By Catherine New, published on November 6, 2006 - last reviewed on September 2, 2008
Good posture is in a slump. Our days at work and school are filled with non-ergonomic tasks and habits—staring at computers, lugging heavy shoulder bags, and cradling the phone in the crick of our necks. Now our backs are paying the price. According to a Duke University study, back pain is costing the country $90 billion a year.
Beyond back pain, bad posture can aggravate other problems like joint degeneration and osteoarthritis. "Bad alignment predisposes you to joint and muscle stress, which may lead to back pain and arthritis," says Shirley Sahrmann, professor of physical therapy at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
Here's how it works—or doesn't work: Sitting at a badly arranged workspace, for example, tilts the torso forward, placing extra tension on the spine and causing it to curve. Your muscles then adjust to this newfound position. From there, chest muscles shorten and abdominal muscles weaken, while back muscles stretch and overextend. Also, this posture can compress and contribute to the breakdown of cartilage between your vertebrae. Over time, this can contribute to osteoarthritis. In short, "our bodies weren't designed to sit all day," says Tammy Bohne, a chiropractor in New York City.
To combat this rampant slouching, straightening one's back should be simple enough. But according to John Christman, standing straight is not enough. You must build, stretch, and retrain your muscles to counteract slouching. Christman, who has a Ph.D. in biophysiology, has developed an exercise program that strengthens and stretches muscles for better body alignment. "Posture is not about the vertebrae being knocked out of alignment. It's about muscle strength and you have to do the work."
Christman and Bohne offer a few tips for the slouch in all of us. First, find out if your posture is at risk by asking these questions:
If you answered yes to any of these questions, your posture may need help.
Sometimes it's the little things that count. According to Bohne, most people are not aware of proper ergonomics.