Do you hunch forward in your chair for hours a day? Have you started to notice your chin protruding forward over your chest?
If you can answer “Yes” to either of those questions, you likely stand up at the end of the day with stiffness in your back—and you’re not alone. A growing number of people experience posture problems from sitting incorrectly throughout the day.
Hunching over your keyboard for hours does more than turn your back into a question mark. It can cause your chest muscles to tighten, which then rotates your shoulders inward while simultaneously weakening the muscles in your upper back that help you sit up straight in the first place.
While the ideal posture is one that creates minimal stress and strain while allowing for maximum efficiency of your body, sitting incorrectly doesn’t just feel uncomfortable, but can lead to multiple problems.
Aches, Pains, and Other Problems Caused by Poor Posture
You probably know that poor posture can lead to a strained neck, sore shoulders and back. That’s because spending long periods of time craning your neck forward or tilting your head to cradle a phone can strain your cervical vertebra, and even lead to a permanent imbalance.
Additionally, slumping overextends the shoulders and back muscles, particularly your trapezius, which can lead to tension headaches, reduced blood flow that causes tingling in your fingers, and even trouble breathing.
Even if you’re not feeling the immediate physical impact of poor posture, slumping, craning, and sitting with a swayed back can lead to decreased organ function and muscle degeneration—along with two additional surprising side effects:
Slouching Can Lead to Depression
In 2012, San Francisco State University performed a study that found links between poor posture and depression. Professor of Health Education Erik Peper, Ph.D., found that simply altering body posture to a more upright position can improve mood and energy levels.
Dr. Peper believes that the increase of collapsed sitting and walking—from sitting in front of our computer to looking down at our smartphones—may very much have an effect on the rise of depression in recent years. "Emotions and thoughts affect our posture and energy levels; conversely, posture and energy affect our emotions and thoughts,” he explains.
The good news is that it only takes two minutes of sitting or standing tall to create a shift in your mood.
Poor Posture Can Impact Your Digestive Health
We tend to not pay much attention to the workings of our internal organs, especially when sitting at a desk and simply struggling to keep our eyes open. However, if you struggle with less-than-awesome digestion or acid reflux, there’s a chance that your slumped posture could be to blame.
When you’re sitting or standing up straight, your diaphragm creates “intra-abdominal pressure” (basically, something for your stomach muscles to push against), which helps to move food through your digestive tract. The diaphragm also acts as a sphincter to prevent acid reflux from coming up the esophagus.
Hunching forward reduces the available space in our abdomens, cramming your internal organs down like a crumpled ball and restricting your diaphragm from creating a firm base from which muscles can contract against to move food throughout your system.
Ready to Correct Your Posture? Just Follow These Steps!
To help correct your poor posture, we asked two experts, Charlotte Campbell, a physical therapist specializing in treating back and neck pain for over 20 years and Dr. Chris Mabry, a board-certified Chiropractor, for their tips to ensure you’re in an ergonomically correct seated position. Here’s what they advised:
Step 1: Fix Forward-Tilted Hips by Sitting on the Bones of Your Butt
Image via Sharon Starika
If you sit for prolonged periods and don’t stretch at least once a day, the chances are that you hip flexors have become tight, causing your hips to tilt forward to the point that the natural curve of your lower back is overly accentuated. This is called anterior (meaning forward) pelvic tilt, and it can cause a few problems.
Since your pelvis is connected directly to your spine via the sacrum, the position of the pelvis also has an impact on the position of the spinal vertebrae. Pronounced anterior pelvic tilt leads to hyperlordosis of the lumbar spine.
In simpler terms, this means that sitting with your hips tilted too far forward puts extra weight—and stress—on your lower back which can lead to pain and muscle spasms.
How to help your pelvis assume the correct position?
“Roll forward on your pelvis, so you are sitting on the ‘sit bones’ of your butt instead of rolling back on the fleshy part,” says Charlotte. “This immediately creates a small, natural arch in your lower back.”
Image via Let’s Bands
To locate your sit bones, position your pelvis so that your butt cheeks are behind you, not under you, allowing the bones of your pelvis to point down to the ground.
If you’re having trouble identifying the correct tilt, one way to do so is by purposely tilting your pelvis forward as far as you can from the top down (in a clockwise motion), then backward as far as you can (counterclockwise). Doing so helps to engage your core muscles and increases your muscle’s ability to support your weight instead of putting the load on your lower spine.
If you feel that your hip flexors are already tight and want to increase flexibility, try to complete the eight exercises shown in the above video at least three times a week.
Step 2: Correct a Slouched Back by Bringing Your Shoulder Blades Together
Hunching over your keyboard forces your chest muscles to tighten, which can cause excessive curvature (kyphosis) of the upper back (thoracic spine).
Maintain your slouched position for prolonged periods and the muscles in your lower back will begin to weaken. You’ll also notice reduced flexibility in your shoulders and stiffness in your neck.
According to Dr. Chris Mabry, slouching forward can also lead to high blood pressure.
“Slouching forward allows your flexor muscles to become dominant and sensitize your body's reaction to stressful stimuli through overactivation of the pontomedullary reticular formation (an area of the brainstem) that also activates the sympathetic nervous system, causing high blood pressure,” he says.
Carpal tunnel syndrome is another common problem Dr. Mabry says can stem from slouching forward. “Many folks with carpal tunnel-like symptoms often have an undiagnosed disc problem in their neck.”
If you struggle with strained tendons in your wrists, Dr. Mabry suggests that you might be able to avoid unnecessary carpal tunnel surgery through more conservative methods, such as chiropractic or physical therapy.
How to correct your slouched back before negative effects start to show?
According to Charlotte Campbell, the solution is simple: “Bring your shoulder blades together at the back instead of rounding them forward.”
If you notice that your pectoral (chest) muscles have already begun to tighten and pull, follow these tips provided by Builtlean.
First, release your pectoral muscles (shown above) by performing this stretch:
- Facing the corner of a wall, then extending your right arm and put your hand against the side of the wall.
- Turn your body left and lean forward as you feel the stretch in your chest and shoulder.
- Be sure to keep your arm in line with the plane of your shoulder as you complete the stretch.
- Hold this stretch for 30 seconds and complete on both sides for 3 sets.
You can further release any chest tightness with self-myofascial massage using a massage ball (shown above).
Holding a massage ball with both hands, press the ball and slowly roll it around the side of your chest. As you move the ball around, apply steady pressure to areas of tightness to relieve tension. Massage for 30 seconds on each side of your chest and complete for three sets.
Finally, foam rolling is another massage technique that can improve your spine mobility and correct rounded shoulders:
- Lay the foam roller across the spine in the middle of your back right below your shoulder blades.
- Your knees should be bent, feet firmly planted on the ground, and hands comfortably behind your head.
- Lifting your hips off the ground, roll forward so the foam roller travels down your back an inch, then drop your hips to the floor.
- Repeat until the foam roller is hovering a couple inches below your neck, then slowly roll back down following the same pattern.
- If you feel any areas of stiffness, continue rolling back and forth on top of the area for 10-15 seconds.
- Complete this exercise for 3 sets going up, down, and up again.
You may feel some pain and discomfort the first few times you complete this exercise, but over time, your upper back mobility will improve.
Step 3: Fix Forward Neck Pronation by Tucking in Your Chin
“Slouching in your chair and hunching your back are the two most obvious examples of poor posture,” says Dr. Mabry.
“However, the worst thing you can do for your posture at work is to have forward head posture.”
According to Dr. Mabry, forward head posture is classified when you jut your head out forward to the point where your ears are above your chest rather than your shoulders. When you sit with a forward head posture, you can have long lasting ramifications to your spine.
Image via TMJ & Sleep Therapy Centre of New England
“When patients ask me what good posture looks like, I tell them all the same thing: Ears over your shoulders, shoulders over your hips, and your hips over your ankles. When you are sitting, you should follow these tips but be sure to keep your head back and not in a forward position,” he says.
If you notice your head craning forward, start to practice proper head posture by sliding your head backward while keeping your line of sight ahead. Be sure not to tilt your head upwards as you slide your head back.
You can also help to relieve tight neck muscles by getting a massage or using a massage ball against your upper back. If you’re not sure how, grab two tennis balls and follow along with the above video, which shows several methods of self-massage that can help relieve tension around your neck.
Finally, Don’t Forget to Adjust Your Workstation
No matter how aware you are of your posture throughout the day, you’ll have a difficult time maintaining proper alignment if your workstation is set up at the incorrect height, forcing you to sit at awkward angles.
According to Dr. Mabry, one of the biggest mistakes people make is having a computer monitor that is at an incorrect height. “If your monitor is too low, you are setting yourself up for slouching forward and forward head posture.”
Image via Sagewood Wellness Center
Your monitor should be placed at arm’s length directly in front of you at 15-30 degrees below your line of sight. Your forearms should form a 90-degree angle as you type and your legs should form a 90-degree angle as you sit. Keep your shoulders back, chest out, head up and use a wrist pad placed directly behind the keyboard.
If you still struggle with remembering to sit up straight, try sitting on something wobbly, such as a stability ball or backless stool. (We share tips on selecting the right size here.) Doing so forces your core muscles to work. Just remember to keep your feet flat on the ground, so that they support about a quarter of your weight.
Charlotte Campbell also warns to be sure that your legs aren’t crossed or tangled together. But most importantly, she says, try to relax.
“When you try too hard to sit with perfect posture, the effort becomes too much to hold, and you end up getting tired and giving up after a minute or so,” she says. Instead, Charlotte suggests playing with your working position within these guidelines to find a comfortable way to sit that you can maintain.
Finally, remember to take breaks! Doing so reduces muscular tension and stress while making it easier for you to resume your good posture once you sit back down.