The most common posture-related mistake we all make? Assuming that it only affects our appearance. It’s true–we do look better when we stand up straight, but it goes way beyond that. Poor posture habits can “lead to an array of musculoskeletal issues” says Luis Ribeiro, one of the UK’s leading physiotherapists. The founder and clinical director of London’s Club Health says that improving your posture bolsters both your wellbeing and longevity. “As society evolves, so does the prevalence of poor posture habits, directly linked to the widespread adoption of sedentary lifestyles and technology,” he tells us. “Prolonged periods spent in suboptimal positions, such as sitting at desks, using devices in bed, and walking in heels, result in myriad musculoskeletal issues.”
Here he delves into the intricacies of common posture mistakes and their impact on our health while suggesting evidence-based recommendations for improvement.
Desk-bound postural pitfalls
Desk working can cause, or contribute to, two main postural issues, Ribeiro explains. Firstly, cervical hyperextension and forward head posture (FHP)–(which is essentially, where the head leans further forward due to excessive neck bending and a slumped seating position): “The widespread use of computers and other electronic devices has increased the prevalence of cervical hyperextension and FHP. This faulty posture leads to an increased load on the cervical spine, causing muscular imbalances and increasing the risk of cervicogenic headaches and temporomandibular joint disorders, affecting the movement of the jaw.”
Secondly, thoracic kyphosis and scapular winging (resulting in a more ‘hunched’ appearance with rounded shoulders and protuding shoulder blades): “Extended periods of desk work can lead to thoracic kyphosis, characterised by an excessive curvature of the thoracic spine (located in the upper and middle part of the back), as well as scapular winging, where the shoulder blades protrude away from the ribcage. These postural deviations result in muscle imbalances, which can lead to chronic pain, reduced functional capacity, and impaired respiratory function.”
Device-induced postural distortions
These also fall into two main categories; gazing down at smartphones and viewing screens while reclined.
“Tech neck, or text neck, is a postural distortion caused by the constant downward gaze on smartphones and other handheld devices,” Ribeiro says. “This position strains the cervical spine and can result in chronic neck pain, muscle imbalances, and degenerative changes in the intervertebral discs between each vertebra.” Watching screens in bed, particularly in a prone or semi-reclined position, can exacerbate postural issues. “This position places undue stress on the cervical (neck region) and thoracic (the upper and middle) spine, resulting in muscular imbalances and strain injuries.”
Footwear and posture misalignment
The main culprit here is heels. “Wearing high heels frequently can induce lumbar lordosis, an excessive inward curvature of the lumbar spine,” reveals Ribeiro. “This postural deviation increases the load on the lower back, causing muscle imbalances and potential chronic pain.” It can also shorten your achilles, he continues. “Prolonged use of high heels can lead to the shortening of the achilles tendon, resulting in a higher risk of tendon injuries, bunions and limited ankle mobility.” Ribeiro adds that it is also key to wear appropriate shoes for every physical activity, as different types of shoes provide varying levels of support and protection.
Strategies for poor posture habits
This might all sound doom and gloom, but Ribeiro says that by implementing evidence-based strategies, including fostering innovation in ergonomics, we can develop healthier habits which may prevent chronic pain as well as enhance overall wellbeing (as well as improving how we look). Here’s his advice:
1. Use ergonomic workstations: “Height adjustable chairs, desks, and monitors can reduce the strain on the spine and promote proper posture.”
2. Take regular breaks: “Incorporate brief breaks when working, as well as stretching exercises to alleviate muscle imbalances and prevent prolonged static postures.”
3. Become posture-aware: “Actively engage in maintaining proper posture during daily activities, including standing, sitting, and walking.”
4. Incorporate physiotherapy and strengthening exercises: “Incorporate exercises that target the posterior chain muscles, such as the upper back, lower back, and glutes, to help maintain proper spinal alignment.”
5. Limit high-heel wear: “Reserve heels for special occasions and opt for footwear that provides adequate arch support and shock absorption. For long days on your feet, comfortable shoes with good arch support are ideal.”
6. Consider custom-made shoes: “Everyone’s feet are different, and wearing shoes that are designed specifically for your feet can help to correct any imbalances, provide support where needed, and ultimately improve your posture. A bespoke shoe fitting involves a detailed analysis of your feet, including the size, shape, and any specific conditions or injuries like flat feet or bunions.”
Of course, while these mostly address common issues, a physiotherapist can provide tailored recommendations to mitigate the impact of more personal postural deviations.
Ribeiro feels that a preventative approach is ideal, and that the importance of proper posture should be prioritised in conjunction with regular physical activity and a balanced diet, as part of a holistic approach to maintaining overall health and wellbeing. “By raising awareness, employing evidence-based strategies, and utilising ergonomic innovations, we can cultivate a more posture-conscious–and healthier–society.”
This article first appeared in Harper's Bazaar UK in April 2023.