My friends say "omg, your outfit is so cute!...NOW STRAIGHTEN YOUR BACK!"
March 27, 2011 6:54 PM   Subscribe

My posture has become even worse (if that's possible)! How can I improve it?

Ever since I started graduate school, I've been bombarded by a ridiculous amount of work and my hours spent in front of a computer, hunched over a book, or facing an imposing stack of ungraded papers have increased 1000000x. My posture has never been great -- I'm a tall, thin, *slouchy* person -- but I feel like it's become even worse as of late. There are times when I'll emerge from workmode at 3 AM to realize that in the lowlight of my room, I probably resemble a vulture with glasses in front of a computer.

In addition, I've started to feel some lower back pain. I'm guessing this is a combination of bad posture + lots of stress.

So how can I fix this problem? I've never been a terribly athletic person -- most of my time is spent on a computer or buried in a book -- but I'm not opposed to doing some simple exercises. Since I'm pretty much free this summer, I figured that would be a great time to work on this problem.

Also: Do posture braces actually work? They look very...medical and I think kind of scary & uncomfortable. But I'd wear one for the whole summer, if it meant I'd have a straighter back when school rolled around again. If anyone has experience with those, please share your recommendations on specific brands.

Thank you!
posted by joyeuxamelie to Health & Fitness (25 answers total) 65 users marked this as a favorite
Have you thought about doing yoga? It greatly improves posture by making you more aware of your body and strengthing your stomach muscles which also help with maintaining good posture.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 7:03 PM on March 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've had really bad posture since I was a teenager, and I've found a few exercises/stretches that work (but only if you do them really consistently, which is my personal plague).

1. Sitting or standing, squeeze your shoulder blades together as tight as you can. Then slide your chin/head back (no tilting, just try to give yourself as many chins as possible) so that the curve of your neck is really exaggerated. Hold this pose for 30 seconds or longer. Do this a few times a day; the more you do it, the longer you will be able to hold it. This helps your neck curve naturally and releases the pressure that is caused by the weight of your head, and it also strengthens the muscles that hold your shoulder blades back.

2. Stand in a doorway, grab onto the sides with your hands, and lean forward until you feel the stretch in your pectorals. Stretch for a few minutes or however long is comfortable.

3. Situps and pushups-- it seems old-fashioned, but you have to strengthen your core to maintain good posture.

4. I've also found that yoga is really great for overall tension relief and posture, as well as strength. Even a gentle 15 minute session can make your body feel better after a long day in front of the computer.

Re: posture braces-- I have one, but I hardly ever wear it. It's uncomfortable, chafes under the arms, and can cause my arms to fall asleep if I'm not 100% mindful of the fact that I'm wearing it and I have to keep my shoulders back. I guess if you're looking for something to make you constantly aware of your posture, it could work very well, but in terms of actually correcting bad posture, nothing will do it except consistent exercise.
posted by lockstitch at 7:04 PM on March 27, 2011 [14 favorites]

See if you can find a class/instructor in the Alexander Technique. It's not so much specific exercises as learning to recognize your habitual bad posture habits and train yourself out of them.
posted by bettafish at 7:11 PM on March 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

n-thing yoga- you will feel much better, trust me! (and it will improve your posture)
posted by bearette at 7:23 PM on March 27, 2011

Oh, and there's no need to get too complicated- you can start off with buying a book or learning a few poses and trying it for 10-15 minutes a day.
posted by bearette at 7:24 PM on March 27, 2011

I just started graduate school this year, and I've been struggling with the very same issue. I've started doing a couple things that seem to help:

- Seconding bearette, I do few quick but meditative stretches when I first wake up in the morning (personal preference is yoga / moon salutations).

- When walking to or around campus, I intermittently focus on activating my abdominal muscles. This helps my back elongate, makes me feel lighter, and slowly improves my ability/habit to hold myself straight.

- As often as I can remember, I remind myself to release my shoulders and let them drop down and back (when I think to do this I often discover that my shoulders have, unbeknownst to me, hunched up vulture-style).

- I carry a backpack instead of a messenger-style bag.

These are all very small, but doing them here and there has actually been really helpful. So far I'm finding that a little mindfulness can go a long way - of course these days a little bit is all I can manage!

Good (and empathetic) thoughts to you and your spine...
posted by marlys at 7:42 PM on March 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding Alexander Technique. Even if all you have time / money for is a few sessions, it can still be incredibly helpful for becoming aware of and counteracting posture issues
posted by Mchelly at 7:42 PM on March 27, 2011

To learn to be conscious of your posture while IN work mode, consider installing something like Workrave on your computer. It will force you to take breaks at whatever interval you choose, and stretch/reevaluate your posture each time.
posted by Knicke at 7:45 PM on March 27, 2011

Strengthen your upper back and posterior chain. Kyphotic (hunched) posture is frequently just one symptom of a very common postural misalignment pattern called Anterior Pelvic Tilt.

Stretching the correct muscles is important, but no amount of stretching or massage will accomplish a tenth of the results of a decent, sustained lifting routine targeting the musculature stabilising the spine and aligning the pelvic girdle.

Write-up on the dreaded anterior pelvic tilt or "why does my stomach protrude", and how to fix it.
posted by Kandarp Von Bontee at 8:14 PM on March 27, 2011 [6 favorites]

Yoga, yoga, yoga. Did somebody say yoga? :)

As for the braces - I tend to think they might cause the opposite effect. I once had to wear a brace for a back injury (it hurt to sit at a desk, and that's how I make my living) but the doctor told me to only wear it when I truly needed to, as using a brace makes the back and abdominal muscles get weak and lazy. So if you're not athletic to start with (neither am I, outside of the yoga) you probably don't have a lot of strong muscle to start with, and you don't want to lose what you have.
posted by chez shoes at 8:15 PM on March 27, 2011

This earlier question and it answers, while not identical to yours, might help. In addition to yoga, ballet. There's nothing like mirrors to make you suddenly so aware of your posture that you drop your shoulders and hold your head up. I am not kidding. One hour of ballet a week and your posture will thank you on and on!
posted by emhutchinson at 8:15 PM on March 27, 2011

Pilates will also help you drastically improve your posture by strengthening your core muscles and make you more aware of your body.
posted by rhapsodie at 8:32 PM on March 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

You've got a bunch of great ideas for solving your slouch, so I'll address preventing it: you should consider rearranging your computer work area so it is less likely to make you hunch. Raise your monitor — if you're working off a laptop, get a stand for it, and attach a keyboard and mouse to it so you have your hands lower and your head higher. Make sure your chair's height is adjusted properly so your knees aren't higher than your hips and also make sure your chair gives you back support — straight upright is best for back issues. Then make sure you use it instead of leaning forward. Don't lean on your arms. Also, make your reading area more comfortable with comfortable seating and a bright light. Like that. Then force yourself to do all your work in your more comfy space.

What you're doing all day is the same as anyone working in an office. Look up workspace ergonomics, follow those tips.
posted by clone boulevard at 8:37 PM on March 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I know yoga is the answer to everything, but I hate yoga so I'm 3rding Alexander Technique instead. Having someone come to your house is great if you're busy because you have to set a time and actually focus; the fact you're paying for it makes it a priority and helps you get low-need stuff like this taken care of. A few sessions, as noted, should be sufficient.

If you wanted and were able to set aside some time a few times a week, I would suggest a home pilates DVD that focused on core strengthening for abs and back, like Core Plus.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:41 PM on March 27, 2011

The problem is that sitting all day hunched over a desk causes your shoulder blades to push forward, which collapses your ribs together and makes your back arch out. This then makes you want to distribute the arch across your back to relieve the pressure, causing a general "hunched" appearance. In addition, your lower back muscles are being stressed because the sitting is slowly forcing your hips forward. You can test just how bad the situation has gotten by trying to touch your toes without bending your legs. What will most likely happen is two things: 1. You won't get anywhere near your toes, and 2. You will arch the ever-loving fuck out of your back to try and reach your toes. #2 is the real problem; you shouldn't have to arch your back at all when you touch your toes.

So, for the first problem: do a YouTube search for Scapular retraction (scapular = shoulder blades) exercises. These will help you push your shoulder blades back and down (you need to do both, not just back, but back and down). Exercise 1 (alternate with fitness ball). Exercise 2.

For your lower back, you'll need to work on increasing flexibility in your hamstrings & glutes. Now you might be wondering what your legs and ass have to do with your back, but actually it all works together. To stretch this area effectively, nothing beats the stiff legged deadlift (example). The key to this exercise is do not round your back. If it's your first time trying it, try and remember to push your ass out; you most likely won't even get your back to 90° before you feel the urge to arch your back. Don't.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:44 PM on March 27, 2011 [10 favorites]

Nth-ing Alexander technique. I took a one-day course given by a certified practitioner, offered cheap as a community recreation program, and it changed my life, body-awareness-wise. You will feel better and move better, and be aware when your posture is slumping.
posted by Listener at 9:43 PM on March 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Set an alarm to go off at intervals to check your posture. At the beginning, do it every 5 minutes if you have to, but it's important that you continually adjust your spine and neck into the correct alignment. You should:

Drop your shoulders down away from your ears
Gently squeeze your shoulder blades together (over squeeze to stretch, then slightly relax)
Lift your pecs (or breasts) upward
Feel as if you are lifting your rib cage "off" your pelvis
Move your head back, so that it is not thrust forward - your head should not be in front of your body
Make sure your feet are firmly planted on the ground, sitting or standing

Keep OTC pain reliever handy, because the first week I forced myself to constantly check my posture, I ached terribly.

If you do take up yoga, make sure you have an instructor check your positions. Downward Facing Dog, done properly, is amazing for stretching a tight back!
posted by lootie777 at 10:05 PM on March 27, 2011

My suggestion would be getting into trigger point therapy yourself. Stretching etc is all very well, but if the muscle harbours trigger points it won't do much good and might make it worse.

The trigger point therapy workbook is good. Probably best to start with the worst pains and problems, definitely do the scalenes as they're the keystone to a lot of other things, then go full steam ahead with treating muscles that are preventing good posture like upper back, quads, tensor fascia lata. Be steadfast and don't allow yourself to get sidetracked, treat each muscle until the points are gone before moving on to the next unless you have a pressing reason to switch.

If you do that good luck.
posted by Not Supplied at 10:31 PM on March 27, 2011

Oh yeh, take care of the front before you do the back. Chest and stomach first...if they're tight you won't be able to straighten up when you do the back.
posted by Not Supplied at 10:34 PM on March 27, 2011

Also, seriously consider seeing a chiropractor. You don't have to commit to getting adjustments or anything, just at least get a consultation and x-rays if they recommend. Cost me $25 with insurance, my girlfriend $90 without. Very worth it to find out if there's something seriously wrong or not (in the case of my girlfriend, her neck pain was caused by her spine curving in the complete wrong direction).
posted by nmaster64 at 11:50 PM on March 27, 2011

Anything that improves core strength is a good idea (yoga, rock climbing, balance-based activities).

But first, get yourself a good chair. I had a terrible chair when I first started grad school, and was miserable. That, at least, is easy and immediate to fix.
posted by nat at 5:18 AM on March 28, 2011

Yoga is one thing, but I have found strength training with weights and resistance bands (which are really cheap, and also easy to carry and store) extremely helpful for my posture. Before that, I think I just didn't have enough muscle in my back, shoulders and legs to hold me properly upright or balance properly without slouching. Even if you have no equipment at all, doing squats and planks, straight up with no weights or anything, would probably help.
posted by Acheman at 9:04 AM on March 28, 2011

Something that I've found helpful for my own slouching is visualizing a string attached to the top of my head that's pulling me upward. It's less throwing back the shoulders than stretching out the entire back.

I seem to recall I got this tidbit from a magazine interview with Gwyneth Paltrow, if that makes you more/less inclined to try it.
posted by orrnyereg at 9:20 AM on March 28, 2011

I work at a drawing table all day and one thing that has helped my posture is barefoot-style running. I don't run more than 3 times a week but I think that having to concentrate on my form so intently has done a lot to tighten the muscles of my 47 year old back and stomach. I wear Bikila shoes and love them.
posted by bonobothegreat at 10:08 AM on March 28, 2011

I second Kandarp Von Bontee, Civil_Disobedient, and Acheman. I'm a computer programmer, and I've had terrible posture all my life -- weight lifting helped more than anything else. I hadn't even realized it was going to help until three different people said "wow, your posture has really improved!"
posted by vorfeed at 2:23 PM on March 28, 2011

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