There’s this concept of “good posture” out there, and we think that working on our posture will solve a lot of our aches and pains. The issue is, the vast majority of postural recommendations are unsupported by research.
The concept of good posture
Many of us believe that holding our bodies in a particular conformation results in decreased aches and pains. It’s the idea is that there’s an “ideal” arrangement for our bodies to be in as we resist gravity and other external and internal forces. Whilst this makes a degree of logical sense when it comes to an “ideal” range for each joint to be commonly working in, the literature really doesn’t show any reliable link between posture and improved rates of pain for things like neck, shoulder and upper back pain, which so many of us have!
I should also note here that posture is not a static phenomenon – the concept of posture relates to how we move as well as how we stay still.
if it’s not posture, what is it that’s causing us pain?
Our bodies are designed for movement. This means that the degree to which we move our bodies and how frequently we move are vastly more important factors than the architecture of such actions.
Basically, what I’m saying is that stillness is the issue. Not how we hold our stillness. This is exemplified by the development of stand-up working stations. There seems to be no difference in musculoskeletal pain between people who use a standing desk or a sitting desk (reference). People who move around a lot though, have less pain. There are other health benefits of switching to a standing desk over seated, but that doesn’t relate to the general aches and pains a lot of us experience after a long day at the office. With our general aches it is more about the long day and not moving much.
What should we do about the pain then?
Change your position as much as you can throughout the day. As in, move. Set a “movement alarm” for every 20 minutes that goes off to remind you to get up and go for a walk.
Does this mean posture is entirely unimportant?
No. It’s not that simple I’m afraid! We’ve observed that it may not play a significant role in the majority of general (non-specific) pain syndromes, but that’s only one element to consider.
The long-term impacts of posture can be important in the ongoing health and function of the body as an entire organism. The same study linked above shows us that by standing, instead of sitting, our cardiometabolic health significantly improves. There are also links between things like kyphosis (where the upper back is rounded forward) and frozen shoulder, and other morbidities.
If you’re looking to edit your posture
If after reading this there are still elements of your posture you’re planning to work on for the purpose of optimizing your long-term health outcomes, just know that it takes a lot of time, dedication and effort to make lasting changes to your posture. It is one of the most deeply ingrained habits we have.
The best thing to remember is that function is more important than structure. In other words, think less about achieving a particular visual experience when it comes to posture, and think far more about the optimal functioning of both the soft tissues and the joints. Move well! It doesn’t necessarily have to look good.
For more articles that’ll get you thinking “hmm”, check out “You Probably Think There Are 4 Quadriceps Muscles. Think Again.“, and “Inflammation. Only Occasionally The Bad Guy You Think It Is.“.