cuddy’s famous Ted Talk and her incredible insights on how posture changes our hormone levels. Well, some more recent studies took this even further:

A study by researchers from Columbia and Harvard Universities showed that body language symbolizing power can actually affect our decision-making subconsciously. The researchers measured the appetite for risk of participants in either expansive, powerful poses or constricted poses (occupying minimal space, keeping limbs close to the body). Those in the powerful poses not only felt more powerful and in control, but were 45% more likely to take a risky bet.

Plus, the study used saliva samples to prove that expansive postures actually altered the participants’ hormone levels--decreasing cortisol (C) and increasing testosterone (T):

This neuroendocrine profile of High T and Low C has been consistently linked to such outcomes as disease resistance and leadership abilities.

So clearly, our posture has more to do with our minds than we might have thought. And, in fact, it seems like our bodies come first: When we alter our posture and body language, it subconsciously influences our thinking and decision-making.

Why there is no “one best” posture and how to improve yours

So if you want to take advantage of these proven benefits to live a healthier and happier life, where should you start? We know there are many parts of the body that can be painful when we have bad posture. Here’s just a short list of them:

Unfortunately there’s not a whole lot of research into how exactly to adopt good posture--a lot of what we know tends to come from being told to “sit up straight” as children. A study in 1999, however, found that sitting at an angle of 110 to 130 degrees is optimal for spine comfort, and another in 2007 showed that leaning back at 135 degrees is ideal for preventing back strain.

Not only is a position like this difficult to measure and maintain (do you know precisely what angle you’re sitting at right now?), not everyone agrees.

The team at LUMOback has created a posture sensor that you can wear around your waist during the day to help you develop better posture. The device watches for slouching and shifting to the side and vibrates to remind you to sit up straight.

The team, which includes a doctor and a data scientist (as well as a medical adviser), doesn’t advise the leaning-back position for your workday. Instead, they maintain firstly that “the best posture is always the next posture,” or in other words, always keep moving:

We know that many of us have jobs that do require us to spend time working at desks, so knowing how to sit and stand with good posture is certainly important and beneficial to one’s health and well-being. That said, the human body was built to move, not spend eight hours at a computer.

While many of the apps and devices designed to track our daily activity focus on workouts and regular exercise routines, LUMOback is more focused on small, regular bursts of movement:

Walking around helps your body to reset itself into healthy posture, so make a point to get up from your desk at least twice an hour.

When it actually comes to posture, the LUMOback team recommends a neutral pelvic postion (i.e., sitting up straight). They promote this posture particularly for times when we’re sedentary for long periods, like sitting at our desks all day:

When you maintain a neutral pelvic position with a straight and upright back, the vertebrae in your back are nicely aligned. This takes a lot of pressure off of your spine and back muscles, which can reduce back pain.

Here’s an image from the study that promotes leaning back at 135º:

As the LUMOback team points out, while this is beneficial for your lower back (if you manage to keep it straight), your upper back and neck will suffer if you try to maintain this position while working.

In an office setting, you’re likely to have to crane your neck to see your computer screen and strain your upper back and shoulders to reach a keyboard. Thus, any potential lower-back benefits of a reclined position are outweighed by the negative impacts on your upper back and neck.

For now, I’m going to give sitting up straight a go. If nothing else, at least I know it will probably put me in a good mood!

P.S.: If you liked this post, you might also like Why procrastination doesn’t need a cure: A guide to structured distraction and How To Make Positivity a Habit: 4 Simple Steps to a Happier Everyday Life.

--Belle Beth Cooper is a Content Crafter at Buffer and Co-founder of Hello Code. Follow her on Twitter at @BelleBethCooper.

This post originally appeared on Buffer, and is reprinted with permission.

[Image: Flickr user 55Laney69]

Add New Comment

20 Comments

  • Hi Belle! This a great article! Really random, cause I work for a company that is all about chairs that promote gentle movement and proper posture, but I didn't know that your posture can actually affect your mood!

    Our most iconic chair from 1979 promotes a seating posture that aligns your spine in exactly the same way as when you are standing:

    http://www.varierfurniture.com/blog/2014/02/06/your-spine-on-the-variable-balans/ (from the company blog)

    Best regards, Ingrid

  • Bob Lee

    For martial arts students, posture is essential for
    understanding physical balance, rooting one’s weight into the ground and being
    able to counter the opposing forces needed to generate power with attacks.

    Posture ties in with body alignment. Similar to architecture, the body has
    strengths and weaknesses in certain postures and positions. From the health perspective, poor posture
    puts the same strains on the body the same as it would any building or other
    physical structure. The difference is
    that poor posture will impact circulation, breathing, energy flow through
    meridians and, ultimately the health of internal organs.

    Good body alignment allows for the better flood of
    circulation and energy through the body.
    The body affects the mind and vice versa. However, if the body was left on its on, it’d
    prefer postures that require less effort to maintain. Sitting up straight whether in a chair or
    just on the floor with your legs extended in front of you, requires core and
    back strength, hip flexibility and strength, and quad strength and hamstring
    flexibility.

    Maintaining good posture requires training and mindfulness
    but the benefits are huge as far as the body feeling better and preventing
    expensive medical problems over the decades.

    Kind regards,

    Bob Lee

    Head Instructor

    3rd Degree Black Belt

    http://www.bodymindsystems.com...

  • Ibrar

    This neuroendocrine profile of High T and Low C has been consistently linked to such outcomes as disease resistance and leadership abilities.

  • Joanna

    Very much agree that posture is important, and sitting in general causes pain, tiredness, and more health risks to your body than you could imagine. The best solution is a standing desk or a walking treadmill like the one's they sell at www.rebeldesk.com. You don't need to stand all day, but there are SO many health benefits to walking and standing while working!

  • Brian Alex Rothbart

    Dear Beth,

    I found your blog - The Science of Posture - informative and very enjoyable to read.

    I am a clinical researcher (40+ years) in postural distortions and resulting chronic musculoskeletal pain. I am credited with discovering two previously unrecognized inherited abnormal foot structures (PreClinical Clubfoot Deformity and Rothbarts Foot) that lead to poor posture and muscle and joint pain. Fortunately, these two common foot structures can be successfully treated, which automatically improves the posture and eliminates the chronic pain.

    I thought you might be interested in my research and possibly sharing it with your readers.

    with regards,

    --

    Professor/Dr. Brian A. Rothbart
    Chronic Pain Elimination Specialist
    http://CuringChronicPain.com
    http://RothbartSite.com
    http://RothbartsFoot.es

  • Michelle Lynn Thompson

    I am 48 years old and I STILL skip at least once daily. Usually from my car to the office building. It does make me feel more energized and happy!

  • Fred

    I use a timer App and it rings every hours for a 10mn break. But I work from home which is more civilized. We have to get ride of the small screen, the keyboard, the mouse and the seat. We have to use our full body to work while standing, re invent our work habit because the actual one is not healthy and very painful.

  • Sherry

    Great article that raises a lot of interesting points! It turns out that there really is one good posture for everyone—the one that is innate to the natural human design. Toddlers discover this when learning how to balance a heavy bowling ball-like head on top of the spine when figuring out how to stand and walk. Those women in the world who successfully carry heavy loads on their heads without strain are able to do this because they have never lost this natural alignment. And, finally, people who have aged into their 70s, 80s and beyond with long spines and flexible joints have lived a lifetime conforming to this same natural posture that is governed by simple laws of physics, engineering and architecture.

    Kathleen Porter, author of Natural Posture for Pain-Free Living: The Practice of Mindful Alignment makes an intriguing case for this through hundreds of photographs and illustrations.

  • Dr Paula Moore

    You are right indeed there is one ideal alignment. Good or ideal posture is all about symmetry. Vertebrates are bilaterians which is why we have two arms,two legs, two eyes, two ears, two lungs etc. We ideally have the mirror image of left and right. Having ideal symmetry (one good posture) we can respond best to the daily stresses of gravity, ergonomics and whatever else life throws at us.

  • Dr Paula Moore

    I'm concerned with the 'sit up straight' advice we constantly hear. Sitting up straight often makes one's spine rigid and tense. We should encourage 'active sitting' as I like to call it. Remember to fidget, wiggle and stir. Just watch small children, they know what is best. I tell my clients to do a 1-minute workout in their chair every hour. Turn your head side to side with a gentle push on your chin, then roll your shoulders backward (opening your posture) 5 times and finally do some butt squeezes to get the circulation pumping and end with a 20 second lower back self massage. Become an active sitter. Sit long and tall but NOT straight.

  • juwlz

    The "trick" to it is to learn to find your sitting bones (the pointy bit of the pelvis) and then balance on them in perpetual micro movement (close your eyes and "weeble" backwards and forwards until you feel you're upright and nobody can tell that you're still moving). That way you get "sitting up straight" combined with "fidgeting" without anybody even noticing.

    If you have a chair that rocks, & is capabable of tilting forward, sit forward on it and ignore the back rest (even the best lumbar support is simply a horrible temptation to slump - if you use a backrest, your neck will be out of alignment). The free rocking will encourage you to balance, and the forward tilt allows the angle between your torso and things to open up. Most of us have shortened hamstrings, so that sitting up straight with the legs at a 90 degree angle to the torso (or worse, with a backward tilting chair) means the pelvis is physically incapable of being upright, because the hamstrings pull it over backwards.

    For more information on forward tilting seats, check out "The Seated Man" by A C Mandal.

    For more information about balanced sitting, search for Peter Opsvik and sitting.

    For the record, I'm currently sitting on one of his designs at work as I type this - an Actulum. However, he has also designed plenty of chairs that look much more like a conventional office chair.

    The other trick is to adjust your chair to YOU (if it's height adjustable), not your desk. That means that with the seat flat, your feet should rest lightly on the floor. Then adjust your desk height so that it's at elbow height with your shoulders relaxed.

    Most people make the mistake of adjusting a chair to their desk, rather than to themselves. This means that many people (especially tall people, or those like me who are long in the back and short in the limbs) tend to slump over a desk simply because their forearms don't reach it, or struggle to get their legs comfortable with the chair low enough for the desk. I'm about 5'5" (1.65m) tall, and my desk height is set to 30.5" (77.5cm). According to conventional wisdom about my height and normal desk heights, that's way too high. But it's the height that's most comfortable for me in conjunction with the chair I'm using.

    If you sit balanced and rocking, that's as close to walking as you can get without actually walking. Walking is good, but I personally couldn't possibly work on a standing desk and treadmill.

  • Dr Paula Moore

    Some good points there. Having spent over a decade studying spinal xrays, I am becoming more and more concerned with sitting. The 'perfect' desk and the 'perfect' chair now seem to me to be a Western ideal and not a reality.

    Sitting bones (ischial tuberosities) are good to have in our awareness. I also agree 90% isn't ideal and likely not possible to maintain with our short hamstrings. I still favour the pregnancy position for most people with hips slightly above knees when sitting.

    I'm moving away from sitting all together but you are right, standing completely is likely to cause fatigue. When fatigued one is likely to create a new problem of losing our abdominal tone and increasing our lumbar/sacral angle (or excess pelvic tipping) which could strain and wear the discs over time. I'm quite interested in sit/stand desks that are half way between sitting and standing and will be trialing some of the current new products soon.

    Great comments and insights!

  • Dr Paula Moore

    I've written a lot about sit/stand desks. Which do you use? I can't wait to build my first one!