Have you ever woken up to find that, overnight, a part of your body feels as if it’s been recast in concrete?
Maybe you helped a friend move, or perhaps it started as a small ping in your muscle the week before, or it could just occur out of the blue.
Either way, you’re immobile, and the only thought in your mind is “This is it. This is how the end begins.”
Of course, eventually, you ease out of bed, grab a heating pad or an ice pack, and slowly regain normal body movement. (Which, you promise yourself, you’ll never take for granted again.)
If the above sounds familiar, my condolences. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I had my first muscle-strain scare—and learned that it was due to my poor posture. But how?
“The biggest cause of neck and back pain is the amount of time we all spend sitting, most of us in terrible posture,” says Charlotte Campbell, a physical therapist specializing in treating back and neck pain for over 20 years.
“The biggest cause of neck and back pain is the amount of time we all spend sitting.”
In an effort to correct my own slumping seated position, I started to research posture-correcting products, hoping to find one that made assuming the “correct” position easier. However, posture products aren’t cheap. With so many out there, how to know which will actually help?
For the answer, we turned to two experts for their opinion on several different products, including the BackJoy SitSmart, foot hammocks, stability balls, and posture braces to learn which, if any, might work to improve your posture while seated.
Does the BackJoy Sitsmart Help Your Posture?
This posture-improving product is a molded seat that claims to work by tilting your pelvis upright. With this adjustment, the product promises to make maintaining proper seated posture easier and more comfortable.
Image via HiConsumption
At approximately $40, the BackJoy SitSmart isn’t a huge investment. But, does it work?
Charlotte Campbell, who uses the posture-correcting seat herself, states that they can help people maintain the correct position. This is seconded by Chris Mabry. However, Chris also cautions that the effects aren’t automatic.
“The BackJoy Sitsmart can certainly help push your body towards better posture, but you can just as easily slump forward with it,” says Chris.
“Some folks get relief from the Backjoy Sitsmart because it will change the lumbar curve and helps distribute weight differently, and off of the structures that habitually bear the weight with their normal posture.”
“However,” Chris continues, “in my experience, more people tend to have a lumbar hyperlordosis in the first place.” (Lumbar hyperlordosis means an excessive curve in your lower back.) According to Chris, if that’s you, the Sitsmart would actually worsen that improper position.
What’s the bottom line on whether the BackJoy Sitsmart actually helps you to sit smarter?
According to our experts, it’s not a gimmick. However, it’s also not magic.
Before purchasing, pay attention to how you’re seated. If you tend to slump forward with your shoulders hunched and a curved C-shape to your back, the BackJoy SitSmart might help. However, Chris warns, no one product can be applied to every situation.
Can Foot Hammocks Relieve Back Pain?
As someone with tiny, hobbit-length legs, I’m constantly searching for foot rests to place under my desk.
That’s why foot hammocks, which are literally sling-like cocoons of mesh or fleece on which you rest your feet, were immediately appealing.
According to the manufacturers of foot hammocks (there are several), the products aren’t just for relaxing, but can help improve your posture while working. Even more appealing for cold winter mornings, there are heated options as well.
Can you tell that I really wanted foot hammocks to be beneficial? Unfortunately, my hopes were dashed.
According to Charlotte, not only are these fabric slings more of a gimmick than a helpful posture product, they may even increase your risk of lower back pain.
That’s because you can’t maintain good posture in just one part of your body—the hip bone connects to the knee bone, which connects to the foot bone, after all.
So, what’s wrong with slinging your feet up into a mini-vacation during the workday?
Planting your feet on the floor is important to engaging your core muscles, which then allows your body to stay strong and upright. (Hopes, dashed.) Although we’re told, if you can’t reach the ground, it is still ok to use a foot rest.
Is Sitting on a Stability Ball Better for Your Posture?
Lest you think all posture-correcting products are a bust, we’ll come right out and say that sitting on stability balls received strong endorsements from both our experts—with one caveat.
Image via The New York Times
According to Chris Mabry, using a stability ball most certainly will improve your posture and pain. That’s because, on a stability ball, it's actually more comfortable to sit up straight.
How so? “If you can slump while sitting on a stability ball then your posture is a complete wreck, and you'll be in so much pain you'll want to sit up straight,” he says.
Chris shares that it’s not just your posture that can benefit from sitting on stability balls, either. “Several studies have been performed showing that elementary students who sit on stability balls score better on tests than their peers in regular chairs.”
He explains that this is actually due to increased core muscle tone activating the midline cerebellum, which then leads to increased frontal lobe activity—the area where problem solving takes place.
Chris feel so strongly about the benefits of sitting on stability balls, he encourages employers and managers to make an office-wide switch.
“If you're an employer who wants your employees to make smarter decisions and feel better at the same time, get them a stability ball chair,” he says. “Or better yet a standing desk, we literally do think better on our feet!”
So, what’s that caveat we mentioned?
According to Charlotte Campbell, stability balls don’t automatically make your position posture-perfect. While not difficult, there are a few steps you have to take to ensure that you’re in the correct ergonomic position.
“First,” says Charlotte, “you have to find the right size for your height, or you’ll never be comfortable.” Here’s a guideline of which size stability ball to choose:
- If you're 5 ft 1” to 5ft, 7”, buy a 22” ball.
- If you're 5ft, 8” to 6ft, 2”, then move up to a 26” ball.
- If you are over 6ft, you'll need a 30” ball.
Charlotte says that, like when sitting in a normal office chair, your feet should be firmly on the ground, with your hips slightly above your knees.
“Make sure when your hands are on the keyboard, your elbows are at 90 degrees,” she says. This means that you may need to adjust your desk. “Then, ensure that your keyboard is far enough forward that your elbows remain close to your body when typing.”
Finally, lift your screen so that it’s at eye height—or several inches higher. You want to avoid looking down.
Why does a stability ball work to help you maintain proper posture while seated?
According to Charlotte, it’s because your muscles are engaged. “When using a normal chair, your core muscles immediately disengage, as they aren’t required for stability. This leads to lower back pain, poor neck posture, rounded shoulders, and a bulging belly.”
Stability balls, on the other hand, force you to engage your core to stop from rolling off. With your core engaged, your lower back maintains a slight arch, and it’s even easier to relax your shoulder blades down so that you’re not hunching or bent forward.
Additionally, by positioning yourself on the ball, even those who aren’t practiced in good posture will have an easier time achieving proper alignment.
That is, where you’re sitting on the bone of your buttocks, instead of rolling forward onto the fleshy part, which then creates a direct line from your head down to your pelvis.
Charlotte cautions that, while stability balls will encourage good posture in any chair, getting your body used to the new position may take a little time.
For those who are just starting, try to move around every 30 minutes, then come back to the ball and focus on resetting your posture to avoid slumping back into old habits.
Can Posture Braces Help You Assume a Correct Position?
Achieving good posture sounds like it requires some serious effort at first, especially when considering stability balls. I couldn’t help but wonder if there wasn’t an easier way. What about the myriad of wearable posture products that claim to force your frame into the correct position?
Image via Nova Chiropractic & Wellness
Across the board, the response is that posture aids are a bad idea—at least when worn for an extended period of time.
“I specifically discourage the use of postural braces like the figure 8-type of braces that are meant to hold your shoulders back,” says Chris. “If you put your leg in a cast, your calf muscle would atrophy because you couldn't use the muscle.”
“In this case, your rhomboid muscles certainly aren't going to gain the muscle tone to constantly hold your shoulders back in great posture because the brace is (supposedly) doing it for them.”
According to Chris, postural braces are a quick and easy fix—and therefore worthless.
What if someone isn’t even familiar with what their body feels like while in a correct position?
While Charlotte suggested that they could be useful for an hour or so, several days a week to remind you of how it feels to assume perfect posture, she cautions that it’s important not to wear posture aids too frequently.
“Ultimately you need to build up the endurance in the postural muscles yourself so that you don’t rely on these tools.”
When asked about the use of posture aids specifically as reminders, Chris remained dubious, warning that “gentle reminders usually end up less than gentle in the form of headaches, neck, or shoulder pain.”
Final Thoughts on Maintaining Perfect Posture
Your posture, whether you’re standing or sitting, is the foundation for every movement your body makes. And, for better or worse, posture determines how well your body handles the stresses put upon it each and every day.
“No product can substitute for simply creating great posture by sitting up and standing up straight, pulling your shoulder blades together, and keeping your head neutral by avoiding forward head translation,” says Chris.
Good posture while seated, a position created only by sitting upright with your shoulders relaxed and rolled back and your head in a neutral position, is unequivocally one on the most important aspects of avoiding back and neck injuries.
Why then is it so difficult to achieve?
“You literally have to want to have great posture,” says Chris. “I cannot stress this enough.”
Bottom line, while slumping for a day isn’t likely to turn you into Quasimodo overnight, it’s important to remember that even sitting in a poorly-aligned position can create wear and tear.
The solution, however, is to keep making those small adjustments until your muscles build up the endurance to maintain proper posture for long periods.
Instead of purchasing a posture aiding product, Chris suggests employing the buddy system.
As an example, Chris says that one thing he commonly hears people mention is the feeling of having their shoulders shrugged up around their ears and that they actively have to pull them down into a more relaxed position.
“An easy way to monitor your posture is simply to have your buddy in the cubicle next to you keep an eye on you and vice versa,” says Chris. “The accountability is great and chances are your neighbor is experiencing the same problems.”
2 Final Takeaway for Those Attempting to Achieve Better Posture
First, remember that you can’t correct only one area. The nature of proper alignment is that multiple body parts have to be, well, aligned!
So, as you remember to lower your shoulders, also consider the position of your elbows, your core, and your pelvis, all the way down to your feet. (Which, again, should be firmly planted on a surface, and not swinging gleefully in a hammock.)
Finally, even in a correct position, long hours spent seated can lead to increased tightness, which leads to decreased mobility, tension, and the potential for injuries.
An easy solution is to stretch every so often, but don’t forget the importance of doing so from head to toe. Most of us only stretch our back, arms, and neck. However, limbering your legs and hips is equally important to keeping your posture in tip-top form.